The world is an amazing matrix of relations; we come across a wide spectrum of people, with whom we get to know more about life and more about this matrix.
Some of them we meet in person and others we meet by reading or hearing about them. I too met a person through reading. And over time my relationship with him picked up until I started considering him as my hero. My hero was an amazing traveller; he took me to amazing places and let me meet amazing personalities. In his book, I accompanied him- in the streets of Jerusalem, hearing the resounding mouzzin's chant in Cairo, among the worshippers in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, praying in the wilderness of Najd, sleeping in the Bedouin tents of Jordan, in the darkness of Libya, among the oppressed masses of Tehran, watching whirling dervishes in Scutari, on the steep slopes of Hindu Kush and in many other exciting places. His accounts were conspicuously humane – they were appealing to my spiritual hunger, my romantic longings, and my intellectual needs, all at the same time; the urges so intimately woven together in man and so beautifully reflected in his book. But despite all of my excursions with him he was always a stranger in my immediate world. However, this was to change soon. One day, an article about him stopped me dead in tracks – a sort of reaction I otherwise reserve only for the tear gas shells often fired outside my ancestral home in the Old City. The article did so because what was written in it meant that my hero was once in my homeland. He had once appeared in Srinagar-perhaps like my horrible tear gas cannon – and was accused of Bolshevik ideas by the Maharaja and the British.
Yes, I am certainly not talking about Lawrence, Nazaroff, or Younghusband; but rather about a famous Jewish revert to Islam, M Asad. He is the author of the much-acclaimed book "The Road to Mecca". Many of us may be familiar with him or with his book, but few may be aware of his stay in Kashmir. I said "few" because there is at least one Kashmiri woman; Abroo Andrabi who I know is acquainted with this fact. Her doctoral thesis available in the form of a book is about Asad's contribution to Islamic learning, and in it, she informs us about Asad's days in Kashmir. But sadly, what she mentions is more of hearsay, not potent enough to be regarded as factual. In fact, nothing really is factual about his days in Kashmir unless we are lucky enough to discover a sequel to "The Road to Mecca", which upon a cursory glance on Asad's literature, doesn't seem to exist. But nonetheless Asad had planned to write it in his old age and was to be named as "Home-coming of the Heart". Asad wasn't able to finish it though, due to his death. So it was later completed by his wife, Pola Hamida, but the book wasn't published, this time due to her death. Knowing this was very painful for me, but his admirers are many, and one among them, M Chaghatai has championed his cause by getting hold of the original manuscript and getting it published recently in Lahore.
Swiftly procuring the book, I resumed my excursions with my hero, this time in my homeland and in his home-coming. It wasn't difficult to make out that the book indeed was written by him. Right from the first line I could hear Asad, speaking in his unique enchanting style. I became so fond of the book that I strolled through it till the long hours of night, stopping only after securing a promise – a sort of promise one secures from the beloved: to hear her again after a prolonged conversation. The book had everything, from his stay at Lahore to his trip to Kashmir, from his translation of Sahih Al-Bukhari to his commentary on the Holy Quran, from his encounter with Iqbal to his retreat from Zafarullah Khan, from his defense of the Pakistan theory to his resignation from its Foreign Service, from his optimism of homemaking in Tangier to his pessimism of homelessness in Lisbon; events including these and many others – some euphoric and some painful – that had adorned his life and were now adorning my nights. These events made my eyes rejoice with him in the hope of a better future, but also made them moist in the end, realizing that he was, but a human whose bones now lay in a modest cemetery near Gibraltar.
Coming to his Kashmiri chapter, interestingly entitled as "The Golden years", one gets to know that Asad arrived in Kashmir in the summer of 1934. The purpose was to find a place persuasive enough to stimulate his intellectual and spiritual cerebration. He needed to cerebrate so to enable the educated Muslims of India hear the 'voice' of their Prophet by translating Sahih Al-Bukhari in English for the first time in history. His choice of Kashmir should have been obvious, considering the potential Kashmir had, and still has, in providing avenues where thoughts can reach their summits. Reading that chapter was no ordinary experience for me, it was totally ecstatic but slowly and subtly, this ecstasy transformed into pain, a pain pleading for a critical look. I believe every Kashmiri, or at least the one born during insurgency, shares this pain which exists in consequence of the deep void between our academic and real lives – a void created by the absence of our own places, our own language and our own collective experiences in the books we are taught and in the literature we cherish reading. True, lately Mirza Waheed, Basharat Peer and others too have made us feel this pain, but for my intimacy with Asad's writings and his personality, this pain had a distinct originality. Through his eyes I had seen the strange world beyond Khyber Pass right up to Jebel Akhdar. And now through the same eyes, I was beholding those lives and places that my own eyes have become accustomed to and this had a profound bearing on my cognizance.
Witnessing Kashmir unraveling its feminine beauty before him, Asad was driven to write, "Never before had I seen and never afterwards was I to see another landscape of such perfection or experience a climate which could match that of Kashmir: it was truly a dream-land beyond compare." After staying in a houseboat for some days, he met the Mirwaiz, a person who was to become his close friend. There, upon tasting our 'Nun Chai' he was confusingly delighted and expressed his delight as, "I tasted it, hesitantly at first, and then I emptied my bowl with great gusto: and ever since that day the salty, buttered Kashmiri tea has remained my favourite". His 'favorites list' was to be extended in the evening, when the Mirwaiz invited him for a Wazwan dinner. Flabbergasted with Tabakhmaaz, Rista, Kebab and Pulau studded with almonds and apricots, he penned, "It seemed to me that although I never wrote verses, I could easily have written a poem on a Kashmiri feast".
While working on his translation, Asad mixed up with the local populace very well and often used to saunter down the streets of Srinagar. His stay in Kashmir makes a fascinating read but is not possible to be accommodated within the confinements of this article, so I will encourage his fans in Kashmir to read the sequel. Asad's arrival in Kashmir was, in fact, one of the important events of Kashmiri history and demands from us a thorough reading and research. Perhaps, if the current Mirwaiz can look into his family history and discover some flecks of his grandfather's association with M Asad, the lovers of Asad will be greatly indebted to him.