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A Sentimental Journey to Aligarh

I spent close to eight years at Aligarh from 1964 to 1972, first as a PhD student and later as a lecturer in the Physics Department. My wife joined me here in 1969 and my son was born in 1970. In the beginning, after I became a lecturer, I stayed in the warden’s room in the Kuwait House. After marriage, I shifted to a rented house on Marris Road. Later on, I shifted to the Medical College campus, to a nice bungalow belonging to a medical college faculty member who was on leave in the UK. I left Aligarh in 1972 to join the Physical Research Laboratory and contribute to building a Plasma and Thermonuclear Fusion Research programme, which ultimately took the form of the Institute for Plasma Research.

When I came here in 1964, Aligarh gave me a culture shock. My inability to comprehend Urdu was a barrier to appreciating the culture. The exalted forms of addressing, and the exaggerated ‘Tehzeeb’, with adaabs strewn around were alien. The food, consisting of tandoori rotis and mutton curry, though delicious, was also unfamiliar. But the accommodation I got in the Sulaiman Hall was quite adequate. South Indian students preferred this hall. The campus was a dream with beautiful buildings, stately halls, verdant lawns and lush gardens. Slowly the strangeness diminished and I was accultured to a certain extent.

I had no professional reasons to visit Aligarh after I left since the Plasma Physics activity I had started died away after my departure. My visit to Aligarh, along with my wife after a period of 50 years after my departure was because of the invitation I received from the Physics department to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Prof Rais Ahmed, the former head of the Physics Department and the person to whom I owe a great deal for starting me off on my career path in plasma physics research.

After a stay at the IIT Delhi where I spoke about my personal perspective on the future of plasma processing and applications to a group of eager students, we left for Aligarh in a taxi. The ride along the Jamuna Expressway until Tappal is quite fast and pleasant. The diversion to the state highway brings you to the age-old Uttar Pradesh with its roads full of cattle, people and tractors. The travel took about three and a half hours and we reached Aligarh by noon. Once we reached the city outskirts, I realized that I was seeing much of the sprawling city for the first time, as I had never stirred out of the campus in my earlier stay here. The farthest I had strayed from the campus was to attend the famous “Aligarh Numaish” in the Numaish ground. I was told that the 135-year-old institution was still going strong.

A one-day memorial cum seminar on Future directions in Physics was held at the Physics Department on 5th October 2023. Prof. Irfan Habib, Prof. of History, Prof. Siraj Hasan (Former Director, Indian Institute of Astrophysics), Prof. Naresh Dadhich (Former Director, IUCAA), Prof. S. K. Singh (Former VC, HNBU), Prof. Wasi Haider and Prof. Shyam Sunder Agrawal (Director General, KIIT Group of Institutions) spoke on the occasion. I spoke about my association with him and the future of Plasma Physics and Thermonuclear Fusion Research in India. As I listened to these talks, I realized that Rais Saheb had indeed contributed to many ideas, programmes and projects and had touched many lives. Agarwal’s presentation of his work with Rais Saheb on Speech Perception brought home the fact that he was a true visionary working on the earliest forms of artificial intelligence, as such explorations were the early forays into machine recognition of speech and machine translation.

Aligarh is a residential university with an administrative structure patterned along Oxford. The Vice-Chancellor is the absolute ruler, and his personality gets stamped over the l l pm administration. When I joined in 1964, the VC was Badruddin Tyabji, who hailed from a nationalist Muslim family. He treated the academics disdainfully, much to their resentment. Nevertheless, his stint in Aligarh could have contributed to the orderly functioning of the institution. The following VC, Ali Yawar Jung, a career diplomat, was from a noble Hyderabad family. In the Aligarh consciousness, his memory survives primarily because of the violent happenings of April 1965, triggered by his decision to reduce the share of ‘internal candidates’ for admissions to higher professional courses from seventy-five to fifty per cent. In the ensuing violence, the Vice-Chancellor and some faculty members were assaulted. The next VC was Dr Abdul Aleem, a leftist of long-standing. He was associated with the Communist group of Lucknow University and the progressive writers’ movement. His proximity to Dr Zakir Husain brought him to Aligarh to infuse new academic blood into the institution.

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) occupies a unique position within universities and institutions of higher learning in India. It evolved out of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1920 under the vision of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The Aligarh Muslim University was the manifestation of a vision which was broad, far-reaching and nationalistic.

Spread over close to 500 hectares in the northern part of the city of Aligarh, the University now offers more than 300 courses in the traditional and modern branches of education. It draws students from all states in India and from different countries, especially Africa, West Asia and Southeast Asia. There are seats reserved for students from SAARC and Commonwealth Countries. There used to be a stream of students from Kerala to the university in the 1970s, which seems to have dried up according to Prof Habib.

The University now has 13 faculties comprising 117 teaching departments, and 21 centres and institutes. A special feature of the University is its residential character with most of the staff and students residing on the campus. There are 19 halls of residence for students with 80 hostels [1].

While drawing around the campus I noted that the the campus has changed quantitatively with new buildings and facilities. Its basic form has not changed and even the new buildings are inspired by the old buildings. The Campus appeared to have developed as and when the need arose and sites were designated more often than not without foresight, or logic resulting in giving a haphazard look to the campus. The new buildings lack a distinct architectural style. Over the years, the campus seems to have expanded haphazardly without much attention paid to spatial relationships inherent in the myriad variety of buildings and their land use pattern. This is in spite of starting out with a fairly well-conceived layout with a remarkable architectural style that can still be observed in the original buildings that came up during the initial stages of the university’s development. The Kennedy Centre, the Arts Faculty and the Library buildings remain unique and stylish. The physics department has added a new conference hall, which seemed poorly designed.

After the meeting, I moved to the Lemon Tree Hotel on Marris Road to be closer to some friends who lived in that part of the town and to escape the drudgery of the guest house food. This is an excellent 4-star facility. We hired an E-Rikshaw to wander around the campus and nearby places which used to be my haunts. The Shamshad market was closed due to it being a Friday. The New Kitab Ghar, which attracted me because of the English fiction books, has closed down and now runs a medical shop. The Paradise Hotel where we had endless cups of tea, conversation and cigarettes, where there was a prominent display that “Patrons who insisted on using teacups as ashtrays would be served tea in the ashtrays” was closed. The shanty hotel, run by Thomas Chettan, our old cook in the South Indian Mess who got the entrepreneurial urge is no more. To me, it was a day of losses as the old familiars had disappeared into the mists of time. [1]

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