The Life and Times of Agha Ashraf Ali

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Agha Ashraf Ali (1922-2020)- Photo credit Rafiq Kathwari

This profile of the noted Kashmiri educationist and public intellectual Prof Agha Ashraf Ali, who passed away on Friday (August 7) in Srinagar, was written in October 2006. The writer spent many an evening interviewing Agha Ashraf Ali at his residence in Rajbagh before writing it.

We are reproducing it unchanged.
-Editor

By David Lepeska

I FIRST MET Agha, as he is widely known, on a July visit to his cozy Rajbagh home. Arguing politics over drinks with several close friends, the octogenarian educator was in high spirits and rare form: accusing me, the imperialist American, of most if not all of the world’s problems; brushing aside challengers for talking “rot;” and jovially lording over his kingdom like a knighted duke. As the months passed tales of his family’s notable Kashmiri heritage, the literary achievements of his revered poet son, and the mark he left on Kashmiri education and politics filtered down and we at Kashmir Observer decided that his 84th birthday – Wednesday, October 18 – presented the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at this long and well-lived life. So with pen, notebook, and recording device at the ready I returned to his house last week and, after exchanging pleasantries, asked him about his family’s rise to prominence in Kashmir.

“The family of my grandfather’s grandfather has fallen on hard times, 1872, and Hari’s Singh’s son, Pratap Singh’s father Maharaja Ranbeer Singh is going in a big boat, 24 rowers, on the way to Mansbal Lake down the Jhelum, and he gets, luckily for us, a wind colic and he is in terrible pain,” he began with a typical single-burst-of-breath sentence-story, bobbing gray mustache keeping time and dark-rimmed spectacles lending gravitas.

“So they stopped the boat and they ran into that area of woebegone humanity, sixth bridge, ‘Is there any doctor here?’ And out steps my great great grandfather, Aga Hakim Baqir. He gives him black salt and the Maharaja starts farting away. Farting away! And he totally recovered and he appointed Aga Baqir as his royal physician. True story. And over a century later my son the poet said to Amitav Ghosh: ‘The fortunes of the Agha family we’re hanging by a fart.’”

From this tale sprung forth not only a wealthy, cultured assemblage of kin but also a long, meandering stream of words, a seven-hour marathon of memory that regularly doubled back on itself and spanned three afternoons, the four score years of his life, five continents, and the modern story of Kashmir and the communal divide. One man’s psychological and professional journey, a trip intertwined with the story of India and full of the spice and contradiction that define the subcontinent.

With the fighting spirit of Turkoman Qizilbash commanders in his blood, Agha remains a bear of a man, with thick features, an able body and a vigorous, agile mind prone to three-minute digressions that conclude with a shake of his square, silver-topped head and a thin, subject-changing “anyway.”

Wearing a wool sweater over a plaid dress shirt with pressed khakis, he leaned back in his favorite, floral-patterned chair, rested his navy blue-socked feet on a round wooden coffee table and recalled his childhood.

“I was an adopted child,” he said, explaining that his mother had wanted a daughter and so delivered Agha into the hands of her father, his grandfather, to raise him. “In a way I was a compromise the day I was born, and thereby hangs the story of an unhappy childhood.”

It was not for lack of money. Noticing that Agha’s grandfather, Aga Syed Hussain, was a bright student, Aga Hakim Ali Maki, the farting curer’s son and royal physician to Maharaja Pratap Singh, helped him win a post as a junior government officer shortly before the turn of the century.

Agha Ali Naqi- 1911

(Agha spells his surname differently than his maternal forebears.)

“Sir Walter Lawrence and other English officers made calls and they went on hunting and fishing trips and so he kept rising up,” Agha related. “At his peak my grandfather was making 2500 rupees a month, this at a time when you could get in Kashmir 64 large breads for a single rupee, which also happened to be the average teacher’s salary at the time.”

Along with his cousin he built a grand feudal estate in Shaheed Ganj, where he lived with his three children. Nearby were Agha’s mother and father and two brothers. Empty now, the manor house still stands, having narrowly escaped a watery grave.

“There were floods in Kashmir in 1928 and King Hari Singh…offered us one of his grand guesthouses, but my grandfather said ‘no, we’re not leaving.’ I remember as a child, the water is about this much (brings his hand to his waist) in the house and my adopted mother and others are walking through it to the road where the car is…, and the water’s coming into the house and our books are in the yard and about a mile away, floating,…his elder son he goes in a shikara collecting them.

“And my grandfather’s cousin Sher Ali, retired, he would read huge books like ‘Mysteries of the Courts of London’ – stories of sex and lords running about, that sort of thing – with a magnifying glass. But there was one story… about when a particular village was supposed to be flooded there was a wall in which there was a hole, so he told him to put his finger in that and the village was saved. He had read this. Now water is coming through at least two feet in his house, and he’s yelling to the servant: ‘In the back door, the pine door, there’s a knot, put your finger in it!’ And he does, but of course the water just keeps pouring in.”

Agha doubled over in giggles before returning to his parentage.

“My stepmother, 22 years younger than her husband, doted on me in the hopes that I, the youngest, would get some of the property…So she was giving me everything, showing to her husband, ‘Look how much I love him,’ but she made too much of me got me the best things and occasionally for no rhyme or reason other than being frustrated she would beat me,” he added. “She was insecure and transmitted a bit of that insecurity to me.”

[That insecurity may partially explain why so few of Agha’s millions of words have been preserved on paper; in 84 years he has written only one lengthy prose piece, his doctoral thesis. Asked why he had not written more Agha responded with a question: “Did Socrates write?” He had Plato, I countered. “Yes, well there are many great men who did not write, for various reasons. I don’t have the patience for it. The craft of writing takes real patience, a virtue I do not possess.”]

“My grandfather loved me as he loved all his children but he loved me more because he’d brought me up in his old age,” Agha pointed out. “Treated me like his own son…and he gave me more of his property, not equal to his sons but more, handing me his daughter’s share. So I became an apple at the scarlet age of twelve.

“Then came my mother…she created a tremendous debate based on the following: since I have given half of my property to him, he is my son,” Agha went on. “So I was taken back at twelve; it was a trauma in chief. And there I was the third child and unwanted and not taken care of as well. It was a very educational atmosphere, etc., etc., but I could see that I was not loved as much as I was by my grandfather and grandmother.”

His adolescent years were strung between the grand, Westernized life of his grandfather in his younger days and the stolid, more traditional ways of his mother’s home. And as Agha spoke of his formative years a glittering gallery of writers, philosophers, politicians, and academics made regular and unscheduled appearances, shooting from his memory like kernels of popping corn, fully in character and offering up personal anecdotes or paragraph-long quotations sprinkled with buttery sentimentality or salty wisdom, or both. He employed them to further an argument, to emphasize the dramatic moment, and to delve into his own psychology. Dr. Zakir Hussain, then-future president of India, materialized first.

“1941, I’m a senior, fourth year in college. I’m merely going to be twenty,” he started again, excitedly approaching an early milestone. “I’ve seen good teachers but nothing first rate…and because of my bewildered and bewildering childhood, I’m lost.

“And I in my state of total liquidity, I am like wax, and Zakir Hussain comes and – whap! (slaps his hands together) – he spoke and I was totally won over. It was my first unsophisticated love. I fell in love with Dr. Zakir Hussain…governor of Bihar, future president of India, studied in Berlin, a brilliant man. I hear this speech and I’m bowled clean. Bowled clean!”

He scooted to the edge of his chair and sat up tall before unleashing, without pause, the bulk of Hussain’s October 2nd 1941 speech for the All Jammu and Kashmir Student’s Conference.

“‘Young friends,’ he began, as if in my melting wax the needle is making the grooves. Can you imagine?! I’m just bewitched, totally bewitched! ‘It’s very kind of you to ask me to preside over your deliberations. But if in asking me to do so you want me to make a long speech or a good one, I shall have to disappoint you. I must abstain on medical advice from making a long speech and my personal limitations will see to it that I will not make a good one. Fortunately I can turn this necessity into a virtue. I shall refrain from flattering you. I will not tell you that the future of your country, nay, the future of the world was safe in your hands: you are the promise, you are the hope. Because I know alas there have been others young before you. They also were a hope and a promise. Their story alas is a sad tale of hope unfulfilled and promise unrealized. No one can predict the story of the generation that’s now growing. But if it has to be different, our young men will have to start by realizing now,’” Agha continued, index finger pounding out key words. “’Life, young friends, is real. Life is hard. Life is earnest. Life is striving forever higher. Life is service. Life is a vision. Life is virtue.’ He goes on and on then he brings up the end, a devastating sentence. ‘Young friends, youth is not an attainment, it is an opportunity, do not let that opportunity go by.’”

Agha grinned and rubbed his hands together with glee.

“I was bewitched!”

The young student quickly embraced the open-minded, liberal idealism of Zakir Hussain and his Jamia Millia colleagues, but the shift was short-lived.

“The Partition of India… knocked out the basis of Jamia Millia’s ideology and philosophy, which was Hindu-Muslim culture, which was unity,…so the whole philosophy of Zakir Hussain and the Jamia Millia crumbling led to: what is the future of the Muslims in India? So, by 1940, when Jinnah spoke about the partition of India, Muslims would come and say to us, ‘You are not in the Muslim League? You are not a Muslim?!’ Dr. Zakir Hussain would talk to them patiently and say, ‘Look, you are welcome to have Pakistan, but you will weep tears of blood one day. Remember.’

Agha Ashraf with his family in the US after obtaining PhD in 1964.

“So the whole idea that we were bargaining with the Hindus for official equality, that several hundred years of Muslim culture had also done some good, was knocked out. We’d just become fourth class citizens of India. So I thought Marxism was the only way, that communism was the only way, which is that the poor of Hindus and Muslims would get together to fight for freedom,” he said, looking back. “That was innocence incarnate.”

PART II

In the living room of Agha Ashraf Ali’s Rajbagh home multi-colored Kashmiri rugs cover smooth brown carpeting. Thick books and ruffled newspapers, odd objects of sculpture, and photographs of family and friends lay about the bright, airy space while misty portraits of Gandhi, Jesus, and Maulana Azad hang near a maroon couch. The scent of black tea and old wood mingle with the occasional creaking of walls and furniture, the only sounds of a still mid-afternoon.

I look back on my life with my wife and my children and my friends, the greatest things in my life have been laughter and friendship and the vision of beauty both in nature and in art. I regret the fact that…I was often too domineering. I lacked that genuine humility which would have made me have a greater impact on the lives of the young. That’s why as I have ripened in that last ten-fifteen years I have focused on simplicity and humility.”

Until Agha speaks, that is.

“My first clash with Farooq Abdullah and I cut him to size,” he resumed, recounting with a broad grin an early incident as J&K; Inspector of Schools. “Eighteen year-old cheeky lad, 1953. He came into the office, says, ‘There’s an understanding between the PM and this office that my cousin will not be transferred. He’s a teacher and you have transferred him.’ I said to my secretary, ‘Please find where is the order of the Prime Minister that his nephew should not be transferred.’ And he said, “Sir, there is no such order.” And I said to Farooq, ‘Mr. Farooq, I will talk to Sheikh Sahab myself. Goodbye!’”

Concerns about the state of education in Kashmir, however, could not be similarly dismissed. The Indian Constitution had recently been made law, stipulating that within ten years all of India should have free, compulsory, and universal primary education up to the age of 14.

“Within ten years?!” he recalled, referring to Kashmir. “They don’t have it today! They wished it, but they didn’t realize what would be the problem.”

Trotting a couple centuries back in time to strengthen his argument, Agha turned to 18th century England and the rural to urban migration of the Industrial Revolution. Several decades later it had led to mass education.

“They were able to do it but we in fifty years have not been able to do it because we are not ideologically and philosophically wedded to the idea that the masses have to be educated,” he explained. “Here we thought without any industrial revolution, we’ll have mass education! It’s just not possible, you see. You have to generate the resources to establish infrastructure and all that. When I go to that damned country called the United States…underground there are tunnels, under the roads. And hundreds of pipes through which everything flows and if anything goes wrong you go in and you put it right. But here there is nothing underground except my bottom!”

Towards tea time the chirping of chickadees rose, muezzins wailed from down the street and across the Jhelum, and puttering, chatting servants produced a muted clamor in the connecting kitchen.

[By turns fierce and gentle, berating then caressing, Agha embraces his domestic help as he does life. From his living room throne he will shout across the dining room and into the kitchen with specific instructions. When later some small oversight is committed he will erupt, scolding a man a mere foot away, and then quickly subside. Yet he dines and takes tea with them, remembers the names of their children and children’s children, and knows what they do when they are elsewhere – one’s a computer programmer, another studying to be an engineer, and his kindly, white-bearded gardener once worked for one of the wealthiest men in Kashmir.]

Sipping black tea and crunching marmaladed toast with his gardener, Agha waxed philosophical.

“It was in England that I came upon the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He gave me my motto, my creed, my Bible, which destroys both Jinnah and Gandhi in one sweep. Listen, this is just fantastic, devastating: ‘In an age which is losing form the highly praised persons who serve its fictitious forms and in their name learn to dominate the age count no more than those who are diligent to corrupt those forms…The ones who count are those who though they may be of little renown respond to and are responsible for the continuance of the living spirit each in the active stillness of his sphere of work.’”

Many Kashmiris believed Sheikh Abdullah to be the embodiment of that living spirit, and as the Lion of Kashmir pressed India for greater autonomy in the early 1950’s the Central Government pushed back.

“Because he was behaving like that, fighting India for article 370, which was being eroded since the day it was created, Sheikh Abdullah was being disobedient like a naughty boy, creating a problem for India,” Agha said. “The day Sheikh was arrested they came and took away my vehicle. The whole of Kashmir was risen; there was civil commotion. They took machine guns to kill people in Anantnag. Shops closed. It was a tremendous uprising. In that atmosphere suddenly my rule in Kashmir was finished, as was Sheik Abdullah’s.”

After a two-month stint as the acting principal of the College of Education and a year as the head of the National Education Training Center, Agha was appointed the full-time principal of the College of Education in 1955.

“That is when I began my work,” Agha recalled, his face brightening. “Becoming a teacher of teachers; and I was able to devote myself to academic work!”

But that work was cut short in 1956, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev provoked a deep philosophical crisis.

“I had returned from England a rabid Marxist, but Khrushchev’s secret speech changed everything. I picked it up from my local bookshop came home and read it through. I was shocked. I’ve been envisioning Russia as a utopia and I’ve been criticizing everybody…I was so embarrassed,” he admitted, again growing quiet. “I was on the verge of suicide…I was feeling so bad…Oh god, it was terrible.”

I had returned from England a rabid Marxist, but Khrushchev’s secret speech changed everything. I picked it up from my local bookshop came home and read it through. I was shocked. I’ve been envisioning Russia as a utopia and I’ve been criticizing everybody…I was so embarrassed,” he admitted, again growing quiet. “I was on the verge of suicide…I was feeling so bad…Oh god, it was terrible.”

Reading cleared his mind of suddenly troubling Marxism and put the wind back into his sails.

“That period, that crisis period, is fantastic!” he recalled, perking up again as he toured his personal journey of philosophy. “After Zakir Hussain and Erich Fromm, and moving away from that, through Marxism after the Partition of India, and then coming to Dr. Zhivago and Azad and back to the inner most self via Krishnamurthi. Aahhhhh,” he finished, sighing.

“I live by ideas,” he explained, “whatever that means to you.”

I asked if he noticed any agitation towards independence during this period.

“Of course, it’s all the time here,” he explained. “A few people are dying every few months instead of every day. They throw stones at the army and things like that; Sheikh Abdullah is continuing this agitation. It’s building…the middle class Muslim is coming to the fore. Youth are going to high schools and colleges…and they see the government of India promoting only Hindus, in all the banks, in all the government offices: discrimination, that’s what Partition did to this country. Greatest tragedy.

“Here, because of the Partition and the communal divide and the two-nation theory, the Kashmiri Pundit professors would go to the Indian government and complain about how a Muslim man twice their age and half their ability had been promoted. Seniority and experience and ability didn’t matter…Pundits saw that they were being superceded…and they offset it by employing only Hindus in their own domain.

“The quality of education dropped because on the whole the Pundits, who were the better teachers, stopped teaching well. If Muslims were going to be promoted why would they teach? Im talking about the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. And slowly as Muslims started coming up the Hindu was being squeezed out of this.”

In an effort to place these developments in greater relief, Agha scooted to the edge of his seat and huddled his shoulders close to transform himself into Maulana Azad circa 1945:

“I’m taking you back again, but this is detonating. Three Pandits come to visit him on a houseboat in Dal. He’s sleeping but calls them in anyway. Only a five minute interview but Azad could pierce to the heart of the matter; he had a luminous mind.” Agha leaned forward conspiratorially, crouched further and spoke meekly, like a wise man aware of the power of his words. “’Brothers, this movement of Shiekh Abdullah, the masses coming up, does it make you feel a little afraid?’ ‘Oh, no, no,’ they said. ‘Oh, it can be frightening, it can be, you don’t have to deny. But my advice to you is’ one single sentence, like a doctor’s prescription for Cipro 500! ‘devote all your creative energies to the uplift of the masses and therefore remain at the head of it.’”

And like flipping the channel, Agha suddenly inhabited two very different characters from an earlier era.

“Lord Rutherford, British physicist, split the atom you should know, was at some fancy gathering and an American professor of physics, cigar in his mouth, comes up to him and says,” and here Agha employed brash, flat American tones, “’Ha! Hey! Lord Rutherford! How do you manage to remain at the head of the wave? You are always at the head of the wave!’ And Rutherford, with his British understatement, ‘I’m sorry. I made the wave.’”

On Agha roamed, shouting now in his excitement.

“What Azad meant was in this vast movement, if you help Kashmiri Muslims to learn math and science and use your creative energies to bring them up you will remain at the head!” Agha said, leaving the UK behind and returning to Kashmir. “This is what they didn’t do and this is why they were thrown out. Not only from the college but out of Kashmir. They didn’t want the masses to come up…but the masses have got to come up!”

Most, unfortunately, were unable to come up as far they had hoped.

I look back on my life with my wife and my children and my friends, the greatest things in my life have been laughter and friendship and the vision of beauty both in nature and in art. I regret the fact that…I was often too domineering. I lacked that genuine humility which would have made me have a greater impact on the lives of the young. That’s why as I have ripened in that last ten-fifteen years I have focused on simplicity and humility.”

“The products are the unemployed, the unemployables, and that leads to the movement, Yasin Malik and company,” he said, speaking with less force, as if wearying of the familiar tale. “And they went across and brought the gun and in the last fifteen years the whole thing has been destroyed, and Kashmir become a luckless, lawless society.”

PART III

In an attempt to simplify his eight-decades-plus bildungsroman, Agha Ashraf Ali, like China’s ruling party, breaks his life into negotiable chunks.

“If you split my life into ten or eleven five-year plans you’ll never go wrong,” he told me. “Then you can divide, move them around and connect with this or that, etc.”

So we rejoin our tale in 1971, in plan number seven or eight, or ten, depending on who’s counting, and Agha has become the Director of Education for all of Jammu and Kashmir as more urgent concerns begin to haunt the Valley.

“Now the communal question is coming into its own,” he said. “You can see the brazen stupidity of the minority Hindu community of Kashmir.” Even though Kashmir was 90 percent Muslim, he explained, the College of Education had 19 Pandit professors and only one Muslim. “The Hindus were the more educated community; Muslims were ‘get us some wood, draw us some water.’ Because I had powers of a government secretary, I transferred eight of them out of the college and transferred in eight of the Muslim professors that I had earlier produced.”

I asked him why.

“The Hindus had raised an agitation: ‘We won’t educate these Muslims. We’ve seen through your game! You want us to educate these Muslims, because then they will usurp our places. If the Muslims come up, we’ll be eased out!’ They were right, from their own short point of view…They didn’t have the farsightedness to realize that the able Muslims must also be accommodated…I was not communal, they knew that. I had helped them…had gone out of my way to help them,” he said. “But good Muslims had been produced and they had to be accommodated…So I threw them out! And brought in the Muslims. It was a radical transformation, it was revolutionary, throwing eight people out, never done by anybody but I did it…It caused a hubbub, yes, but I had gathered in twenty years of work the moral prestige.”

“If the majority people cannot be in a revolutionary manner brought forward, you can do nothing,” he said, continuing his defense. “In a backwards society you have to take revolutionary steps…This was on a communal basis, the same basis Sheikh Abdullah wanted. But they were not intellectually refined, Sheikh Abdullah and the leadership, to realize that we must promote the Hindu and encourage him to teach Muslims and convey trust without disheartening them.”

Agha’s transfer of the eight Pundit professors led to charges of corruption, but he patiently filled out a police-brought questionnaire and the charges were dismissed. The witch hunt, however, raged on. Years later Agha stumbled upon an expected ally.

“Mufti Sayeed is against me, sends for me,” he began. “The Mufti is a dejected man, sitting in his room, smoking his hubble bubble, he says, ‘what are your relations with Sheikh Abdullah like?’ ‘Same as with you,’ I told him, not being totally honest. ‘But you don’t know me?’ Syed asked, ‘You don’t know?’ he asked again, as if I should recall…’A long time ago when you were Inspector of Schools we came to you during winter break, nine students from Beijbihara, we were nine students who needed additional teaching and we couldn’t afford it,’ he told me. ‘Next morning at 10am you arrived in your big truck and you worked with us throughout the break.’

“So I had helped them, these nine students who later sat for the exam,” he said. “Seven failed and two passed. Mufti was one of the latter; my misfortune.”

Mufti remembered the debt, and when he became Chief Minister in 2002 offered Agha a position in the upper house of the state Senate.

“But I declined,” Agha said. “At the age of 80, what would I do with those robes and that money and all that? And oh, the humiliation they suffered,” he added, grinning.

Alternative histories suggest Agha had accepted the position but that JKLF leader Yasin Malik, his friend, dissuaded him at the last minute. Either way, Malik has played a key role in bringing Agha into 21st century Kashmiri politics. The latter explained how the two became close.

“In October 1994 professors had been killed in the University, and I was scheduled to make a speech. Many of my colleagues told me, ‘No! Don’t go! You’ll be killed!’ But I went, and after I made my speech Malik heard about it and loved it and came over to my house at 8pm in the evening and told me I must be part of his book release. And so at Ahdoo’s Hotel a few days later they release his book, Our Greatest Enemy, and I spoke, said, ‘There are no goons in Islam, no killing people’ and all that, ‘It’s not allowed,'” he recalled.

But his comments fell on deaf ears, and the violence has brought the cause low.

“All separatists, in fact, 9/11 has killed them,” he said, diving back into contemporary Kashmiri politics. “The Hurriyat leadership couldn’t unite. For years I told them, ‘unite or perish.’ And they have perished. And they met Advani! After Gujarat! And shook hands with him! What will the Kashmiri people think of them after that?…After 1975 Sheikh Abdullah was nothing because he was corrupted, and now his family, too. They have their money and their houses and they do nothing.

“Yasin is the only one who’s remained uncorrupt, living in his little hut. Presidents and ambassadors have visited him in his tiny home where you can barely go up the stairs. But he is not embarrassed at all,” he said like a proud father. “Malik has stood on the shoulders of Sheikh Abdullah.”

I asked about the legacy of Sheikh Abdullah.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” he responded immediately. “Land to the tiller! The land reform was a revolutionary act: today there is no poverty in Jammu and Kashmir, no poor villagers – they used to come and beg in Srinagar, but today there is no movement from the village to the city!”

Do you see any new, similarly all-embracing leadership emerging in Kashmir?

“I don’t have much hope,” he said. “This is the period of the rise of the middle class in India…They’re uppity, nouveau riche; they are rude, they are crude.”

And as his wont, Agha cited not one but two well-known social theorists to further his point.

“Tagore wrote of such people, ‘This rudely elbowing age of relentless rapacity,’ just brilliant. And Karl Marx in the New York Herald Tribune, wrote of the ‘the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization …did they not in India…resort to outrageous extortion when simple corruption could not keep up with their rapacity?'” he recited again from memory.

“That is what this middle class is, in Kashmir and elsewhere,” he said. “I still believe that until Kashmiris have the character and the consistency and the integrity to act and behave in a responsible manner, their freedom will not amount to much.”

This collapse of the Valley’s character and the turmoil of conflict in his paternal homeland inspired Agha’s poet son Agha Shahid Ali to become, by the early 90’s, one of the great chroniclers of the troubles in Kashmir. He studied under revered American poet James Merrill and pioneered the lengthy and complicated gazal form in English to great acclaim. From Shahid’s Guggenheim Award-winning Country Without a Post Office, Agha recited his son’s most well-known verse.

‘We shall meet again in Srinagar,
By the gates of the villa of Peace,
Our hands blossoming into fists,
Till the soldiers return the keys and disappear.’

After a nearly two-year battle with brain cancer, Shahid died in late 2001. His father was present when the illness first struck.

“He was visiting professor at New York University, and I was visiting him in his beautiful home on Washington Square, 2000, February or March,” Agha recalled, averting his gaze and slowing his words. “He had a fall and I heard a shriek….An. Unearthly. Shriek. I went there and saw him flat on his back, in his bathroom. Rang up and ambulance came and we took him to hospital…for a year and a half after he wrote poems, he delivered lectures, and he made people laugh…then he quietly passed.”

He (Shahid) was visiting professor at New York University, and I was visiting him in his beautiful home on Washington Square, 2000, February or March.He had a fall and I heard a shriek….An. Unearthly. Shriek. I went there and saw him flat on his back, in his bathroom. Rang up and ambulance came and we took him to hospital…for a year and a half after he wrote poems, he delivered lectures, and he made people laugh…then he quietly passed.”

Thoughts of his son led Agha to reminisce about his family, how all four of his children had earned their doctorates and taught at American universities, just like he and his wife of nearly 50 years, Sufia, who died in 1996. He also reflected on his 84 years.

“I feel good. I feel good. I feel alive, despite a few minor failures of health here and there,” he said. “I look back on my life with my wife and my children and my friends, the greatest things in my life have been laughter and friendship and the vision of beauty both in nature and in art,” he said. “I regret the fact that…I was often too domineering. I lacked that genuine humility which would have made me have a greater impact on the lives of the young. That’s why as I have ripened in that last ten-fifteen years I have focused on simplicity and humility.”

This last word reminded Agha of one of his favorite quotes, and again he scooted to the edge of his chair and moistened his lips, rubbed his hands together and sat up straight as an eager schoolchild.

“Joseph Needham, brilliant historian, author of the greatest work of the 20th century, Science of Civilization in China, 10 volumes, he wrote, ‘Humility is a concealed form of love,'” and Agha paused, a broad smile creasing his face as the words sunk in, then bursting with explication. “Love in the sense that another religion can be equally good given the benefit of doubt, another civilization can be equally good! Study with humility, don’t say my way is the best; this is what he’s saying, and this is what I love.”

We’ve come such a long way, dear reader; I am as weary as you. Pray forgive me for invoking the voice of another in farewell.

“Age does not make us childish,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in Faust. “It only finds us true children still.”

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