“You should meet my uncle, he knows a lot about Delhi,” said Nausheen Jaffery, a lively and intelligent young student who had just agreed to become my research assistant. This was sometime in late 1997. I was sitting in Professor Narayani Gupta’s office at the Jamia Millia in Delhi and the three of us were discussing the best way for me to start my research on the 19th century Delhi Muslims.
“Yes, you really should, there is no one to give you a better introduction to the history of the city,” Professor Gupta agreed.
So it was that a week later I went to the Delhi College – the old building near Ajmeri Gate.
The view from the outside did not prepare me for the calm oasis of the courtyard. And certainly, nothing had prepared me for meeting the man who was to become my teacher.
Dr SM Yunus Jaffery welcomed me into his room above the central arcade. It was a small room, just big enough for a table and two armchairs and lots of books in steel cupboards. In a second, even smaller room, Dr Jaffery had his implements for making tea and his computer – the screen beautifully fitted in the middle of a late Mughal arch with a flowery decoration. This image always seemed to me the perfect symbol for this scholar who so easily bridged the ages.
We talked about Delhi and its history and he regaled me with many anecdotes about the city and people he had known or read about in some rather obscure chronicle or other. Before I left, he took me up to the roof of the college, where the sun was setting, and asked me whether I did not want to learn Persian from him.
I was tempted, but I was not sure if I would have the time for such a project. “I promise you, in six weeks we will read Hafiz together. And no homework!” He kept his promise, as he kept all his promises.
For six years, every Thursday and every Friday, from 8 to 10 in the morning, we sat in his tiny room, drinking innumerable cups of tea and going through text after text, in Persian and in Urdu. Poems, biographical compendia, nineteenth century journals published from Delhi or reporting on Delhi, you name it.
By the end of the class the table would be piled with so many dictionaries that there was no space left for teacups. “Don’t take my word for what I say, you always have to check everything with dictionaries and with the sources!” he always insisted.
I would return home with an ever increasing number of notebooks, containing not only my translations, but also his explanation of points of grammar, proverbs, verses which underwrote his argument, and many, many drawings he made on the spot to explain words which had no equivalent in English. If that wasn’t enough, he sprang up and enacted the expression. “A good teacher always also has to be a bit of an actor,” he explained.
A devoted scholar
Dr Jaffery was a Sufi by temperament but for me he was always, first and foremost, a very devoted scholar. Whether it was Persian poetry, of which he knew an incredible amount of verses by heart, language and grammar, proverbs, history or architecture, his knowledge was only matched by his passion to gather even more knowledge.
When I became interested in handwritten Persian newspapers, he was the only person who could read the terrible copy I would bring from the British Library – a copy not only written in a hurry by a news-writer in 1830, with hardly any nuqtas, the small dots above and under Persian letters, which make all the difference, but used by some colonial officer to improve his reading skill, and underlined with dots by him. Moreover some bookworms would invariably have made a meal of it and added their own dots. But Dr Jaffery was not to be deterred.
For more than two years we worked on the many hundred pages, discussing his reading and his draft translation, checking it against other sources and negotiating over the finer points of translation. His editing projects were what kept him busy during the last years of his life, as he would patiently go through manuscripts and proofs, over and again, so as not to miss the slightest mistake.
But that attention to detail never made him dry or pedantic.
He was a family man, taking care of his nieces and nephews after his brother had passed away, leaving four small children, and he loved to preside over the dastarkhwan reuniting the ever-increasing family, enjoying the delicacies only old Delhi families know to prepare.
He also loved his academic family, and insisted that we keep in touch with each other, like a real family. May I add, he was very much loved back.
Farewell, dear Ustad. I hope they have a good library, wherever you are now, and that the angels talk Persian to you!
Professor Dr Margrit Pernau is Senior Researcher at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Center for the History of Emotions, Berlin, Germany