A buzz at midnight was beyond belief. Hurriedly, his family physician drove to his home. The gloom in the garden was overshadowing the dread of night. Doc went straight into his bedroom. Everything was in place. A distinctive whiff of books overwhelmed his bedroom. He was surrounded by racks full of books; a young man who used to look after him was sitting nearby reciting Surah Yaseen. The chair and table next to his bed, the one on which he had his last dinner just an hour ago, was empty. There was also a bedside book Religion vs Religion by Ali Shariati, from which he had read a few pages before going into eternal sleep. While dead to the world, eyes closed, he wore a serene smile on his face, hiding a deep pain inside. He seemed poised and peaceful with only his books and his helper around. Doc called up his son abroad, who couldn’t be here because of Covid-19 travel ban, and said- “Aga shb is no more.”
A renowned educationist and intellectual Prof.Aga Ashraf Ali was an institution by himself. An orator par excellence. A glib speaker. Full of wit, humour and logical sarcasm. And above all, he was an avid booklover. A voracious reader. The book was his bond. Loving and lasting. The book was his being. Vivacious and vitalizing.
He possessed no smartphone or tablet. He wasn’t techno-savvy or social media buff. It wasn’t his realm. He was beyond it. He lived amidst the empire of his books. Looking at reality without flinching, he was a realist who often walked and talked his books.
During 2014 floods, his home was submersed and he was airlifted to Delhi. He never felt bad about losing his house. However, he always mourned the loss of treasure he had accumulated during his lifetime: his books!
Reading and reading and reading. He had an endless fascination and a curious acceptance to wade out life’s mystery and meaning from books. That’s why, he had a magical memory to quote and quote things relentlessly. Every bite of insight from books reminded him to savour the sweet things in life and not grow bitter about the bad. His mind was his dominion. His humour was his armour.
For him, age was just a number. At 84, he had a head injury after he slipped in the washroom. A deceased former director of SKIMS, after looking at the film of his CT head, told him–“Sir, your brain is absolutely normal. In fact, it has no signs of ageing and it is as good as the brain of any young man.” There were no signs of senile atrophy. Reading had kept his brain fertile.
Of course, reading demands diligence and determination. It is a great way to practice being human. And it has profound implications for what we do and what we become. Day in and day out. A nonagenarian Aga shb remained a living legend to demonstrate it. His contribution as an educationist apart, he was a generous human being as far his dealing with people was concerned. Beyond material, his generosity was scholarly civilized. In the foreword of his book ‘Kuch Tow Kahiya Ki Log Kahtay Hain’, he warmly mentions two of his students (Dr Iqbal Nazki and Syed Habib), acknowledging them as the ones who have surpassed him in excellence.Great mentors and teachers proudly let their students grow and outshine. Aga shb was an epitome of such an attitude. In fact, it’s his student Syed Habib shb who has “transcreated” (in the words of Aga shb) the book ‘Kuch Tow Kahiya Ki Log Kahtay Hain’ out of numerous recorded interview cassettes wherein he had spoken profusely.
Quoting from his favourite lecture of Joseph Needham, Aga shb in his foreword termed humility as an artefact of his life—“Humility is surely a concealed form of love, a willingness to give to others the benefit of the doubt, to be prepared to learn from them and in short a refusal to say that ‘we are the people’ and that ‘wisdom was born with us’.”
For sure, some extremely painful moments did come up in Aga sahab’s life. When his wife Sufia Nomani and, later on, son Aga Shahid passed away, he braced up as a sensitive and strong individual, not forsaking his role of placating other people while attending to his own bleeding wounds.
They say books never die. They will exist till the end of this world. But booklovers won’t. They leave us. Forever. However, their life stays as an interesting and instructive read. For times to come.