City Obituary – Abdul Sattar, Pahari Imli
The death of a scholar.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He had many friends, but the closest had to be the French-style cap, the beret, that would at times be lying plopped up on his head, as if it were eavesdropping on his restlessly overzealous intellectual pursuits. Indeed, you would always see him writing, reading, and thinking; though just before going to sleep at night he would tune in to sad Hindi film songs of yesteryears in the memory of his youth’s failed love. Having retired years ago from “government service,” Abdul Sattar was every inch a scholar, and his great subject was his beloved Old Delhi—its old buildings, its Urdu language, its poets, its chroniclers. He died yesterday morning (3 January, 2023) after a long spell of ill-health, aged 78.
The scholar’s home in Pahari Imli teemed with children, grandchildren, black cats, white cats, and with hundreds of books in Urdu and Persian, which were crammed into his second-floor library. It was more than a library. It had his bed, as well as his meal-time dastarkhan. “I was born in this room,” he would say. “Here I read, eat, write and sleep.” He died, too, in this same room.
Some years ago, Abdul Sattar launched into writing an ambitious history of Madarsa Ghaziauddin Khan, a seminary near Ajmeri Gate that now exists as a school. Intending to finish it in a few years, he became so occupied that he would leave his Pahari Imli only to visit public libraries for research. The pandemic curtailed his excursions, and, as it turns out; his library was eventually denied the pleasure of having a book authored by its owner. Even so, the library was a work of many years of Abdul Sattar’s dedication to literature. He would often purchase the volumes straight from publishers—very many of the books he owned were produced by Old Delhi printers. As for the out-of-print books, he would borrow their earlier editions from libraries and get them xeroxed (and handsomely bound in brown leather). This passion for accumulating books was a source of some stress to his wife. The late Shamima Begum prized neatness above everything, while our scholar would leave books and papers all over the place.
Naturally, the way to his residence was well-versed to Delhi’s academicians, historians and journalists, who would visit him to get “material” on the Walled City. Sometimes, while leaving, they would borrow a few of his more precious books. Those valuables were never returned, he once noted, shaking his head.
One of the most precious objects in the late scholar’s library had to be a Mughal-era map of Old Delhi. Abdul Sattar would like to unroll it on the library’s carpeted floor. He would then place his finger on a small black circle he had drawn long ago on the map, and say casually, “We are here.”