Memories of Aligarh Days: How The Milestones Fall One By One

Memories of Aligarh Days: How The Milestones Fall One By One
My friend and cousin Syed Tamezul Hasan passed away last month. We came from the same small town, Sahaswan, Badaun, and shared a room for four years as students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the 1950s. Residential life at AMU was much prized and credited with infusing the so-called Aligarh spirit and an enduring love for the alma mater. Often, life-long friendships were made among those who shared hostel rooms, with memories cherished forever. While my cousin and I did not live in a hostel, we had a somewhat similar experience.

In our days, there were numerous big houses around the University campus, belonging to former landlords, mostly Muslims, in which they rented rooms to students to help defray the maintenance costs. At first, we shared a house close to Lal Diggy, a pond once used for laundering clothes by dhobis. Sadly, the pond no longer exists. It had a reputation of being haunted as people claimed they had heard ghostly sounds in the dead of the night. These were supposed to be sounds that dhobis make while laundering clothes. There was very little traffic on the main University Road, especially at night, and the area was mostly deserted. Returning from University functions, many times late at night, we were a little nervous while passing by the Lal Diggy, but never heard or felt anything eerie, except howling wintery winds piercing our bodies as we rode our bicycles. This was the same area where, in October 1920, Maulana Mohammad Ali, Dr. Ansari and Hakim Ajmal Khan, the iconic nationalist leaders, founded Jamia Islamia, initially housed in modest tents.

Our life was austere. Taking a bath in winter was a jihad, as we had no hot water. Luckily, there was a hand pump in the yard that siphoned underground water that was not freezing, which we could use to take a bath. Bicycles were the most common mode of transportation, both for students and staff. Only a few senior professors had cars, such as Professor Babar Mirza, chairman of the Zoology Department, who had a vintage 1930’s car that needed to be cranked by a metal handle.

A very decent man, Tamezul Hasan went through some unhappy phases in his life. His parents had separated and his mother, along with her younger son, migrated to Pakistan against her husband’s wishes. Tamezul Hasan stayed with his father who was a successful hakeem in the nearby town of Kassganj. Thus, he became the focus of his father’s affection, who otherwise was a difficult person.  Every day, the father sent freshly cooked food for him, transported by a friendly bus driver who operated between Kassganj and Aligarh. In the mango season, Tamezul Hasan received buckets of the finest-quality fruits and, being generous by temperament, he always shared them with me. However, during my entire stay at Aligarh, I don’t recall the father visiting the son once, even though he lived only a few hours' bus ride away.

In the final three years of my stay, we moved to a room in the old Anona House, near the Tasveer Mahal cinema. In its heyday, the house, residence of one of the major landlords of the area--was bustling with life and festivities, but was, in our time, deserted, only a pale shadow of its former self. We interacted with the old Nawab only when he came to collect his rent. The most well-kept part of the stately house was a small, beautiful mosque that was well maintained, where we prayed on Fridays. The railway line ran by the boundary of our compound and every night the train to Bareilly whizzed past us without waking us up.
Our life was austere. Taking a bath in winter was a jihad, as we had no hot water. Luckily, there was a hand pump in the yard that siphoned underground water that was not freezing, which we could use to take a bath.  Bicycles were the most common mode of transportation, both for students and staff

Traditionally, students at AMU were appointed in their senior years to some honorary positions of authority- house or food monitors. In his final year as an MA student, Tamezul Hasan was appointed one of the proctorial monitors, a uniquely AMU tradition, patterned on Cambridge University, that gave him the authority to recommend a fine if he found any student not observing the University dress code or indulging in unbecoming activities. The monitors were especially active during the annual agriculture exhibition which was a prime event to which visitors came from far and wide. The exhibition came to full life in the evenings, but the students were not permitted to stay beyond 8:30 pm, when a siren would announce the time to leave. At that hour, the assistant proctor, a faculty member, Mukhtar Saheb in my time, would stand at the central pavilion. He was above six feet tall and with his Turkish cap was visible from far and wide. He would order his team of monitors to start scouring for any one in black sherwani who might still be lingering.

The annual exhibition was a special occasion people looked forward to the whole year. One of its special attractions was the eateries that served signature Kebob Paratha, dripping in ghee, which most of us could not eat very much. These were overcrowded, full of smoke, and unhygienic, but that did not discourage patrons. This was also the time when we would receive relations and friends from hometown who came to visit the exhibition. One year, we hosted seven or eight guests from home for two nights in one room. They all brought their own beddings and slept on the floor, inside and or the veranda. No one complained.

In 1955, a grand international industrial exhibition was held in Delhi. Both Tamezul Hasan and I were eager to visit. The railway fare was not a problem - Delhi is merely 80 miles from Aligarh - but we had no place to stay. Tamezul Hasan contacted a relation, a prominent religious leader, who agreed to help. When we showed up, he took us to a nearby mosque and lodged us in an attached sparse Hujra inside with bare floor. We had brought our own beddings and had no problem sleeping. It was all free, except we had to get up at the crack of dawn for Fajar prayers.

After completing my MSc, I moved to Pakistan and finally to the US. Tamezul Hasan stayed in India and secured a good job, district employment officer. We lost contact for many years. When we reestablished it, both of us had retired. He was in poor health and staying with his daughter in Delhi. We talked occasionally, but a stroke had robbed him of his ability to talk much. The end came peacefully last month, while he was surrounded by his family.

Every time that a friend departs, it leads to some introspection. As I look back at life’s picturesque journey, traversed over many decades, a host of memories stream back. The number of friends and contemporaries is now fast dwindling, with only a few remaining with whom to share reminiscences. While young, time seems to stand still, giving the beguiling impression that our family, friends, and environment are eternal. Only later, we learn that every moment in life is precious and fleeting and should be savored as it shall not return.