Remembering Habibullah Khanyari

Almost two years ago, while working on an essay about Kashmir, in particular a section centred on the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib R.A, I asked my grandfather which year one of the two stairways that lead to the sanctuary had been built. He was the most obvious, most authentic source I could turn to, in part because his knowledge of the shrine was innate and born from a lifelong devotion to it, in part because memory never left him even as mobility and sight began to withdraw, and in part because he had that staircase built.

It turns out that those hundred and thirty steps emerged in Srinagar sometime in the 1960s, with the intention that more of Kashmir’s people could make the uphill journey towards faith, but there was no recollection of this date on Abba’s part. In this instance, he refused to remember, refused to summon his vast, precise memory and search for a fragment of the past that would, in some way or the other, admit to the role he played in the making of that pathway. Instead, his eyes turned damp, and along with open palms, rose upwards with the pained, silent suggestion that the work that had been done belonged not to him but to his Creator.

This really was the essence of the man, Habibullah Khanyari, who died this month on the 11th of July. He was a man of many parts: son, brother, husband, jeweller, philanthropist, father and grandfather. The thread that ran through each of these roles was that of a good man, as good as the ancient good man that Wordsworth referred to in these forgotten verses: “the best portion of a good man’s life [were] his little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and love.” Abba’s life was entirely built from such little and large acts of kindness and of love, each of them nameless and invisible, always unremembered by him, but never forgotten by those they fell upon.

He came to Bombay as a young man, an empty-handed refugee, who had lost everything he had worked for – his shops, his belongings and his beginnings – to the other side of the partition. In Bombay he started again, building up from a small shop (that eventually became the company’s kitchen) and establishing his identity as Ahmed Joo: an internationally renowned jeweller and the most prominent name in the global arts and antiques world.

He acquired, dealt and sold rare jewels and objects of art with effortless charm and peerless integrity; with the soft yet sharp gaze, touch, and speech of a true merchant. A merchant who earned his legacy without ever wandering into the corridors of power, and, more singularly, who built that legacy not out of the pursuit of wealth or fame but from a ceaseless passion for art, for beauty, for people, and for history.

It may be one of the reasons why, when a young jeweller from India was appointed as the Global Head of Jewellery for the world’s largest auction house, he recounted how each time he met someone in New York’s art world, he was  met with the same question: “Do you know Mr. Joo?” A reputation that Mr. Joo cultivated, self-reliantly and humbly, without ever having set foot in Zaveri Bazaar, let alone America.

Kashmir was most beloved to him, and his philanthropic work here went far beyond the creation of that stairway and far beyond his broader, decades-long commitment towards the upkeep and the beautification of our shrines. It lay most profoundly with the people of Kashmir – with the poor, with the downtrodden, and especially with families made of daughters. Daughters were precious to him, and he had five of his own, amongst one son, all of whom he ensured were fully educated, especially at a time when that kind of emancipation – even amongst those who had the means for it – was sparse. So much of his own character as an emancipated man lay in his deep-rooted love and respect for women. In his last days too, he made sure to teasingly remind me of one of his wise, old sayings: boys must worry about finding good wives; girls should work towards building good careers.

Abba died much like he lived: amongst his loved ones, gently and quietly, in peace and in faith, with his whole heart sending every last breath out of his body. It was the rare, kind completion to a rare, kind life.