Portrait of a Stalwart
Mohammad Aleem writes in English and Hindi, and has authored plays, novels and works in other assorted genres. Here he tries his hand at biography, the subject of which could not have been more interesting than the one he has chosen. Saiyid Hamid epitomises some of the best features of India’s Persianate culture that emphasised adab (which means both literature and good manners), restraint, the fine art of conversation and an encyclopedic sweep of knowledge. Adab was to be cultivated from childhood and nurtured through old age. Saiyid Hamid has worked meticulously to cultivate and nurture it.
He is one of the last of the species the British would have liked to call a “Mohammedan gentleman.” They no longer produce it, the edition has been closed. That reminds one of the anguished remark of Caliph Abu Bakr, “What happened to our women, why don’t they produce sons like Khalid (ibn al-Waleed) any longer?” What happened to our women, why don’t they produce sons like Saiyid Hamid?
There could be some clues. Such people are born at crucial points in history, and it’s not so much a question of giving birth to them as of bringing them up with great responsibility. Saiyid Hamid was lucky to have a pair of fine parents, protective and encouraging siblings and a fierce determination to lead a healthy, productive life.
This project required a huge reservoir of physical and mental energy as was evident from his ardent love for hockey in particular and sports in general. He played well enough to lead at the state level. This biography takes all this into account. The love affair with hockey was so intense that he kept his association with it well into his seventies in some capacity or the other.
The book presents a linear, matter-of-fact narrative, beginning with the obvious: “Saiyid Hamid was born in 1920…” The bare facts and milestones of his life have been recorded. The chapters include, quite obviously: “The early days and education,” “The organisational link,” “A poet, A Scholar, A writer.”
There is some mention of Saiyid Hamid’s scholarship and his articles and books, which are quite often collections of his topical writings on the Muslims situation in India. His erudite writings like “Ghalib’s Persian Poetry” went unnoticed. In any case, a linear approach may not begin to reach the deeper layers of his personality, much less its core.
The man is much larger than the aggregate of the roles he played: sports lover, studious student, bureaucrat, educationist, reformer, fine cultural specimen, observant writer (he calls such writers and writings “perceptive”). That he is a poet also is not known to many people, including this reviewer. Aleem must have some basis to call him a poet, but he has not said what kind of poetry he has been writing.
Saiyid Hamid is a dogged fighter. The Union government must have kept it in mind at the time of sending him as Vice-Chancellor to Aligarh Muslim University to straighten out affairs at his beloved alma mater. He did accomplish what he had set out to, except that the strict measures required to put AMU back on the rails had some unpleasant and unintended consequences: turmoil on the campus and the death of a student in police firing. Sir Syed’s university has been particularly unlucky in the sense that it has always been infested with parasites, from land grabbers and building contractors to manipulators in admissions, appointments and promotions. At the last count there were 40 teachers related to a single professor. The smaller clans had 25 to 10 teachers.
Such vicious inbreeding fosters ignoble campus politics, which ultimately renders it ungovernable and disrupts academic functioning. Such disruptions are a regular pattern at AMU. Saiyid Hamid had intervened at a crucial moment, and for a while it had been set right, only to fall back in the rut again. Aleem half-heartedly tries to evaluate Saiyid Hamid’s performance as AMU vice-chancellor, but leaves it open-ended. The AMU is divided on Saiyid Hamid: one group is for him, the other against. There is hardly a middle ground. Tell it to him and he would chortle good-humouredly, a quick spark lightning his eyes.
He is amused to hear (he has heard it umpteen times, of course) that when he left the AMU at the end of his tenure, the opposition observed Yaum-e Nijaat (Day of Deliverance), reminiscent of deliverance of the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s serfdom. Years ago, when somebody told him that the number of people at AMU who wanted him back had grown to form a majority, his eyes lit up and he asked in mock-seriousness, “Do they want to observe Yaum-e Aseeri (Day of Enslavement) now?” That’s one side of the man. There are so many others, all equally fascinating.
His fortnightly journal Nation and the World also comes in for a brief mention. For a few years this reviewer assisted him in editing it. The project never took off, but it was not because Saiyid Hamid did not try hard enough.
One particular difficulty that a reader is likely to encounter is that Aleem tells certain facts, but refrains from collating them and making inferences. Had he taken the trouble to do that, readers could have a glimpse of Saiyid Hamid’s mind and its functioning. The book also mentions his by-now-familiar caravans. One would immediately know that this man wanted Muslims to look beyond their current troubles, created by the Sangh’s Ayodhya campaign. His educational caravan came at the height of the hate campaign run with the help of LK Advani’s rath yatra. With his own yatra, Saiyid Hamid tried to tell Muslims not to get entrapped and waste their energies. Such stubborn optimism, faith in God and hope for a better future is the hallmark of great leaders.
This reviewer has a confession to make: throughout his association with this great man he concentrated more on learning from him rather than assisting him in his editing. In the week following Babri Masjid demolition and amid the worst anti-Muslim violence in years, this reviewer asked him: “What do you say to all this?” For a while his face contorted in pain. Then he said something to the effect, “This, too, will pass.” That attitude marks extraordinary grit and determination, a will to survive and prosper against all odds.
This too will pass. How many times he must have told this to himself and others who cared to listen over the last several decades. The unextinguishable flicker of hope in his heart must have whispered to him this mantra at the time of India’s independence and Partition.
“Naha ke khoon mein aayee thi fasl-e-azaadi” (Drenched in blood came the harvest of freedom), sang an Urdu poet. Saiyid Hamid was a witness to it, grieved over the loss of human life and humongous dislocation as a fratricidal rage shook the country. Assured in the heart of his hearts that the storm would blow over and tranquillity would return to the great civilisational unit called the Indo-Pak Subcontinent, he kept his cool, did his deputy collector’s job, played his hockey after work, studied and wrote his articles at night.
Not that he was not watchful, or was insensitive to what was happening around him. Still he could not figure out why he was being transferred from Moradabad in West UP to an eastern UP district at the height of the murderous frenzy. This interesting episode is mentioned in the book. The collector told Saiyid Hamid that it was safer for Muslim officers to be posted in east UP where the communal fever was much weaker.
Saiyid Hamid must have grown up listening to stories of the rout of 1857 and how Muslims were, over the decades, able to create a new life for themselves. 1947 must have looked like a replay of 1857. By the time 1992 came along, he was a veteran of coping with typhoons and tornadoes. Among the several books written by Saiyid Hamid listed in the biography is Azmaish ki Ghadi (The Hour of Trial), a collection of topical articles written by him during the Ayodhya campaign and its aftermath.
He clearly saw it as the hour of trial for Muslims which demanded a creative response. They had to educate and organise themselves without getting trapped in the violence and counter-violence cycle. After the Babri Masjid demolition and extensive anti-Muslim pogrom, he got worried that Muslims might get demoralised, which would be the real victory of the oppressor. The oppressor must be denied victory through hausle ki baazyaabi (reclamation of the courage and will to live) by Muslims. He wrote and spoke on the significance of this course of action.
This is the biography of a tall man whom Aleem valiantly tries to portray. All said, Saiyid Hamid has still to find his Boswell. Hopefully, he/she will not take too long coming.