Mission Delhi – Mushirul Hasan, JNU Campus

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Four months after finishing his term as the Vice Chancellor of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, Professor Mushirul Hasan, 60, is scheming for the afternoon. Sitting in his wife’s study, surrounded by books that he wrote, India’s leading historian is talking to a friend on phone. The Delhi Walla overhears him saying, “Let’s meet at 2pm… India International Center…”

While Prof. Hasan has been in Jamia for 30 years, he has lived miles away in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His wife, Zoya, a JNU professor, has an official residence here – amid trees, rocks and hillocks. In mornings, peacocks visit their garden. For the professor, this idyllic surrounding constitutes Delhi, apart from the Jamia University campus.

After completing his Masters from Aligarh Muslim University and PhD from Cambridge, he became Jamia’s youngest professor at 31 and went on to serve as the University’s Dean, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. In September, 2009, he left the office intending to focus on the Academy of Third World Studies, a research institute in Jamia that he helped founded in 1988 and of which he remains the director. Now he is not sure. “I may take a break for a year,” he says, “and go abroad.”

The professor is a globe-trotter. Next week he is leaving for Jerusalem to speak in a conference. Last month he was in Paris. For a real break, he may choose London. There Prof. Hasan walks around without a care; strolling in Oxford Circus, Russell Square, Kings Cross; spending hours in the British Library. “Other European capitals are equally magnificent but London, and possibly Rome, are the only hospitable cities in that continent,” he says.

But it was Delhi that turned this bookish man into one of India’s most respected historians. Here Prof. Hasan began his academic career as a lecturer in Ram Lal Anand College, Delhi University. He later taught in Ramjas College before leaving for a doctorate in UK. That was his first trip to the West. “I was excited, but also scared, afraid of the unknown.” Not long after his return, he joined Jamia where he “remained stuck”.

In the old days, lecturer Hasan rode on a Java mobike. Jamia was an underdeveloped backyard. Holy Family Hospital was the only landmark. There was no New Friends Colony Community Center. The young man would go to Sapru House library, near Mandi House. “That was our adda,” he says. “From there we friends would go to Connaught Place cinemas, or to the discos. There was one in the Regal building. Another was in GK.”

Unlike the clichéd image of a booklover, Prof. Hasan is not a loner. For instance, he likes spending afternoons in Hauz Khas ruins, but with a person, not a book. “I like being in a company,” he says, “Friendships matter to me.” Most of his friends are senior journalists such as Saeed Naqvi and Satish Jacob. He often meets them in the hushed interiors of the India International Center, near Lodhi Garden.

However, since he ceased being a Vice-Chancellor, the professor has noticed a change in the attitude of a few acquaintances. “The world is with those in office but I have an intellectual agenda to pursue.”

No, don’t mistake the man to be your next-door intellectual – dull, drab and a know-it-all haughty. Unfailingly polite, Prof. Hasan never tosses off academic jargon; never throw around his high reputation. He has given houseful lectures in Paris, Virginia and Rome, but he made excellent coffee for me with no fuss. He inspires awe in academic circles, but to friends, he is just ‘Mushir’; his wife calls him by his ‘house name’ – Pervez. While currently he is reading a heavy-duty book that compares Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill, he also enjoys the airport trash, such as Agatha Christie and John le Carré.

The professor thinks in English, but peppers his talk with amusing Urdu couplets. He is always ready to laugh. You won’t imagine that this man is living with a deeply felt loss. Prof. Hasan’s older brother, a journalist, was killed in a landmine blast while covering the Iran-Iraq war in 1983. “I was traumatized for years,” he says. “We were like close friends. In Aligarh, we participated in college debates together, travelled together, saw films together, and went out together with our respective girl friends.” Najmul Hasan lies buried in a graveyard in Saket, in south Delhi. Occasionally, Prof. Hasan drives there. “But life goes on.”

Since then Prof. Hasan has written several books on a variety of themes. From the intellectual history of Delhi in 19th century, to Kasbahs of Oudh, to the life of a Turkish woman novelist, to how India explored the West, to wit and humour in colonial India.

“The fact that one has written a great deal with a lot of hard work and that a lot of thinking and reflection has gone into it brings pleasure,” Prof. Hasan says while warning that writing books is not a guarantor of financial success. “You probably lose out on what you have earned but the ability to translate your understanding of the world into prose and reach out to 500, 1000, 3000 people is a cause of great satisfaction.”

Despite, or perhaps, because of being a historian’s son, Prof Hasan picked the reading habit on his own. As child, he devoured his father’s collection of classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, before discovering Thomas Hardy and Bernard Shaw. Thanks to a neighbourhood barbershop, he got a hang of Urdu, his mother tongue. “There was this popular detective series by an author called Ibne Safi. It was stocked in hair cutting salons and you borrowed them for an anna a day. So I tried finishing it quickly and I often would. It had romance, comedy and always a murder.”

A few more years, and the professor found his passion: British philosopher Bertrand Russell. “He wrote without ambiguity and on many issues, from marriage to morality to conquest of happiness to philosophy. He was also a pacifist, an atheist, and an agnostic. He had a great impact on me.”

Over the years, Prof. Hasan’s reading interests progressed from fiction to non-fiction though he continued with Urdu fiction. “In her magnum opus Aag ka Darya, I liked Qurratulain Hyder’s skills in drawing fiction into the historical narrative,” he says. “Mixing the voices of the historian and the creative writer is an exercise I also enjoy doing. In my books, you will find this mix. Sometimes it may be jarring or counter productive, but, I think, it works quite nicely.”

It is this optimism that will keep Prof. Husain’s incredible book factory running.

“You can fight the whole world simply on the strength of what you have received as knowledge in the course of your research and during the crafting of your history books,” he says. “And I believe this is what it has done to me.”

[This is the fifth portrait of the Mission Delhi project]