The Biographical Dictionary of Delhi – Dr Yunus Jaffery, b. Old Delhi, 1930
The immortal love of a Persian scholar.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
An heir of Old Delhi nobility, he speaks classical Persian as his first language. Dr Yunus Jaffery, a Persian scholar, was described as an “archetypal Delhi-wallah” in William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns.
Dalrymple wrote, “He wore white Mughal pyjamas whose trouser-bottoms, wide and slightly flared, were cut in the style once favoured by eighteenth-century Delhi gallants. On his head he sported a thin white mosque-cap. Heavy black glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, but the effect was not severe. Something in Dr Jaffery’s big bare feet and the awkward way he held himself gave the impression of a slightly shambolic, absent-minded individual.”
Dalrymple’s book came out in 1993. I met the man one morning in 2011, at his home in Ganj Mir Khan, a neighbourhood not far from Delite Cinema.
The house is a maze of stairways, rooms and courtyards. Clean-shaven and with a balding head, Dr Jaffery was in a long-sleeved checked Levi shirt and grey trousers. Extremely courteous, he was apologetic that I would have to speak louder since he can no longer hear well.
The study was sparse. The walls were scrawled with playfully-rendered letters of the English alphabet as if some child was trying to learn to write. A steel shelf held a multi-volume Persian dictionary by one M. Mosin. Some old books and a few files were on a wooden table. In the corner was a hotplate; milk was boiling in a steel bowl.
The only decoration on the mantle piece was a large framed certificate of The Farabi, a literary award of Iran. It was signed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A few lines in English, below the presidential signature, informed that the award was named “after a man who by raising the idea of Utopia had sought to provide a schema for that difficult path has provided a good ground for identification and appreciation of hardworking and indefatigable scholars and researchers in the Humanities and Islamic Studies”.
Appearing in the index of various exotic Old Delhi travelogues by foreign writers (also check Kevin Rushby’s Chasing the Mountain of Light), Dr Jaffery retired in 1995. He was a professor in the department of Persian, Zakir Hussain College, earlier known as Delhi College. Once a regular contributor to Rahe Islam, a journal published by Iran Culture House in Delhi, he has written voluminously for Iran’s magazines and newspapers.
Besides being an authority on Mughal India, Dr Jaffery has edited centuries-old Persian translations of Hindu epics like the Ramayan. He writes short stories in Hindi that are so popular that some have been translated into Marathi.
Dr Jaffery’s character is aptly described in the acknowledgement section of Mughals of India, a book by historian Harbans Mukhia who wrote:
“Dr Yunus Jaffery, who has taught the Persian language to generations of scholars, gave me regular classes to explain the subtle cultural and historical meaning of words and phrases rather than merely the dictionary meaning, to which I already had access. He has contributed more than perhaps he realizes to the development of my understanding of the nuances of life and culture at the Mughal court. To all my queries, he would seek out answers for days and weeks and pass them on with the kindness of an old Ustad.”
Mostly ignored by big publishing houses, Dr Jaffrey’s work is patronized by local publishers, who bound his short story collections with covers showing colourful alpine meadows. In 2009, he co-authored Information and the Public Sphere, Persian Newsletters from Mughal Delhi (Oxford University Press India). When I met him, he was translating from Persian to English an abridged version of Khurram Nama, an account of Shah Jahan’s life written during his time.
Dr Jaffery’s ancestors were Persian teachers at the Red Fort. He writes in long hand and keeps his manuscripts within cellophane covers. He never married. Why?
“This will have to be a very long answer,” Dr Jaffrey said. “I came from a noble family. We weren’t rich and my father was a typesetter at a printing press in Paharganj but we belonged to the elite class of Delhi.”
Suddenly getting up, he led me to a small dark room across the courtyard. “I was born here on 27th September 1930 at about 8 in the evening. Instead of this desk, there was a bed, my mother’s bed. She died here. I don’t remember the year.”
We return to the study.
“After the Partition, many educated young men from our kind of families went to Pakistan because they could not get jobs in India.”
The power went off. The air conditioner stopped. Dr Jaffrey opened the window. It looked to electric cables.
“Meanwhile Punjabi refugees came from Pakistan who started to live in the houses vacated by Muslims. Most of these people were educated. They sent their girls to schools, thinking that if they were unable to find husbands for them, at least the education would help them get jobs. The Muslims girls were mostly illiterate. The parents thought that an educated girl wouldn’t get a groom. But I was resolute that all my three sisters should study.
“After finishing the school, since I remained jobless, I continued with higher studies in Delhi College hoping to discontinue them the day I got employed. My Persian professor Mansoor Hussain Musavi told me that I was a good student and suggested that I take Persian for my Honours, since it was a free course. Aware that I had financial problems at home, he mentioned that I could borrow books from the college library for free.
“So, I became a Persian student. So, no girl paid heed to me. I was poorly dressed, neither smart, nor good looking.”
Here, a little girl, the granddaughter of Dr Jaffrey’s late brother, interrupted us. She asked him to resolve a squabble between friends. Dr Jaffrey apologetically asked me to wait while stepping out to mediate. He was back in five minutes.
“On 18 July 1958, I was unexpectedly invited to join as a lecturer of Persian at Delhi College. Now, girls started saluting me. Now, the question was whether they were paying regards to Yunus or to Mister Yunus, the lecturer in Delhi College? They wanted to marry me or my position? All those girls who could not find suitable matches were taking me as a racecourse horse, putting bets on me, but they were not of the same standard as mine.”
Here, Dr Jaffrey took out a Persian-English dictionary and showed me a word meaning ‘unequal match’.
“There was no equal match in terms of genealogy. Disappointed, these girls and their families started whispering that my origins weren’t good… Then, in 1962, I got a chance to go to Iran for a degree course in Persian. In Tehran I met Manizheh. She was pursuing English Literature and I was helping her with it. I told her about my life in Delhi. I told her that the education of my three sisters depended on me since my parents and my brother would not pay for it. She replied, “I’m ready to live with you even in hell.”
Just then someone in the street below shouted maderchod (motherfucker). The word floated up the air, entered Dr Jaffery’s study and lay ignored.
“I had gone to Tehran as a student on behalf of the Indian embassy and it did not give me permission to marry Manizheh. I came back to Delhi, disappointed. At home, the entire family had turned against my decision to get my sisters enrolled for higher studies. I remained adamant. Now, the entire burden for their college expenses was on my shoulders.
“In 1976, after graduating in Library Science, my oldest sister got an opportunity to go to the US where a job was waiting for her. I had to arrange Rs 20,000 for her. I took out some money from my provident fund and borrowed the rest from friends. My monthly salary was Rs 600, out of which Rs 200 would be deducted against the sum that I had taken out from the provident fund. Every month I also had to pay Rs 200 to my parents. The remaining amount was spent in returning the borrowed money to friends.
“So, with so much burden, how could I have taken another burden by marrying at that point?”
The power returned. Dr Jaffrey closed the window and switched on the air conditioner.
“Afterwards, there was the problem of marrying the sisters. My parents and my brother said that since I gave them the education, I would have to get them married and bear the expenses of their weddings. So, I had to pay for that too. Meanwhile, my brother asked me for money to buy a shop. I again applied for a loan. “
Here, the little girl came again and asked Dr Jaffery for something in the mumbling accent of small children that I couldn’t understand. The Persian scholar talked to her in a polite and grave tone.
“After returning from Iran, I devoted myself to Persian. I did my D.Lit on the Persian poet Saib who visited India during Shah Jahan’s reign. His poems described India’s culture to Persians, which was something new for them. To forgot my sweetheart, I began to write articles for Iranian newspapers, focusing on Indian culture.”
“By 1982, all my sisters had settled in life. In the October of that year, for the first time I got my full salary, without any deductions. I was 52. In 1990, when I was considering whether I should not marry at all, my father retired and I had to look after him, too. In 1997, my second sister’s husband died and I started paying for the tuition fees of her three sons. That sister died in 2000 and I became the guardian of her sons. Now, all of them are well established. One is in England, the other is in Switzerland… ”
What about Manizheh, I asked.
Dr Jaffery took out a yellow file from under the table and showed me a woman’s black and white portrait. “Like me, she was the eldest child in her family. She had black eyes and round face. She was neither too tall, nor too short.”
After replacing the photograph, Dr Jaffery said, “She waited five years for me and then she married. Her marriage was not successful. I met her again in 1987 when I went to Tehran for a conference on Persian. We talked about Othello.”
Opening a cupboard, he took out a photo album and showed me a colour picture of Manizeh. She was sitting on a chair beside Dr Jaffery. They looked like middle-aged delegates who spend their whole lives attending conferences and seminars.
“I’ve been to Tehran six or seven times. I always go there as an invited guest of the University of Tehran or of the Iranian government. Every time I go, we meet. We sit together and do not talk.
Showing me the photos of his sisters, Dr Jaffery said, “Two years ago, Manizeh came with her son. It was her first trip to Delhi. They stayed at this house for a month.”
Old Delhi nobility
Life’s long story
A lifetime of scholarship
What’s an equal match?
Manizeh, of Tehran
Manizeh with Dr Jaffery (center), in Tehran
Dr Jaffery in Tehran
Dr Jaffery in Ganj Mir Khan, Old Delhi