Remembering Shahryar (1936-2012)
Centre of Advanced Study in History
Aligarh Muslim University (India)
To pen down in memory of somebody who kept me so dear to himself is too difficult a task. I am choked with emotions too deeply, even though we knew it for the last so many months that the cruel hands of the greatest truth called DEATH is going to snatch him away from us.
My friend, Ekram Rizwi, devastated with the news of Shahryar’s death, called me saying, ‘only dust is left in Aligarh now’
While joining the namaaz-e-janazah at the AMU Graveyard [Minto E], I could recall what he had said few years back, when he was about to retire from the services as professor of AMU. He was living in the type ‘A’ quarters of AMU which is located just across the graveyard separated by the ‘Gulistan-Syed’ which was then a desert like field. Somebody reminded him, ‘Sir, you will now have to quit the university quarters and you are yet to have a house of your own’. To this, pointing his fingers towards Gulistan-e-Syed, in his characteristic way, Shahryar sb told very casually, ‘ab makaan wakaan kya banana, ab to sirf yeh maidan paar karna hai. He had also composed a poem,
When I had come to Aligarh as a student, I was already some sort of a fan of Shahryar, the poet who composed beautiful songs for a marvellous film of Muzaffar Ali, Umrao Jaan. I was dying to see him, and when I saw him on a 50 cc moped Hero Majestic, the naive, innocent student in me was stuck with his simplicity that in contrast with the ‘professors’ I was familiar with [before coming to Aligarh] were riding Bajaj scooters or Rajdoot motorcycles of 150 cc, if not cars. The ‘film’ of Shahryar, moving on that moped, remains preserved in my memory, quite indelibly.
In the last 12-13 years, he had made me become much closer to him, sharing too many things about the culture and politics of AMU, about some interesting persons of the campus and also about so many other things. By late 1990s, we had started feeling much agitated about certain aspects of AMU. In order to comprehend these, we started looking into history of AMU; in order to share our feelings we resorted to pamphleteering which was also a kind of catharsis. In this way we came across one of his poems, ‘Muslim University ki Fariyaad’
This particular poem further increased our appetite to get closer to him in order to have more frequent longer sessions of conversations with him; he used to offer us too much of cold drinks, which was an added incentive. He however remained reluctant about sharing his feelings/ observations which moved him to the extent of making him compose this kind of poem, which is his angst against the deeply entrenched vested interests of his alma mater.
When we shared that his poem has been used in one of our pamphlets, he seemed glad about it but simultaneously expressed his mild disapproval, then he went on to say with a lovely smile, ‘aap log to hamari nazm ka siyasi istemaal kar key mujhey merey apnon se door karna chahtey hain, aap ke liye apney mehboob idaray mein khushgawaar tabdiliyan aham hain, hamarey liye to merey zaati taaluqaat aham hain, khwah woh ‘un mujawiron ki bheerh’ hi mein kyon na hon.[you people are making political use of my poem and thereby you intend to create gulf between me and my acquaintances, for you more important is to bring about pleasant changes on the campus, for me more important is continuing good relations with the people, howsoever they might be the vested interests spoiling AMU]. We recalled his lines,
Few years later, in 2002, his student and my friend, Ehsan was selecting his poems to be published in a volume by the Saitya Academy, the poem ‘Muslim University ki Fariyaad’ could be included only on our insistence, as he had strong reluctance about including it. One of the reasons was, he was disappointed by the fact that a ‘conspiracy of silence’ was maintained on this poem by the insiders of AMU.
He would then ask us to be a bit pragmatic, by exercising certain degree of restraint in our pamphlets. He was reminding us of possible administrative wrath, and that in such situation, we would be left alone to fend for ourselves. As said by him,
Simultaneously he would also add, betey inhin kaawishon se likhna parhna aur duniya ko samajhna bhi seekh paogey, halaan ki aisi targheeb de kar main tum baaghi naujawanon ki tez dhaar ko kund karney ka gunaah bhi kar raha hoon [My son, with such efforts you would grow intellectually and also become worldly wise, however by asking you to be moderate I am also committing the crime of blunting the edge of the productive rebellion in youth]. He would further say, ‘I am no pessimist, yet I must say that you and your friends were engaged in letting flowers blossom in the desert of AMU, it was an exercise in futility, yet, this was undoubtedly an exercise worth doing at least for sometime in the prime of youth’. It was kind of asking us to recall his lines,
He would often share, ‘in AMU, those who are today expressing their grievances against infirmities of Indian secularism, are/ were the worst kind of communalists’, while saying so he was also equally critical of the ‘progressives’ and Leftists of the campus. According to him, quite a lot of such ‘progressives’, have also degenerated into ‘vested interests’, i.e. ‘mujawiron ki bheerh’, who have turned AMU into a qabr, dead-place.
Few years back a very renowned scholar of AMU was conferred a big honour which was pending since long, responding to this conferment, the scholar had been very bitter in press. Having read such responses of lamentation in the Hindu, Shahryar sb called me to visit him in the forenoon of next Sunday, to discuss something on the issue. I went there and he started the subject he was resenting the gesture of the renowned scholar. He said, howsoever his colleagues might have erred by denying the conferment of this honour upon him; it was petty of the scholar to have said such things in press, more so when quite a few of such instances were factually wrong as well.
Having heard such remarks from him more than once, I once mustered the courage of submitting a request to him: ‘kindly write down your memoir’. For sometime he prevaricated on the issue and maintained silence or gently pushed it aside by bringing in other subjects. As I persisted with this demand for too long then he passed a highly pertinent remark, ‘betey, khudnawisht to bahadur log likhtey hain jin ke andar apney gunahon ka aitraaf karney aur sach likh kar apnon aur ghairon mein jo taaqatwar hain unhen naaraaz karney ney ki jasaarat ho, aur main to nihayat buz dil insaan hoon’ [my son, autobiographies can be written only by the brave people; by those who have the guts of confessing their follies and have the courage of speaking truth, by one who can afford antagonizing the powerful; I am too timid a person]. Later on he elaborated upon it and said that if he had to write his autobiography he will end up antagonizing too many people close to him, and that was, by his own admission, quite unaffordable for him. He however later on composed a poem with this line:
He then gifted me Wahab Ashrafi’s autobiography, Qissa Be-samt Zindagi Ka, and said, ‘you should appreciate one good thing about this autobiography that the author has made frank confession of the indignities he inflicted upon himself just in greed of a position [jaah-o-martaba ki laalach], Chairman, Universities Service Commission’.
Once I wanted to know his views/observations about anti-Bihari prejudices among some sections of AMU-ites. I thought this particular query of mine would be quite provocative. But that was not the case. He narrated, ‘you see, the Muslims of UP, particularly the decadent feudal elites, take pride in their chaste Urdu, which they are abandoning or unlearning for whatever reasons, as against it, the Muslim students, coming from Bihar as well as from eastern UP, are generally well-versed in Urdu, with appreciable degree of interests in creative literature, regardless of their preferred disciplines of studies’. He would then add with a smile, bordering on laughter, meri beti ney to shaadi ke liye ek Bihari ko hi pasand kiya, aur Patna ke hukkaaam aur siyasatdanon se lekar Bihar ke adab dost log to mujh se itni zyadah mohabbat kartey hain ki agar sachai kuchh aur bhi hoti to main Bihariyon ki himayat mein hi kharha rehta, itni dayanatdaari ki tawaqqo to mujh se rakh hi saktey ho.
In 2009, in the Wisconsin (USA) journal, Annual of Urdu Studies, I published a long essay on a novel dealing with naxalism in Bihar. This was an outcome mainly of his persuasion. As said earlier, most often, he disliked the idea of talking about his own poetry, and in order to push it aside he used to bring in other issues. This is how he enquired about my opinion on the origin, development and trajectory of the naxalite movement in Bihar. After listening to me, he asked whether I had read Dhamak, an Urdu novel by Abdus Samad, as my answer was in affirmative he immediately sort of issued a command to write something on this. I gladly abided by it and having taken help of few more well-wishers it was published, when finally I showed him a print of the published version, he was very happy to see it. As he saw his name acknowledged by me in the essay, he became dismissive about his role in prompting me to do the job. Then he went through my essay on (under)depiction of 1857 in the fiction of Qurratulain Hyder which I had presented in a seminar in BHU (now published in a volume edited by Rakhshanda Jalil); he asked me to render it in Urdu which he sent to Humayun Zafar Zaidi to publish it in a volume edited by him, and published by the Maktaba Jamia.
The academic-literary world of Urdu in India is said to be bitterly divided between two groups, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Gopi Chand Narang. Shahryar sb was dear to both. Only a lovely person like him could manage such things so beautifully.
In one such sessions of conversation, I took the liberty of knowing his assessment of the better known ‘communists’ of AMU. Having said few good things about them, he shared few confidential anecdotes, taking my strong assurance that I won’t be writing it till he is alive. He said, ‘I am making a confession that I have partly contributed in getting a recruitment of an ineligible candidate as Reader, approved by an Executive Council (EC) member, who was a Dean as well [the member, a renowned academic, is no more now]. I was persuaded by my teacher, the renowned scholar, to persuade an EC member close to me, to do the favour in the EC meeting, I requested the EC member; with lot of reluctance, he finally agreed to oblige me only by remaining silent on, rather than opposing, the recruitment’. That Reader became Professor and then Chairman, but he never made even a courtesy call [to Shahryar sb]. He became too belligerent against the renowned scholar as well who had curried all these favours [for the Reader] from these people sullying his own image. Then Shahryar sb became fairly explicit about the moral of the story. He said, ‘my son! Here is a lesson for you. Never ever extend such outrageous favours to incompetent people in academia, such people turn very badly unfaithful to their benefactors’. While narrating this painful anecdote, Shahryar sb was visibly uncomfortable with the discourtesy/perfidy of the Reader who also became Professor and then Chairman of a very prestigious Department.
We had heard a lot [and read] about the angst of Rahi Masoom Raza against few people of AMU. We therefore remained curious about knowing the version of Shahryar sb. He was generous enough, and had enough love for me to have granted this much liberty to me and have shared such things. He said that Rahi had some grievances against him also. The reason was: in one of the selection committees for the position of lecturer (temporary), Rahi did not turn up for interview, whereas Shahryar was called at eleventh hour by the Dean and was selected. Rahi did not turn up, as he was told that Shahryar has been called specially by the Dean; that the ‘match’ was already ‘fixed’, and therefore there was no point in appearing before the Selection Committee. Fact of the matter, as shared with me by Shahryar was that one more vacancy had emerged, and therefore there was absolutely no question of substituting Rahi with Shahryar. But given the temperament of Rahi, he never believed this version and nursed the grievances against the ‘system’ (Dean) as well as against the ‘rival candidate’ (Shahryar); in fact Rahi never even allowed anybody to explain the matter. Shahryar was sad about this, but he could not do anything; he was particularly angry with one of the ‘friends’ common to both Shahryar and Rahi, who rather than helping reduce the tension, kept working towards widening the gulf between the two. Shahryar valued personal relations to great extent, yet he suffered the pain of losing relationship. Probably because of having undergone these experiences:
He often used to call me at his flat in the Safeena Apartment, Aligarh, to have long casual chats. How could he live in a city like Mumbai, where he felt sorry for common people falling prey to exploitation and alienation, and for which he once said,
Not long ago, he asked me to provide him with biographical accounts of Nur Jahan, the Mughal Empress, but the condition put by him was that it should have some illustrative photographs. The purpose was: his good friend Muzaffar Ali was contemplating the idea of making a film on the subject, and Shahryar was supposed to compose lyrics for the film. I told him that he had got so many good friends who are big and highly accomplished historians of Medieval Indian History, and it was therefore strange to turn towards me, a semi-literate student of the history of Medieval India. He said, ‘I don’t have to read serious details of the history of Nur Jahan, I only have to scan through some anecdotes, some photographs which should help me create lyrics for the film’.
It was, in fact, merely his tremendous love and affection for me that he indulged me too much. Very affectionately, he would always instruct me to keep producing researches, staying away from the ‘bitter’ and petty factionalism within my Department.
His passing away is a terrible personal loss for me. Yet, we must remember that his eternal sleep (Neend) is to dream (Khwaab) for a world much better for the humanity.