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Delhi bids adieu to renowned Persian scholar Yunus Jaffrey

Jaffrey was a teacher who wanted to teach Farsi not just to his college students, but to the world; he was a man who never understood what it was to retire

August 30, 2016 12:00 am | Updated October 18, 2016 12:59 pm IST

de30 jaffery

de30 jaffery

There are people in Delhi who become legends in their lifetime.

Amazingly, they also remain gentle low-key individuals who are learning constantly as much as teaching, whose eyes are expectant with a sense of better things to come.

There is a pencil sketch of him in Dalrymple’s City of Djinns , his name will be found in many prefaces, as co-editor (and translator) of a volume of Persian newsletters, and in innumerable blogs.

Three generations of scholars of Farsi and of History have had their work enriched because their quests led to one place – the quiet hujra of Dr Yunus Jaffrey on the first floor of the 300-year old Anglo-Arabic Madrassa at Ajmeri Gate.

The madrassa, or Delhi College, or Zakir Husain College, is a very special place of learning.

Ghalib had been offered a position here to teach Persian, and nearly a century later Yunus Jaffrey was appointed teacher of Persian.

There are scholars, there are teachers, and then there are those who complete a career and retire. Yunus Jaffrey was a teacher who wanted to teach Farsi not just to his college students, but to the world; he never understood what it was to retire. It was immaterial to him who the students were – scholars from Europe and the USA, post-graduate students from Indian universities, individuals who loved the sound of the language.

Newsletters, chronicles, accounts of buildings, biographies with diary-like details of daily life — his careful translations permeated so many publications.

How does one describe adequately the smiling presence who gave a warm glow to the compositions of international scholars, like the light behind the jali ?

Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi as we know it, atomized into micro-landscapes – Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Faiz Bazaar, Ahmad Ali’s Chandni Chowk and Hauz Qazi, Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari’s Daryaganj, and Yunus Jaffrey’s home in Ganj Mir Khan.

In his last years, Yunus Jaffrey stayed there and the world came to him, just like they had earlier found their way to his study at the Delhi College. His ordered life, regular hours of editing, translating and reading gave him a serenity that shut out the cacophony of the outer world. He was happy to meet friends, attend lectures and formal functions.

Yunus Jaffrey travelled to Iran, where he was recognised as a goodwill ambassador — a person of two cultures.

And without lapsing into nostalgia or bitterness, he spoke with a reminiscent smile of the city of his childhood, of running along the top of the city wall from Ajmeri Gate to Dilli Gate, blissfully unaware that the tall buildings of Asaf Ali Road would veil the curve of the wall, enclaving the frontier area that was his world.

The core of serenity meant that even terrible tragedy could not wrench him from his moorings. He was proud of his niece Nausheen (“My heir”, he said happily) who was inspired by him to study Urdu and Farsi, and to get to know the cul-de-sac of Faiz Bazaar.

The summer after she completed her M.Phil in History, Nausheen translated Sangin Beg’s Sair-ul-Manazil into English.

But before she could complete it, she was struck by cancer.

It was then that one realised the wide reach of Dr Jaffrey.

Help poured in from all the scholars he had helped.

The family realised they were rich without having known it. Nausheen, smiling bravely through months of pain, could not make it.

Her manuscript, carefully edited and checked by generous friends, will be published within a few months from now by Tulika Press – a tribute to two gentle scholars who represented the finest qualities of the Dilliwala.

(The writer taught history at Jamia Milia Islamia)

His ordered life gave him a serenity that shut out the cacophony of the outer world

Jaffery often travelled to Iran, where he was recognised

as a goodwill ambassador

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