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Flashback: A father remembers

October 30, 2011

Zofeen T. Ebrahim shares some of her father’s  fondest memories of his days at Aligarh Muslim University

Remembering the ‘aik roti, do boti’ days when he was studying at the Aligarh Muslim University, my father, 85-year-old Fakhruddin Yusufali’s eyes shine reminiscently as he is transported to the three years from 1944-46, when he was studying there.

It triggered a flood of memories and he recalled Nand Lal, the oldish postman, who’d make the boys run after him, before handing them the post from home, or how they put all their energy into making biryani instead of studying for economics and mathematics; the sultry summer nights when they took their charpais out in the courtyard and slept in the open under the ‘machar dani’ (bed nets); his teachers, Q.H. Farooqi and Professor Hadi Hasan’s electrifying speeches on the Pakistan movement that no student would ever want to miss.

But most of all, with fondness he remembered the esprit de corp among the students and their complete devotion to those heading the movement that bound together these young restless souls who had come from different regions to Aligarh. They were a breed apart then and a breed apart even now and continue to jealously guard their Aligarh-ness.

Taking out a dog-eared file from his office shelf, he leafed through the yellowed pages, showing the letters he had received from his father during his sojourn in Aligarh and the various letters from the college bursar’s office on the college letter-head.

“I was 18 and had taken admission in intermediate,” Abba remembered. “My father accompanied me on my maiden journey armed with bedding and a suitcase full of clothes. “We travelled by bus from Abbotabad to Rawlapindi and then took a train to Delhi which took us about ten hours. From there it was a mere two hours by train and we reached Aligarh.”

The Mohsin ul Mulk Hall (named after a prominent Indian Muslim politician and a close friend of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan) was a huge palatial mansion, which may have accommodated around 60 boys and in which he shared Room No 20 with three other boys. “It was a small room and was shared by Hatim Ali from Rawalpindi, Mohammad Ali Chopra and Akber Ali Rajbhai both from Mandvi and myself.”

There was a common bathroom which was down a narrow corridor. The hostel was very basic, nothing to write home about but was a clean place. Occasionally, they would cook food in the room. “Our roommate, Akber, was incharge of our finances for the grocery shopping and even cooking on weekends. For breakfast we’d get tea and biscuits, on a rare occasion an egg.”

And that is how he learnt to be grateful for these small blessings. “Food at home was always good and in plenty and here there was so much rationing.”

But it was Aligarh that brought a change in him. “I was a young boy from a small town, many had not even heard of. I’d never left home, never ventured outside it or lived independently.”

After the initial cultural shock was over and he got over the homesickness, which took a while (“I’d often cry at night)” he began making friends. “The friendship I cultivated during those days lasted years and has seen me through thick and thin.”

“I spent three years there and got so used to hostel life I didn’t even want to go home during summer break,” confessed Abba.

During long weekends they would often go to Agra and Delhi and stay at railway stations. “We’d never buy rail tickets and even the ticket collectors would go easy on us once they found out we were from Aligarh University,” he quipped fondly.

While going to Aligarh was the best thing that happened to my father, he still marvels at the stroke of luck. “Nobody was educated in my family. I don’t know how my father got whiff of this college, but one thing is definite, had I not gone there, I’d not have been able to continue my studies much further,” says the chartered accountant, who not only opened his own firm in Lahore in the 1950s but continues the practice to date.

He however, could not complete his fourth year because of tension all across united India, just before partition, and students were advised by their teachers to leave for their respective hometowns. Abba missed a year after he returned to Abbotabad, “got busy in helping with the business” but then finally graduated from Karachi and went on to do his chartered accountancy.

The hostels and hostel living was a far cry from the one experienced today by his grandchildren. For one, he had to survive on a very limited budget and stretch it to last a month. “Sending me off to college was expensive,” he acknowledged. “I’d get Rs 55 per month, of which Rs 40 would go for tuition fee, hostel accommodation and food and the Rs 15 left would be my pocket money.” However, after much cajoling and coercion from various uncles, a further Rs 5 was added,” he quipped.

Often, when the pocket money had been exhausted well before time, they would get themselves invited to a relative’s home. “It didn’t matter whether they were some far flung, never-heard of distant cousins. We just needed a name and the address and off we’d pedal on a rented bicycle and ensure we reached on the dot at meal time!”