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Years at Aligarh

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

I spent close to eight years at Aligarh. First as a Ph.D. student and later as a lecturer in the Physics Department. When I came here in 1964, Aligarh gave me a culture shock. My inability to understand Urdu, the exalted forms of addressing and the exaggerated ‘Tehzeeb’ were all quite 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.

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 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. His stint in Aligarh could be said to have contributed to the orderly functioning of the institution. The next VC, Ali Yawar Jung, a career diplomat was from a noble Hyderabad family. In the Aligarh consciousness, his memory survives largely 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 percent. 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 the Lucknow University and the progressive writers’ movement. His proximity to Dr Zakir Husain brought him to Aligarh as part of efforts to infuse new academic blood in the institution.

Aligarh was a mix of good and bad. Many Moslem academics came from rich landowning families; their wealth being the reason for opting not to leave India. Many were educated in England and had left-wing leanings which endowed them with a liberal world view. However, the bulk of Aligarh Muslims was poor and came with a conviction that they were cheated out of their traditional position of power by the twists and turns of history. They had a way of looking at all changes from the perspective of a conspiracy to keep them backwards. I realized that though I also belonged to a minority, I never looked at myself as a minority person; to me being integrated with the idea and reality of India was second nature.

What drew Aligarh Intellectuals to Marxism? There is a thought-provoking essay by Professor Mushirul Hasan, historian of repute, and my contemporary at Aligarh. This appeared in India International Centre quarterly in 2003. The process which attempted to synthesize socialism with Islam, had begun in the 1920s. In the 1930s, socialism was the new revelation that young idealists could invoke to exorcize communal rancour to unite everyone in a struggle against poverty. After the Aligarh architects of Muslim nationalism left for Pakistan, the socialists and the communists, encouraged by Zakir Husain, moved to Aligarh.

Facilities at the university were excellent. The institution, however, did not produce scholars or scientists of excellence, with a few exceptions. Everyone’s obsession was preserving the university’s ‘minority’ character, and their conversations centred round the future of the minorities.

Aligarh was rich in cultural activities. The hub was the Kennedy House, with its imposing mural by M.F. Husain. Notes from Beethoven and Mozart resonated in the music rooms devoted to western classical music. I remember a performance of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man with Nazeeruddin Shah as Sergius. Mushairas were common although it was all Greek to me. Among the budding Urdu poets, Bashir Badr and Javed Akhtar who became a legend in Bollywood later were prominent. So too were the painter Muzaffar Ali, the Hindi writer Asghar Wajahat. Madhosh Bilgrami, and Humayun Zafar Zaidi were also a part of a lively literary group. The 140-year-old Aligarh Numaish, a cultural fair, is a part of life for Aligarhians.

Among the academics, Prof. Nurul Hasan, the great historian was the leader. He moved to Delhi, first as member of Rajya Sabha and later as Minister of Education. Historians like Irfan Habib kept the Marxist flag flying. I remember attending talks by Mulk Raj Anand, the writer and Chanchal Sarkar, the editor of Statesman.

A few years, in the beginning, I took food from the common mess. Then I joined a cooperative mess run by students from Central Travancore. The cook was Thomas Chettan. A minority in this muslim majority place, we developed strong loyalties made possible by the shared culture of Syrian Christian upbringing in middle class families from Central Travancore. The deputy Registrar George sir became our mentor and advisor. His house was like a second home to us, and we usually celebrated Christmas at that place. I still keep in contact with many friends from this time. The Geologist Mathen, Telecom Engineer Mathew Daniel, Surgeon Dr. John Mathai, George Isaac from Chengannur, Businessman Georgy, Consultant Thomas Abraham, Surgeon Baby Mathew, Doctor Thomas Thomas, George Abraham in Singapore, Ivan John in Australia to mention a few. Punathil Kunjabdullah, who became a famous novelist later, was studying medicine and was already an established writer. The Malayali group, through the initiative of the mess, could set up a basket ball club in the university, where the only recognized sport was hockey.

I had many Muslim friends on the campus. Many came from middle-class professional families and I could discuss politics, books and films with them with ease. Farhan Mujib, a close friend, later left the department to take up art for full time. His art attempted a fusion of traditional miniature art and modern-day collage. Farhan Mujib is recognized as the physicist who brought precision to collages. He collated pieces of papers from magazines and photographs to create intricate images. Another friend was Farrokh Nami, an Iranian who was a wizard at chess, and we spent many hours attempting regicide on each other. I was appointed a lecturer in the Physics Department after receiving my Ph.D. Degree in 1969.

The teaching was interesting and I realized that I was good at it. It soon became clear to me that the department would not offer me many opportunities for growth. Imminent departure of Prof. Rais Ahmed to join the UGC as its Vice Chairman was a cause for concern. My attempts to get a post-doctoral fellowship in the US was turning out to be unsuccessful, perhaps due to the strained Indo-US relations after the Bangladesh war. Prof. Bimla Buti happened to visit the department at that time, and she asked me whether I would like to join Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad, which was planning to start an experimental programme in plasma physics. I jumped at the opportunity. Originally published at on April 17, 2021.

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