“I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.”

(In Memoriam V)

My paternal grandfather stood as a great inspiration for me when I was a teenager. I lost him when I was in high school. Like they are for all of us teenage years were an important stage of my life where I craved inspiration from a role model. The death of my grandfather had created a sort of void for me; I sought guidance from someone outside my family. I made an unaccustomed choice of studying humanities and joined the Gandhi Memorial College (GMC) that used to offer courses for eleventh and twelfth classes of high school. Both the teachers and authorities in the GMC were helpful and inspiring for students. But I was to discover a rare personality in this college that would eventually inspire me throughout my life. I would eventually rediscover the inspiring personality of my grandfather in him.

It was my first day in the GMC and I was eagerly looking forward to see someone who, I was told, used to be a very good friend and junior colleague of my grandfather in the D.A.V. High School (Jawahar Nagar) in Srinagar and also a teacher of my father. I had heard of his magnetic and charismatic personality both as a teacher and humanist. It was these traits I sought of professors I encountered. While looking forward and waiting for my Sanskrit class in the main corridor of the college, I saw a tall man approaching in a stately gait walking towards principal’s office with a cheerful smile on his face. His hair was coal-black and he had grey moustache. Neatly dressed, holding a small black leather pouch in his underarm, he would give a charming smile to everyone whom he would have an eye contact with. There was something about his smile that I find difficult to express in words; it was the smile of an innocent intellectual. I would realise it much later in life that the vacuum created by my grandfather’s death was filled by gentle and scholarly personalities like him and a few others like Pandit Dinanath Yacch, Prof A.N. Dhar, Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Dr Bettina Bäumer, Prof N.B. Patil and Prof Nilkanth Gurtu.

I was never an outstanding student, but that was not what mattered for him since unlike many other professors who usually liked only the most meritorious students and ignored the back-benchers, he treated the most notorious and the most brilliant students alike. And he was the only professor who was respected equally well by both extremes of the student groups. As a teacher he hardly cared about students being good or bad. Even the most notorious student would come and touch his feet, and listen carefully to his noble and touchy advice. We have often heard the stories like that of the notorious  dacoit Angulimal who came chasing Buddha to kill him and when he saw him (Buddha), he turned his devotee. During the troubled times in Kashmir valley, both the armed forces and militants would want to protect him. Such was the charisma of his unfathomed innocence. According to him there was nothing like a “bad boy”. We created ‘good’ and ‘bad’ boys. He viewed a ruffian and the most decent student alike. He used to offer equal treatment to a duffer and a brilliant student. He regarded his students like his own children and would share most intimate episodes of his life with them while, for instance, trying to make them understand literary subtleties of a certain poem.

But that was not all. I would often see him talking to the peons of the college sharing some intimacies with them. He would say that he enjoyed speaking to them. They never manipulated whatever he spoke to them about. How many teachers care about the plight or the joy of a peon in a college? I never ever saw him sitting in a group of professors enjoying some free time in the sunshine of winters in the college compound. He would arrive on time for his classes and leave just after finishing off his classes. He would never be a part of any gossip groups. For me this was the most inspiring characteristic of a professor that I learnt from him – and since then I have never wasted my time unnecessarily gossiping around either with my colleagues or students. We always forget the main purpose of an educational establishment, he would think. The GMC or such other educational institutions are primarily established for the students and the first priority of such institutions should be always to be ready to serve students in whatever way possible. He strongly believed in social service through education. He would always think how GMC could serve as a better institution for young Kashmiri students who might use it as a launching pad for taking off their future flights. On the first day of college he would introduce the fresh batch of his students to Gandhi’s life and philosophy after whom the GMC was named. He would make it a point that all his students in the GMC should know the favourite song of Gandhi – “vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je peera parayi jaane re. para dukhe upakara kare toye mana abhimana na ane re”. Even though he did seem to be deeply influenced by Gandhi as most of his generation would be, but in my opinion deep down his heart it did not matter for him whether these lines were the favourite of Gandhi or were written by Narasinh Mehta. The moving idea expressed in these lines was what was pulling him towards it – to feel the pain of ‘Other’ and serve them without generating conceit about the selfless service whether that was through the word of mouth, or an altruistic act. This altruistic professor was unaware of his own altruism. Had he been aware of it he would not have spent all his life in the GMC considering the heights of literary achievements he had accomplished as a self-made scholar.

He was a teacher par excellence. His style of making English literature understandable in Kashmiri language was not only amusing, but also revealing the critical method of translation. Once teaching me a line from Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe he asked me how we could translate the expression like “Fie on thee” into Kashmiri. He translated it as “hay oyi vobah”. When I said that I was still unable to understand the character of Doctor Faustus, he replied that it was the story of every human being – me and you and everyone else is a Doctor Faustus. We are all Doctor Faustus, and all of us come across such stages in life and we have to learnt to face it. His loud voice still echoes into my ears as I write these lines:

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin

To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess:

Having commenc’d, be a divine in shew,

Yet level at the end of every art,

And live and die in Aristotle’s works.

Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou hast ravish’d me!

Bene disserere est finis logices.

Is, to dispute well, logic’s chiefest end?

Affords this art no greater miracle?

Then read no more; thou hast attain’d that end:

A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit:

Bid Economy farewell, and Galen come,

Seeing, Ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus:

Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold,

And be eterniz’d for some wondrous cure:

Summum bonum medicinae sanitas,

The end of physic is our body’s health.

Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain’d that end?

Is not thy common talk found aphorisms?

Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,

Whereby whole cities have escap’d the plague,

And thousand desperate maladies been eas’d?

Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.

Couldst thou make men to live eternally,

Or, being dead, raise them to life again,

Then this profession were to be esteem’d.

Physic, farewell!

Before teaching me “Good Morrow” of John Donne I was obviously offered three lectures on metaphysics. But his style of teaching metaphysics was not making it sound like a jargon to a high school student. He said “say for instance if we are travelling from one place to another in a bus. You are bing metaphysical if you are not sure whether you will reach the destination or not. If you say you ’will’ reach your destination, you are not being metaphysical”. All my class mates still remember when he taught us Shakespeare’s sonnet titled “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”. I wish I could infuse life into this piece of paper and make you listen to the following words in his majestic loud melodious voice those he would recite like a minstrel of balmy life:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” (Sonnet-18)

His eloquent and flowery English sounded very professorial to all of us. Shakespeare was a metaphysician, he used to say. A million times have I quoted his words in Urdu – “Shakespeare ko zindagi ki napaydari ka bahut gehra ehsaas tha”. This deep ephemerality (nāpāydārī) was the crux of the Shakespearean metaphysics according to him. Reading and re-reading the dramas of Shakespeare, he had developed a profound understanding of his (Shakespeare’s) philosophy of life. I learnt more about Philosophy from him than in my philosophy classes, both oriental and occidental, and I learnt more about History from him than I could have learnt from any historian. What academic branch did he not specialise in? In his free time at home he used to tutor students in Mathematics and Economics.

Wordsworth was a mystic for him and so was Coleridge. I deeply remember him when even today I open my high school books and read Wordsworth’s “An Ode to the Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Early Childhood” or Coleridge’s reply to the former in the “Dejection: An Ode”.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: 

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,     

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,” (Ode to Immortality)

My genial spirits did fail when I heard that this paragon of virtue and cheerfulness is no more, but is he no more? This is what I asked myself immediately. His living is the immortal living and his death is the mortal death.

My genial spirits fail;

And what can these avail

To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze forever

On that green light that lingers in the west:

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.” (Dejection: An Ode)

I still recall that brilliant day of my life when I studied the “Ode to Skylark” by P.B. Shelly with him. I was literally feeling like flying in the deep depths of the endless blue firmament like a Skylark. Was it the power of Shelly or Shelly’s Skylark or my teacher who was guiding me through this flight of Skylark ?

What thou art we know not;

What is most like thee?

From rainbow clouds there flow not

Drops so bright to see,

As from thy presence showers a rain of melody: –


Like a Poet hidden

In the light of thought,

Singing hymns unbidden,

Till the world is wrought

To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:


We look before and after,

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” (Ode to Skylark)

I wish I could have recorded his explanations of John Keat’s pangs of separation from his fiancée Fanny Brawne or how such love-miseries were being reflected in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” or “The Eve of St Agnes”. He made me fall in love with Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge. His explanations of Alfred Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” in the light of Arthurian legends and his (Tennyson’s) intimate relation with his friend Arthur Henry Hallam revealed in the “In Memoriam”, one of the three great English elegies, created in me an everlasting passion for English literature.

That loss is common would not make

My own less bitter, rather more:

Too common! Never morning wore

To evening, but some heart did break.” (VI, In Memoriam)

The lesser griefs that may be said,

That breathe a thousand tender vows,

Are but as servants in a house

Where lies the master newly dead;” (XX, In Memoriam)

It was least the charm of the English literature itself, I think, and mostly his way of teaching that let me to truly appreciate the literature of England. He could make you feel English and England while sitting in Jammu & Kashmir. Those who have been his students will know how well he knew England just because he was so intimately associated with the literature of that land and its people. So he would tell you where a particular street was in a particular area in medieval London, for instance. The man who had hardly been outside the State of Jammu & Kashmir would know most streets of medieval England simply because he was astonishingly familiar with the literature of that country. Such is the potent power of dedicated study and such is the alluring charm of a worthy scholar.

He always regretted that he did not know enough Sanskrit to read the texts in original and he would have liked to read this ancient classical literature because it had inspired so many domains of knowledge. If fact, he said to me once, that he considered marrying a woman with traditional degree in Sanskrit because he wanted to learn from her about this ancient knowledge system. Does it not reflect his passion for literary traditions? How can I not mention his contributions to Kashmiri literature in the form of his critical essays published in various journals in past couple of decades? He believed that the insignificant corpus of existent criticism in Kashmiri language is dominated by age-old and backyard historical and sociological concerns. He was attempting to evolve a new critical idiom in Kashmiri language in the light of the opinions of Sir Percy Lubbock  (Craft of Fiction) and Northrope Frye (Anatomy of Criticism).

If we have more mortals like him surviving the mundane existence, the earth will be a heaven, but it is not. Men like him are like gold dust. Even though they are thin on the ground, they exist but rarely exceptionally, but when they do, they live for ever. I would like this earth to be full of such people who make this world a loving and charming place to live in, but I am asking for too much. Let such people be rare and let many of us learn from their occasional existence. Like a tiny earthen lamp attempting to illuminate every corner of a dark room. Let us not miss him, but live him following his unique philosophy – the philosophy of humanity.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank day.” (In Memoriam, VII)

My teacher wanted me either to be a judge or join the Indian Administrative service. Unfortunately, I could do neither and ended up being a teacher like him. I recall his emphatic eloquent voice – “Mrinal ! I want you to be a judge.” He even made me write the entrance examination of the bachelors programme for law in the University of Delhi. He infused and invigorated his students with passion for learning. And this passion for learning was not simply reading as many books as one could. This learning was the true learning of life. What do we learn when we study the subjects like history, philosophy and literature? We learn how to live – how to live the life of a ‘human being’ – live for ourselves and others. I am sure even the so called ‘bad boy’ or the most notorious student will also be able to tell you something about the ‘way of life’ that he/she might have learnt from him.

Then fancy shapes, as fancy can,

The grief my loss in him had wrought,

A grief as deep as life or thought,

But stay’d in peace with God and man.” (In Memoriam, LXXX)

Why should I not think that his personal life was not less than the life of an ascetic? He once told me that he neither allowed his wife to clean the dishes in the kitchen nor did he allow her to clean their house. He made it sure that he would do it himself and he justified this unusual act by saying that The Prophet in the Holy Quran has said that he does not like people with smooth hands. He likes only people with rough hands because smooth hands belong to people who do not do hard work and he always attempted to keep his hands rough. We think men in robes are more powerful than men in the usual dress. We imagine mystics with long braided hair wearing flowing robes instead of men common in outlook. We are mistaken. Men like my teacher are far more powerful than any men on the earth. They don’t say what they are, they be what they are. They are innocent intellectuals. “Moza Sir” (Professor Kanhaya Lal Moza) was one such rare personality who will continue to live with me in my life and in my death. Even if I let him die, he will only die with me when I find my own grave. I am neither mourning his death nor elegising his memory as I did of my grandfather. This remarkable literary craftsman matured me into what I am and his humanitarian philosophy will inspire me what I will continue to be.

My Arthur, whom I shall not see

Till all my widow’d race be run;

Dear as the mother to the son,

More than my brothers are to me.” (In Memoriam, IX)


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

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