- K. A. Abbas
A prophet is seldom honoured at home, a genius is often recognized by the whole world before his own family recognizes his worth, but since my childhood ‘Bhaijan’ (literally ‘Dear Brother’) has continued to be my hero as well as my ideal, the one shining symbol of perfection to which I always secretly aspired. The earliest recollection of my childhood are replete with the memories of his astonishing series of academic triumphs. First Class First in Punjab Matriculation. The youngest graduate from Aligarh – and again First Class First. A champion debater and orator, and at the same time a good tennis player. Editor of the University Magazine with already a distinctive literary style, both in Urdu and English. After graduation he could have easily got into the I.C.S and climbed to the highest rungs of the Bureaucracy. But with characteristic idealism he chose the career of an educationist and, with a Government scholarship, proceeded to Leeds for a Master of Education degree. One of the first Indian students to distinguish himself in a British University, he again secured First Class First and returned to his alma mater to join the Teachers’ Training College as the youngest Professor in the University. He was barely twenty-one and with his trim good looks, bright eyes and a thick mop of black hair, he looked more like an undergraduate than a member of the Faculty.
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood – and one of the most formative influence which moulded my own destiny- was the debate that was held in Aligarh in 1925 on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Mohemmedan Anglo-Oriental College, the precursor of the Muslim University. The cream of the Muslim intelligentsia was present on the occasion. Saiyidain who had just returned after his academic triumphs in England was given the honour to open the Jubilee debate under the auspices of the University Union. He chose a subject which was then, as it is forty years later, of vital significance to the Muslims of India. He moved in effect that Indian Muslims should not organize themselves politically on communal lines but must work together with the nationalists of other communities for the freedom and progress of the nation as a whole. He made a short and persuasive opening speech. Then came an oratorical barrage of opposition from the Big Guns of Muslim politics assembled on the dais – including Mr. M.A. Jinnah, the Aga Khan and Sir Ali Imam, each one of them a formidable host unto himself. They spoke with power and passion, and patronizingly dismissed the arguments of the youthful mover of the proposition as irresponsible youthful idealism. I remember Saiyidain sitting in a corner, seemingly overwhelmed by the powerful and authoritative voices of his elders, but furiously taking notes. Then came the climatic moment when he rose to reply to the debate. I was too young then to fully comprehend the trend of his arguments, but even an eleven-year old boy could sense the power and passion with which the flow of his eloquence was charged. The impact of that speech must have left a deep impression on my sub-conscious because since then, even as a boy, I could never be swayed by the passion-filled arguments of the communalists. If the secular and humanist concept of life has remained an integral part of my own personal credo, I owe it first of all to that speech and subsequently to the year I spent in school and university under the personal guardianship of Saiyidain. To the same influence I owe also the awakening of my intellectual curiosity, the taste I developed for literature, drama and the arts.
But to revert to the climax of that debate, Saiyidain succeeded by the sheer weight of his arguments and persuasive power of his eloquence to trounce the formidable array of his distinguished opponents. His proposition was ‘carried’ by an overwhelming majority, and Mr. Jinnah took at least ten years to recover from the shock of that defeat which he suffered in the presence of the most representative gathering of Muslim intelligentsia.
Since that day to this date, “Bhaijan” has been the lode star of my life. I have learnt to look up to him, though on occasion the Olympian heights of his integrity have seemed like an unattainable ideal. I have not always agreed with him, but he is so disarmingly reasonable and rational that it is difficult also to disagree with him. His idealistic devotion to the cause of education which he has made his own sometimes gives him the semblance of a one-track mind. But it is not so. His interests range from Poetry to Politics, from Islamic Metaphysics to Modern American Drama – he will put down a tome on Philosophy to take up the latest issue of Punch.
Indeed, what saves this great intellectual and erudite scholar from being a pedantic snob and, therefore, a bore, is his unfailing and delightfully infectious sense of humour. During the many years I spent under his roof and under his guardianship, I remember, the conversation round the dining table was always lively, witty, enlivened by the humorous and meaningful anecdote, the epigrammatic turn of phrase, and the occasional flash of irony and satire. For us it was a daily intellectual exercise to sit at that table; the conversation would range across the seven seas and encompass all the seven arts, and woe unto the ignorant young man who did not know the difference between Einstein and Epstein and confused both of them with Eisenstein. They say that to be a Barrister one must consume so many dinners at the Inns of Court. But I have no doubt that I learnt more at that dining table, presided over by Bhaijan, than from all the lectures I had to suffer in our class-rooms.
Above all else, from him I learnt to love books, to love life in all its varied manifestations, I learnt that it was possible to be serious-minded without taking oneself too seriously. It is to those ‘literary’ meals I shared with Bhaijan that I owe the development of my interest in writing. My very first amateurish attempts at literary composition were corrected by Bhaijan who had a great editor’s gift of being able to improve the construction of a sentence beyond recognition by the merest touch of the proverbial blue pencil.
There is much that I owe to Bhaijan but, above all else, I owe to him the perception of the purpose of life – to seek knowledge without pedantry, to serve fellow-humans without assuming patronizing or supercilious airs, to enjoy a joke even at one’s own expense, to laugh with others and not laugh at others.
It is difficult to believe that Bhaijan is sixty years old. It seems only the other day that he was having that memorable debate with Jinnah and Ali Imam. Most of my life, since I began to lose my hair, I have been mistaken to be his “elder brother” though, in fact, I am ten years younger.
Saiyidain’s fresh, youthful look, like the perennial youth of Jawaharlal Nehru, is not merely a physical phenomenon. This remarkable ‘freshness’ comes from inner peace which only those few fully integrated human beings can experience who know what is their duty and also know that they are doing it.
And, therefore, from my own frontier of a tired and faded Fifty I can only call out across the chasm of time: “Thanks, Bhaijan. And many, many happy returns of the day!”