When I arrived at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) School as a young, wide-eyed lad of barely 12, India and Pakistan had only recently gained independence. AMU was going through a traumatic phase, being blamed for supporting the partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan. However, as a school student, I was too young to be conscious of or concerned about the perilous winds buffeting the University.
I was an unlikely student at the AMU School (Minto Circle), now renamed Syedna Tahir Saifuddin School. I was born in the small town of Sahaswan in Budaun, which had been the home of my family for the past five centuries. My father was a well-respected hakeem, and three generations of my ancestors had followed the same profession, practitioners of the Yunani system of medicine (Tibb-e-Yunani). My father desired this family tradition to continue; however, in keeping with modern trends. He wanted me to go to a Western medical school.
Yet, the chances of my gaining admission in the few medical schools in Uttar Pradesh were slim. Moreover, my father’s rather modest resources would not have allowed him to afford my high school and medical education. My opportunities were also limited as, in Sahaswan, there was only one high school that offered no science classes, a prerequisite for the study of medicine. The school owed its existence to the conscientiousness of a rare member of the Indian Civil Service, Panna Lal, who served as district magistrate of Budaun in the 1920s.
Then an unexpected turn of events brought me to Aligarh at a very young age. My aunt had relocated to Aligarh to enable her children, my cousins, to enter AMU. She suggested to my father that he send me to her so that I could be admitted to the AMU School. She had rented part of a house on the Marris Road. Marris Road was the main thoroughfare known for its grand mansions that were mostly neglected and in need of repair. They belonged to Muslim zamindars who had fallen on hard times, following the abolition of the zamindari system. The traffic on Marris Road was sparse, comprising mostly of cycles, tongas and cycle rickshaws, with an occasional car lumbering along. Many owners of the aging kothis rented out a portion of their houses to supplement their dwindling incomes.
The AMU did not have a medical college and my father was hoping that it would start one by the time I was ready to apply. Realising the scarcity of Muslims in the medical profession, Dr. Zia Uddin Ahmad, vice chancellor of the AMU, had, in pre-independence days, started a campaign to raise funds to establish a medical college. The campaign had been progressing well when the upheaval of partition intervened and forced plans to be shelved.
When my cousin took me to the AMU school, completed my admission papers and left me there, I felt bewildered. The Minto Circle was indeed a circle enclosed by high walls, much like medieval castles, with two gates. It looked very different from my old school which sat on an open field with no restrictions on coming and going. However, my new school looked much more impressive, and classrooms better furnished. The building was double storied, with the ground floor housing dorms, and classrooms on the first floor. Following independence, the number of students had fallen sharply. Consequently, only one wing of the building was being fully utilized, the other housed the science classes and the laboratory. Two others were shut down, giving the overall appearance of a ghost town.
Many of my class fellows came from affluent families, some from South Africa’s rich Indian business class, and spoke English fluently, although using their own strange expressions and aphorisms. The overall setting and institutional environment seemed more sophisticated and intimidating than I had been used to.
The headmaster, Ehsan Haider Saheb, came from my own district, Badaun, but I did not know him. He was rather aloof and ordinarily inaccessible. He rode a bicycle and a peon always stood ready to take it away from him as soon as he alighted. I never saw him visiting classrooms or addressing student assemblies. Nevertheless, he was an admirable teacher and taught English classes for the final year students and there never was any breech of discipline.
Realising the scarcity of Muslims in the medical profession, Dr. Zia Uddin Ahmad, vice chancellor of the AMU, had, in pre-independence days, started a campaign to raise funds to establish a medical college
Soon after I joined the school, it was announced that the first Indian Governor General, Rajagopal Acharya, would come to the University, and pay a brief visit to our school as well. It set off a flurry of activities to welcome him, including rehearsals in the open school courtyard where he was to be received. The weather was cold, and the school had no covered auditorium. A slight problem arose for me. All of us lining up to receive him were required to wear a black Sherwani, the official uniform. I only had a brown Sherwani—I had never needed a black one. After much discussion, the headmaster made an exception, and I was allowed to join the assembly. I felt somewhat self-conscious in the reception line, though I doubt if the Governor General himself modestly attired in a simple coat and dhoti noticed or cared. Apart from his sartorial simplicity, the visit was full of pageantry and splendour.
One striking feature of my teachers was the uniformity of their religious affiliations. Except for a single teacher who taught us Hindi, there were no non-Muslims. Among the teachers, a few were exceptional. Asghar Ali Saheb, a kindly figure with a grey beard, looked old to our eyes, lived a long way away at the old city (Baliay Qila), and walked to the school every day, some ten miles round trip. He was an outstanding teacher and taught us Urdu literature and explained subtleties and richness of classic Urdu poetry. He greatly helped me in developing an appreciation of poetry.
The winter session used to be a special time as we had guest teachers. Students at the Teacher’s Training College enrolled for a Bachelor of Education degree came to teach us for six weeks as part of their hands-on experience. Some of them were excellent tutors, better than our regular teachers. They attempted to be especially nice to us, lest we misbehaved and disrupted their class, leading to a bad evaluation by their supervisors.
At the mid-term exams, I did very well and received complimentary comments from my teachers who had before barely shown me any recognition. I was gratified that my teachers at the modest school I had attended in my hometown had imparted some excellent basic education. In time, I gained self-confidence and made enduring friendships, and was selected as the co-editor of the school magazine. One of my school friends, Saad Mahmoud Hashmi, a favorite of the vice chancellor, Dr. Zakir Husain, became a prominent member of Indian Foreign Service. Sadly, while posted at the Indian mission at the United Nations, he suffered a massive heart attack and died very young.
In time, I grew very fond of the school and its surroundings, where I had felt like an outsider and stranger not so long ago. I was sad when the time came to leave it and move on to the next phase. I am certain that the academic contours and cultural milieu of the school have changed radically and would be unrecognizable to me today. Yet, viewed through my mind’s eyes, and across the fog of time, I would prefer to see it as it was more than half a century ago.
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