Agha Ashraf Ali: The Man of Books

When a phone call disturbs me at the dead of the night, I always assume it must be something serious, especially when I am thousands of miles away from my homeland. A few days ago, Mr. Shafi Khan, a friend from the volatile area of Shopian, called me,  disturbing my sleep at around midnight.

“Check today’s Greater Kashmir,” he said.

In the morning, when I opened Greater Kashmir’s website, I read the shocking news: Agha Ashraf Ali, whom I have known as the man of books, had passed away.

Ye lash-e-be-kafan ‘asad’-e-?hasta-jañ ki hai

Haq maghfirat kare ajab azad mard tha

– Mirza Ghalib

In 1973, I was posted in Pahalgam as a young doctor. Being the only physician in an area of 40 kilometers, people irrespective of their social status, had no choice but to come to seek medical advice from me. Back then, our Himalayan valley of Kashmir was peaceful, and was thriving with foreign tourists, some visiting in caravans traveling from the West via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then from the Wagah border in Punjab, over to India and then to Kashmir.

Coming back to Agha Sahib.

It is in one of these summers when I was busy seeing my patients and all the chairs in my small hospital consultation room were occupied, that a robust, well-dressed gentleman with a well-kept hair style came in and introduced himself.

“I am the education advisor to the J&K government,” he stated.

The evening sky had just started turning grey, and I immediately asked for a chair for the visiting dignitary. I examined the patient accompanying him and prescribed some medication for his constipation. Agha sahib insisted that I administer an enema to the patient instead.

“If a layman could do this job, then there’s no need for qualified doctors in our community, is there?” I retorted quickly.

Our short but memorable encounter ended on exchanging some spicy words between us, which I regret even today.

A short time later, I watched him deliver a speech on human rights at Grand Mumtaz Hotel. It was interesting to watch him leaving the podium in protest, jumping over a dumb stricken audience. Despite the fact his gesture was not digested by many, I enjoyed his style of catching the bull by its horns—in this case the bull was the disorganized managing committee. The incident highlighted Agha Sahib’s independent thinking and bold attitude.

On my return from Saudi Arabia in 2004, I compiled decades of my writing on Kashmir into one book – Kashmir in Search of Peace. Agha Sahib came to my mind for a foreword for the book. So I visited his home at Rajbagh after seeking an appointment through a common friend.

Agha sahib was sitting on an old fashioned reclining chair on his verandah. He was gazing at the picture of a beautiful lady in the prime of her youth.

“This is Safia,” he said. “My deceased wife.”

Ghalib’s couplet instantly came to my mind.

sab kahañ kuchh lala-o-gul meñ

numayañ ho ga.iiñ

?haak meñ kya surateñ hoñgi ki pinhañ ho ga.iiñ

I informed Agha Sahib that I was there because I wanted him to write a foreword for my book.

“Of course. But on one condition,” he said.

“What could that be?” I asked.

“You’ll have to join me for a cup of tea!” he said with a smile.

I undoubtedly took this as an honor. We walked into his modest and well-kept drawing room and then to the kitchen area where Aga sahib revealed to me the art of preparing a delicious cup of tea.

He showed me how to apply ‘Dum’ on the kettle so that the tea leaves emit the flavor within and then added milk very slowly, drop by drop.

We walked back to the pantry and Agha sahib pulled out beautiful English cutlery and tea set to serve me the tea.

“My wife and I purchased this crockery during the Maharaja’s rule, while taking a walk on the Bund in Srinagar. I only use it for special occasions.”

That was his unique way of giving me an honor.

After having tea Agha Sahib asked me to leave the proof of the book and to come after three months for the foreword.

When the book was published, I visited him at his Rajbagh house again with a copy of the book and a request to accept my invitation for lunch at our ancestral house, ‘Bait-ul-salaam,’ in Sarnal, Islamabad.

Agha Sahib gladly accepted the invitation and on receiving a copy of the book he remarked in his characteristic way, “Dr. Mirza, God has gifted you with one more son in the form of this book.”

Agha Sahib visited our home on an occasion when some of my migrant Kashmiri Pundit friends had come from Jammu, a couple of Sikh classmates from Kiharbal, and some relatives had come from Azad Kashmir through the newly constructed Jhelum Valley road.

Agha Sahib was quick to notice that despite the fact that much water had flown down the river Jhelum, the Begs of Sarnal had maintained the tradition of secularism besides realizing the importance of people to people contacts to bring the nations closer, and he remarked, “it was amazing to see such a diverse society on one table under the prevailing circumstances.”

My wife was quick to respond, “Sir, anything is possible if one is sincere and has good intentions.”

Agha sahib replied, “Yes there is always a woman behind a successful man.”

May he rest in peace.