Agha Sahib: A Kashmiri citizen of the world

To be the son of a trailblazer – Begum Zafar Ali and the father of an iconic poet, Aga Shahid Ali – and yet retain your own distinct and unique identity as a person and a professional needs not just a fine mind but a superior mettle.

Agha Ashraf Ali (1923-2020) was not a person. He was a set of people. If I went to meet the historian of the Kashmir freedom struggle, I met a literary critic; go to meet the educationist and a scholar on Ghalib greets you. Were you looking for a worldly wise man to help you make some sense of the contemporary reality of Kashmir, you could well be talking to a humourist.

But, when you went to meet a friend, you would only meet a friend. No trappings of a scholar, educationist, teacher, administrator and political thinker that he undoubtedly was. His is a dying breed; the breed of a liberal intellectual. A citizen of the world. Devoted. Passionate. Engaged. Devoted to the cause of modern education in the Valley right from the time he was appointed the inspector of schools at 28 years of age. Passionate about life in all its aspects; from food to humour to friendship. Engaged with the society around him. With his death, an icon of the personification of the Kashmir’s inherited value system is gone.

Agha sahib did not have patience to write. He preferred to speak. While there is no doubt that he was a brilliant orator, I hold dear his conversations with me. He was a great conversationalist. He would weave conversations around you peppering it with the nuggets from various masters; from Virgil to Nietzsche. A master raconteur.

I invited him once to the radio station to do a talk on the symbolism of Karbala; He gave a masterly allegorical exposition. His house was known throughout the valley for the “sham-e-gariban” that his mother used to host. It was done with utmost respect, reverence and restraint. We owe it to Professor Habib, his mentee, who painstakingly recorded Agha sahib on some 50 odd tape and then transcribed it. It was finally published, as a book, Kuch to Likhey, a take-off on Ghalib’s famous couplet, Kuch to Kahiya, ke log kehtay hai… This book has something for everybody; freedom struggle of Kashmir, educational policy, unemployment and even personal trivia; it is a roznamcha of his life, using many styles as narratives. It is a bold book; reflecting his personality.

The intellectual journey that he traversed can be traced from his book, a translation of some thinkers and writers who had influenced him. He called me one day and asked me to foreword his book and give it a title. I suggested, “Dawaat-e-Fikr”. He was very happy with it, and asked how I had coined it? I said, the only thing that surpasses the dinners that you host, is this intellectual feast.

He was a gracious host. It was during the feasts that you could get a glimpse of his feudal ancestry; steeped in a lavish tradition and stamped with authenticity. Yet, he was into plebeian food too. He loved pacchi. It was an unsigned deal that whenever we would cook these, enough would be delivered to his residence. He would say you should eat to loose count of the numbers. He would defer or even cancel his intellectual pursuits for the smell of rogan josh cooked in the Kashmiri Pandit style. He was, what we in Kashmiri call, a “Khorand”. The love for food was a part of his immense zest for life; a Zinda dil. Both these traits were wonderfully complemented by his great sense of humour, in particular, repartees.

His feudal moorings evident as a host, were replaced by a progressive mindset which made him sell his land and that of his wife to fund their education and that of their children in the US. True to his conviction, the education is the greatest asset, he sold property to be able to acquire knowledge. I haven’t seen anyone else do that. Nor have I seen anyone who could laugh at his own troubles. At the age of 77, he slipped and fell down at a friend’s place and broke a bone. Two months later he was back at the same place for dinner. Another friend

asked him which bone was it. Pat replied Aga sahib, “Huin adigh”!

I had the great fortune of hosting him for a few weeks at my house in Sidra, Jammu. I marvelled at how the sheer flamboyance of his presence brought in a positive energy in the house. This is not surprising considering that he was a father who saw something positive even in the death of his son; often saying that here I am, eighty years old, have done nothing worthwhile; Shahid used his brief foray into life to be globally known and recognised. His one day was equal to my three days! That is what is how he would cope with it.

I saw him one day sitting in the chair reading a rather voluminous book. Next to him was kept a dustbin. Every now and then he would tear a page and place it carefully in the bin. Intrigued, I asked him what he is up to. Very innocently he replied, it is too big for me to carry now. So after finishing a page I tear it!

Needless to add that I was given the task of reassembling the book, Prem Nath Bazaz’s Freedom Struggle of Kashmir.

(As told to Roohi Nazki)