An island of calm in a sea of hostility

Naimuddin and I were not brave fellows, but we SAW HOW our friendship could influence our students.

When I was starting my academic career in the late 1940s on a beautiful campus in central India, the subcontinent had just been divided into India and Pakistan. The terrible violence that broke out in north India between Hindus and Muslims cast its dark shadow even as far as the town where I had been posted as a lecturer, the lowest rung on the ladder.

I arrived knowing no one in town, not acquainted with the regional language, and with no idea where I was going to stay. I also had considerable misgivings about classroom tensions as a result of religious and political unrest.

After meeting with the president, who welcomed me officially as a member of the faculty, I was going back to my tonga (two-wheeled rickshaw) when a smiling figure from my student days blocked my way and gave me an Islamic hug. It was Naimuddin, my best friend in graduate school. We had first met in the university hostel where our rooms were close together.

Our friendship had began with a shared interest in literature – he in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic, and I in English and Sanskrit. He introduced me to his friends and the gracious ways of Muslim culture. But after graduating, we lost touch with each other for a few years.

Now here he was, teaching at the same college where I had just taken up duties, and he was offering me a place to stay – in a medieval castle, no less, owned by a nawab (a nobleman or a man of importance) who had gone to Mecca on a long pilgrimage. I was so surprised and delighted that I could find no words for his hospitality.

This was my introduction to a Muslim household, and everything was new to me. We occupied only one wing, but for entertaining we could use the durbar, a large hall on the walls of which hung swords and shields used by the nawab's ancestors, who had participated in the campaigns of the Mogul emperors.

Friends warned us that because of the Hindu-Muslim tension, we were putting ourselves at risk by living under the same roof. Naimuddin and I were not brave fellows, but we began to see that our friendship could influence our students.

One of the big events on campus was the mushaira, a Muslim tradition in which poets and poetry lovers gather, usually with a well-known poet as the guest of honor. Everyone – faculty and students – had a chance to recite a ghazal or verse they had composed or memorized for the occasion.

The verses were recited with a haunting cadence, each line repeated. At every beautiful simile or sentiment, the audience would respond with an appreciative chorus of "Vah, vah, vah."

I remember one Saturday night when Naimuddin and I sat together with a few friends and students to recite "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." I had memorized most of the verses in Edward Fitzgerald's felicitous translation and began with the opening quatrain:

Awake! for morning in the bowl of night

Hath flung the stone that puts the stars to flight.

And lo! the hunter of the East has caught

The sultan's turret in a noose of light!

Then Naimuddin recited in the original Persian, and opened the door for me to enter the romantic world of Persian poetry.

Gradually, the Hindu students coming to visit me at the old castle and the Muslim students visiting Naimuddin began to cooperate in our literary activities, forgetting their boundaries. On some occasions, gathered in that great hall, my students would recite Shakespeare and Naimuddin's Persian love lyrics.

Every morning, Naimuddin and I rode our bicycles to campus. Soon we found ourselves heading a procession of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian cyclists. In class, instead of students sitting separately, the unfriendly lines had dissolved. At breaks we saw Hindus and Muslims sharing the traditional sweet and savory snacks they had brought from home.

As their example spread, tensions began to dissolve all over campus. Our university became an island of trust in an explosive world.

Later, Naimuddin conferred upon me a great honor when he chose me to carry his paijan (marriage proposal) for the hand of a bright Muslim girl who happened to be a student in my English class. Her father, a senior colleague of mine on the faculty, received me warmly to sing Naimuddin's praise (tarif karna) in the old tradition.

I responded in the manner in which I had been instructed, praising my friend in the most extravagant terms: "the most esteemed and learned hakim, zamindar of vast tracts of land, the hajji-sahib, most erudite scholar, of the highest rank of poets...."

These expressions were not meant to be taken seriously; it was just a form of etiquette. But as my old friend and his future in-law knew, I meant them with all my heart. Today I would add another title: "most excellent peacemaker." He showed what two can do.

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