Four reminiscences & a film

Noorul Hasan (1942-2017) was an alumnus of Allahabad University and taught English literature for over four decades at St. John’s College, Agra, Kirori Mal College of Delhi University, and finally at Shillong’s North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), the first institution of higher education in the region. He joined NEHU at its inception in 1973 as its very first faculty member, settling up the Department of English at the invitation of the university’s founding vice-chancellor, Dr CDS Devanesan.

His publications include Thomas Hardy: The Sociological Imagination (Macmillan, 1982) and a scholarly, annotated edition of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (OUP, 1984). Alongside his lifelong immersion in English literature, Prof Hasan had an abiding interest in Urdu poetry. His translation of Jnanpith winner Firaq Gorakhpuri’s poems appeared in the volume The Selected Poetry of Firaq Gorakhpuri (Sahitya Akademi, 2008). More recently his translation of actress Meena Kumari’s poetry, Meena Kumari, The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema (Roli Books, 2014), was published to wide popular and critical acclaim.

Prof Hasan’s articles as well as translations from Urdu have featured in Indian Literature, Chandrabhaga and Pratilipi, and literary supplements of dailies such as Hindu, The Statesman and Hindustan Times.

Noorul Hasan passed away in Shillong on August 19.

These reminiscences were first published in The Thumb Print

Noorul: Allahabad, Delhi and Firaq

HARISH TRIVEDI

I’ve always thought of Noorul as one of my oldest and dearest friends though, as I realized only lately, we were never together for long in any one place.

I first met him in 1963 when I had just entered the University of Allahabad as a student of BA 1st year and he was in the final year of MA English. In that university at that time, students who “topped” the exams or finished high in the merit list were widely acclaimed stars and had an aura attached to them, and Noorul was in that select band. In fact, his hostel Holland Hall had in recognition of his merit allotted him in that final year of his not a room but a mini-bungalow to live in all by himself. It had an independent entry and also a bit of a lawn, in which he sat in his arm-chair, now conversing and now brooding, blowing perfect smoke-rings all the while. No other student of his batch seemed half as stylish.

He spoke English with a pleasantly anglicized but far from crusty accent and with a flair that set him apart. His habit of pausing for a moment or two in the middle of a sentence, to pick thoughtfully the aptest next word, seemed only to underline his fluency. Above all, he had a passion for literature – or for literatures in both English and Urdu. And in his own shy elliptical way, and with his occasional long chuckle, he was warm and affectionate by his very temperament.

On passing MA, Noorul went off to teach in colleges in Agra and then in Delhi, for though he had got a first division, he had not got the first position to be in line for a job at Allahabad. (There’s a highly confidential story about this which I have on the highest authority and which surely can be told now: in his Essay paper, Noorul wrote brilliantly about British Drama before 1890, when the question-paper required him to write on British Drama after 1890, whereupon the wise examiner gave him 60 out of 100 – and not 0, nor of course the 65 or 70 he may have got if the answer had matched the question.) In due course, I too passed my MA, taught in Allahabad University for a couple of years, and then in 1969 I too made a bee-line for Delhi. Noorul wrote to say he’d come to the station to take me “hot off the train” straight to the barsati in Model Town where he lived. That we hadn’t met for five years didn’t matter, and we picked up just where we had left off.

Those three weeks that we spent together, in that rectangular second-floor barsati with a huge terrace surrounding it, loomed large ever after in both my mind and Noorul’s as the defining period of our friendship, its never-fading keynote. In the mornings, we’d get up and scramble off together to our respective colleges on the North Campus, sometimes in overcrowded buses and sometimes in a rare-to-find auto, teach three or four classes, and then meet for lunch either in his staff-room at Kirori Mal College or in the coffee-house opposite Ramjas College, now long gone. (I was yet to discover the culinary delights of lunch at the High Table at St Stephen’s College.) We’d then walk back the 4 kilometres to his barsati in E-block, at the far end of Model Town Phase I. We ambled kharaama-kharaama, not on the busy and roaring Ring Road but along the Police Lines barracks and playgrounds beyond Vijay Nagar, on a back road which was as quiet then as the ones we had known in and around our campus at Allahabad, as we chewed the cud and chatted about everything under the sun.

Back in his room, as evening descended, he would put on his record-player. Whichever other records we listened to or not as we sipped our tea, we’d always each evening listen to his favourite LP which was titled When Melody was Queen. He also played at least once every evening a Talat Mahmood song, that deeply pensive song of unbearable separation that begins Sham-e gham ki qasam, aaj ghamgeen hain ham… Sham after sham, we sat on that high terrace of the house at the end of the lane, looking out across empty fields with only some tall radio-towers to be seen with the red lights on their tops twinkling, as we felt intensely ghamgeen together, each wallowing in our respective gham. That’s when I first met/saw the lady Noorul was going to marry shortly by defying the whole world, and that’s where I waited anxiously for letters to arrive from my own lady-love whom I had left behind in Allahabad and whom I would go on to marry.….Sham-e gham ki qasam…

Incidentally, I revisited that barsati after a gap of 48 years in March 2017, on a nostalgia trip in the company of Noorul’s daughter Anjum. When we reported this to Noorul, he and I promptly exchanged verses by Hardy and Ghalib on how everything passes and youth declines into infirm age. That was the last Noorul and I were in touch.

To return to 1969, Noorul was soon enough obliged to leave Delhi and go into what seemed temporary exile in Shillong. We all thought that after a few years the Native would return to Delhi but that never happened. We did not coincide in our time in Britain, either. In fact, Noorul told me a Hardyan story underlining how we had just missed each other. When he went for his first meeting with his supervisor Professor CB Cox at Manchester University in October 1975, Cox showed him a PhD thesis lying on his desk and said, “Have a look. I’ve just been examining this. If you can manage to produce something like this in the end, you’ll be all right.” Noorul had one look at that thesis and exclaimed, “But I know this man!” – for that happened to be my thesis. One doesn’t know what the statistical odds were of that kind of coincidence occurring, but our telepathic (or tele-whatever) bonding had clearly beaten those odds.

As I stayed on in Delhi and he in Shillong, we met but rarely. I invited him once to Delhi University and he came home in the evening even though he had fever. He was frail and often complained jokingly of his constitution which could not be amended. I once visited his university, NEHU, and the first thing I did on reaching the Guest House was to phone him at home (only landlines then!) to ask when we could meet. And almost before I had put the phone down and had a glass of water, Noorul was at the door. We went sauntering in the campus, I had dinner at his place, we checked out the Shillong bazaar the next morning, laughing at the fact that the mithai-shops even there were owned by our very own Mishras and Tiwaris, while Noorul bought a lot of fruit for me to take home.

The next instance of our getting together came about in print. Noorul had been translating a sheaf of ghazals by Firaq Gorakhpuri, one of his all-time favourite poets (together with Thomas Hardy), who despite his toponym was in fact a poet from our own city of Allahabad and had taught in our Department of English. We had both “seen” him and heard him on numerous public and private occasions including in lecture-halls and mushairas and in the corridors and staff-room of that Department which he frequented long after his retirement. I was greatly chuffed that Noorul with his far superior Urdu and English shared his drafts with me to ask for comments, and then invited me to contribute a Foreword. When the book came out, I found that he had thanked me, in his characteristically witty manner, “for never ceasing to be knowledgeably critical even when making flattering comments”! Well, that’s just like him, and I suppose just like me. His ‘Introduction’ and my ‘Foreword’ both glow with the devotion to that great poet that we shared, though we are never in danger of saying the same things.

In that book, Noorul and his favourite poet Firaq come together in a splendidly appropriate manner, especially as Noorul’s translations often aim more at capturing Firaq’s spirit than just words. There also comes together in that book in an invisible but pervasive manner much else that both Noorul and I inherited from our alma mater Allahabad University and from the multilingual literary culture of that gracious city, which both of us continued to cherish. It gratifies me no end to see that even if nominally, Noorul and I are on the same page there. I understand that there is a plan to inscribe on Noorul’s grave-stone an appropriate couplet by Firaq as translated by him in that book, together with its Urdu original. Few persons can have an epitaph as apt.

Meanwhile, for me and for a whole host of Noorul’s other friends and admirers, here is a characteristic couplet from Firaq as cited and translated by Noorul, about remembering departed friends:

Aati hai aise bichhre hue doston ki yaad
Jaise chiragh jalte hain raaton ko gaon men.

The memory of long lost friends glimmers
Like lamps in distant villages at night.
(Firaq, tr. Noorul Hasan, p. 24)

Harish Trivedi is a scholar of English and Hindi literature and former professor of English, University of Delhi.

“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”

ROBIN NGANGOM

I knew Professor Noorul Hasan as a scholar-aesthete. As a student, I had been reading and enjoying literature naively, but he helped me appreciate its finest qualities, made me put a finger on the protean heartbeat of poetry and fiction. I learned from him for the first time about showing and telling, the given and the taken, and the irony which cancels irony. Literature is all about studying hearts and minds, he often said.

He also told me, your prose is not as good as your poetry. But he was not a grammarian, he had long transcended the denotation, the prim proprieties of language, and eloquence came naturally to him. For him the play was the thing, the beauty of stories and ideas dressed in their human best. He would not be seduced, therefore, by the continental wisdom being bandied about then. I’m neither conversant with nor really interested in these new theories, he asserted. With his inability to suffer mediocrity, he must have antagonized some. But he never used an unkind word for anyone who might have treated him badly.

Our shared passion for ghazals brought us closer together. I knew next to nothing about the Urdu poetic tradition, and asked him one day: “Do you listen to Mehdi Hassan?” “I not only listen to him but read the poetry of his songs,” was his amused reply. He introduced me to Firaq, who was also his mentor in Allahabad University. He was not overly impressed by Faiz, but kept Faiz’s “Raat yun dil mein teri khoi hui yaad aayee” under the glass sheet of his table.

I realise that his beloved author Hardy and he had much in common. For one, they were both reclusive. He told me that Hardy never stepped out of England (maybe even Dorset, who knows?) and refused all invitations abroad, and read these lines to me:

My ardours for emprize nigh lost
Since Life has bared its bones to me,
I shrink to seek a modern coast
Whose riper times have yet to be;
Where the new regions claim them free
From that long drip of human tears
Which peoples old in tragedy
Have left upon the centuried years.

“Long drip of human tears”, “peoples old in tragedy”,”centuried years” were his favourite phrases.

Like Hardy, I think he was also emotionally reticent and did not believe in parading emotions himself. I remember his lectures delivered in a monotone, completely devoid of drama, and without so much as a gesture from his slouching form on a chair. But his aesthetics ran deep and his quiet manner concealed a passionate nature. He believed only in the power of the written and the spoken, the story or literary thought “stitched from within” as he would love to say.

These are the lines from Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ that I read in memoriam for him.

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”

I was fortunate to have him as my teacher, mentor, and friend. I miss the many hours we shared, over glasses of whisky.

Robin Ngangom is the author of three volumes of poetry and Associate Professor, Department of English, NEHU, Shillong.

The Minimalist

KISHALAYA BHATTACHARJEE

I think he liked the colour beige. Maybe a darker shade. Not that it would matter to him in the least if I got his colour preferences wrong. However, he wouldn’t let go of an incorrect sentence or a casual comment about literature; I once said I find some of Jane Austen boring and he swatted me saying, “That is your problem not Austen’s”.

He couldn’t suffer mediocrity and made no pretence of it. As a teacher he developed his inimitable style of storytelling that enthralled most of us in the class. I owe to him almost entirely my love for literature and writing. He saw two of my books. He didn’t say much but his approval was conveyed by a wry smile accompanied by a nod and something like, “I read your book.” If he didn’t approve he would be scathing.

My personal interactions with Professor Noorul Hasan were unusual; they were generally brief with a lot of pauses and silences unless we discussed Thomas Hardy or Firaq (he was a Hardy scholar and he translated Firaq). He was his eloquent best when he spoke on literature. The rest of the time he would escape into a shell and I wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what he was thinking of. Nobody really did. He was a minimalist in many ways but left an indelible impression on his students. His irreverence was married to his brilliance and I admired him for both!

I can vividly see him crossing the road in Laitumkrah, Shillong in his identifiable tweed jacket, the woven bag on his shoulder and an almost inimitable swagger much before the word entered our popular lexicon. He would then board the university bus and sit without ever looking around to find a companion. If spoken to he would respond warmly but the conversation didn’t necessarily continue. Yet he had more admirers amongst his students than most teachers. Brevity indeed was the soul of his wit!

There are several afternoons that I have spent with him, which shaped the way I think, the way I write. Looking back, I cannot recount much but then, and perhaps he would agree, one doesn’t have to measure learning in words. One must listen. Teachers play an invisible role in developing our personalities and Professor Hasan did that in full measure without ever trying to be patronising. His lectures were in themselves life lessons. They were simply brilliant and that brilliance is what he wanted his students to aspire to.

Kishalaya Bhattacharjee is a well-known journalist and writer, currently teaching at OP Jindal University.

Far From The Madding Crowd

RUKUN ADVANI

I met Noorul only a couple of times, but even his existence at a distance felt like a good thing – someone whose intelligence and critical insights were making minds a little sharper and lives better. His book on Thomas Hardy was the first I ever reviewed and its central idea, derived from the sociology of Ferdinand Tonnies, is stunningly accurate – that Hardy is the literary embodiment of the movement from the village and pastoral world of ‘community’ to the urban and corporate world of ‘contract’. His book also said something about the nature of his own mind, or at least this is what it suggested to me – that he had the unusual ability of getting to the core of literary meaning by outlining the social and cultural and intellectual context in which a text was conceived and generated. It was a very Raymond Williamsy perspective, very acute and striking, and very free of clutter and pomo jargon, very direct and unpretentious. Some years after his book, when I worked for the OUP, he wrote a fine introduction to Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and the edition sold quite well I think, so he may have earned a little money from that. We used to write each other inland letters in those days, and I think he used Waterman’s Royal Blue. Reading his hand was no trouble at all, and a pleasure to see, like his prose.

He was for me one of those very faraway friends I wished I’d met oftener and come to know but never did. Part of the reason I felt a kinship with him was that I worship Hardy, and he showed me a side of Hardy I would never otherwise have known. His criticism and understanding of literature was penetrating yet accessible, occasionally convoluted perhaps out of an involuntary respect for Hardyian convolutions, but mercifully free of modern pomo convolutions, being a blend of the historian’s, the sociologist’s, and the critic’s – the kind I’m able to follow and like. I’m sure this is because both he and I belong to an earlier time and a way of thinking about literature that is quite passé. Maybe we were also kin in one other way – he lived a lot of his life in a relatively unmetropolitan mountain town, far from the madding crowd, and so do I – perhaps choosing this kind of life is an effort to cling on to something that modern urban mainstream life has not yet killed. I suppose I don’t miss Noorul because I never properly knew him, but I am unhappy at the fact that he has gone, he represented a way of seeing the world and being in the world that I think of as mine.

Rukun Advani is founder of and publisher at Permanent Black.

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  1. Alex Mathew
    October 21, 2017
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    Fr Alex Mathew Principal, Don Bosco College Bongaigaon
    I was very fortunate to have been a student of this remarkable person. What surprised me and what I remember distinctly is his invitation to us to come home and use his quarters which in 1996 was very close to the basketball court at NEHU. We were playing varsity matches then. He was close to everyone in his own characteristic way. An erudite scholar who went about most unassumingly and endeared himself to everyone. He shall live on in memory. May he rest in peace!

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