In the summer of 1987, I was vacationing in my village when the All India Radio included brief news in its 9 pm bulletin about Aamir Subhani topping that year’s Civil Services Exam results. The next day’s Times of India carried a detailed report headlined ‘From Village School to IAS Academy.’ The report informed readers that Aamir Subhani had studied at a Hindi medium government school in Siwan, completed his higher studies in Patna and that he was a topper throughout. He had cracked many other competitive exams and was working as a Probationary Officer in a bank when the Civil Services results came.
Why was Aamir’s success such big news for many of us? Because he came from a middle-class family with limited resources but had the guts to dream big. Because at a time when Muslims in Bihar were a beleaguered community, devoid of heroes and role models, here was a simple boy who had turned the tides and set a record. Because Aamir’s spectacular success only reiterated our belief that UPSC was an unbiased institution and that all talks of discrimination against Muslims was hogwash.
A few days later, I boarded the Vaishali Express at Samastipur Junction to reach Aligarh. In the sleeper class bogie what Shashi Tharoor would have called “cattle class” I found a middle-aged man next to my seat reading Nai Dunya, then a popular Urdu weekly brought out by Shahid Siddiqui from New Delhi.
Since I could not and cannot stop myself borrowing a newspaper from a fellow passenger, on trains or aboard planes, I nearly snatched the Nai Dunya copy from the fellow passenger. As expected, the Urdu tabloid had carried a full-page report on Aamir Subhani—I clearly remember ‘Shabash Aamir’ was the report’s headline–with an additional piece exhorting Muslim boys and girls to take a leaf from Aamir Subhani’s story and aim for the Civil Services.
By the time I reached Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) campus, it was already abuzz with Aamir’s exemplary success. To those of us who were much younger to him, he was Aamir Bhai. To those elder to him, he was Aamir Sahab.
The prickly heat of the summer had given way to early winter’s balmy weather. Aamir Bhai had joined the IAS Academy in Mussoorie, not very far from Aligarh. One evening we were told he was visiting our Ross Masood (R M) Hall, one of the hostels, named after Sir Ross Masood.
To the uninitiated, Ross Masood was AMU founder Sir Syed’s grandson, a leading educationist of his time, education director of Nizam state, Vice Chancellor of AMU in the 1930s and education minister of Nawab of Bhopal. English writer E M Forster dedicated his famous book A Passage to India to his friend Ross Masood. Masood was so well connected that famous scientist Einstein had sent one of his students to teach Physics at AMU at Masood’s request. The day Masood took over as VC of AMU in 1929, he addressed a full house at the historic Strachey Hall at AMU, the same venue where his grandfather Sir Syed had hosted six-year-old Masood’s Bismillah (a ceremony when a Muslim child learns the first letter) in 1893. Jalil Qidwai, Pakistani writer and a fawning admirer of Ross Masood beautifully captured in purple Urdu prose the scene when Ross Masood entered the arched gate of Strachey Hall. I translate:
“A red-whitish tall and huge man wearing smart English dress, his face radiant with steely determination, entered the hall amidst loud applause. Without waiting for a moment, he went straight to dais and began speaking.” To know more, please see the chapter on Ross Masood in my debut book Aligarh Muslim University: The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim
So, Aamir Bhai was visiting R M Hall. Since a younger brother of Aamir Bhai studied at AMU, there was another reason for him to visit the campus. Some seniors held a felicitation function for him at the hostel’s common room where we watched weekly chitrahar and cricket matches on the lone black and white TV set kept in a corner. The common room was also used to host guests who came visiting from India and abroad. What glorious days of AMU had I seen, my lord? Ya Khuda, lauta de AMU ke woh achche din.
After a senior student and our provost sahib, a sherwani-clad bearded professor of Theology, welcomed Aamir Bhai, the guest of the evening stood to address us. Thin and tall, Aamir Bhai wore a full-sleeved shirt and trousers. I think he also wore a half-sleeved sweater as there was a little nip in the air. He spoke extempore in chaste Urdu. Persian was one of his optional subjects in the Mains for the Civil Services Exams. His brief speech came as a whiff of fresh air, a ray of hope amidst ominous clouds that had engulfed north India. Just a few months before, on May 22, 1987, the ‘brave’ personnel of Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had massacred 50 Muslims of Hashimpura in cold blood. The PAC personnel had rounded up Muslim youths from Hashimpura mohalla during the Meerut riots, taken them to an irrigation canal on the outskirts of the town, shot them dead in cold blood and dumped their bodies in the canal. Read retired IPS officer Vibhuti Narain Rai’s book Hashimpura May 22 to know the full truth. It is one of many gory chapters in the saga of post-partition massacres in India. Had the culprits of Hashimpura massacre been meted out exemplary punishment, perhaps Bhagalpur 1989 and Gujarat 2002 would not have happened. But then that is another story.
So, Aamir Subhani took his seat after giving an eloquent speech. A few aspiring candidates of IAS exam and those who had already cleared the Preliminary Test too were in the audience. They sought some guidance on how to prepare for the various stages in the exams UPSC conducted. I was neither an aspirant nor a candidate. But I was inquisitive and so I too asked a few questions, including how to keep the fear of failing an exam away? Was I looking at my own failure at the forthcoming 12th standard exam?
Since my heart was not in science subjects and I wanted to shift to the Arts stream which my father didn’t allow, I had rebelled and would bunk classes of Botany and practicals of Physics. I spent more time with M J Akbar and Khuswant Singh at the massive Maulana Azad Library than at my Chemistry classroom and its laboratory.
I followed Aamir Bhai to one of the rooms of a senior hosteller. There was a tradition of awarding the best kept hostel room at the annual Hall function and this room which hosted Aamir Bhai had picked up a couple of prizes for being the cleanest and well-maintained. A couple of years ago I was shocked when I visited my room at R M Hall. Gone was the orderly manner we maintained, the way we decorated our different almirahs with photographs of tennis star Steffi Graf and Bollywood star Sridevi. The room smacked of sweat and bedding on the charpoys looked dirty. Hai, tune mere AMU ke saath kya kiya?
Over snacks and tea, Aamir Bhai conversed more with us. Seeing me firing more salvos here in this room too, a senior looked at me and quipped: “Are kya tu Amar Ujala ka reporter hai (Are you a reporter from Amar Ujala, a leading Hindi daily in north India)?” Everyone laughed. Journalism was not on my mind at all, though love for the English language had been seeded in me by then.
Years later, I met the same senior in the Julena area in the vicinity of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. I reminded him of his prophecy that evening at R M Hall. I then interned with Nation and the World, a fortnightly run by retired IAS and former VC of AMU Saiyid Hamid. Alas, like so many Muslim institutions that have perished over the last century, this magazine too died with the death of Saiyid Hamid a couple of years ago. It was a good stepping stone for rookie, raw youngsters without godfathers like us. Why did I need a godfather when I had God above and my father on the ground? Though a strict disciplinarian, my father saw me get caught in catastrophes but kept encouraging me. Though I gave him much pain and disappointment, he never lost the hope that I would make something of my life. His words, of encouragement and reprimand too, made me hardy and tough to face hurdles destiny brought my way.
The senior was elated when he heard that the boy who had asked an IAS topper so many questions that evening years ago was actually learning the ropes of journalism at a news magazine. “Bhai aur dua do na (brother pray for me,” I pleaded. “Boy, you are destined for bigger places, much bigger than this tiny magazine,” he prophesied.
Today I don’t remember his name and don’t know his whereabouts. I will take him for coffee as a way to express my gratitude for his prayers. If he is listening and recognises me, he will do me a great favour if he contacts me.
I don’t remember my “lucky charm” senior’s current location in life. But I do know that Aamir Subhani, that boy from the backwaters of Bihar whom I had asked a few questions after he had cracked the Civil Services Exams, has worked his way up. He is in Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar’s good books and took over as Bihar’s chief secretary, the top post in the state’s bureaucracy, on January 1 this year. Aamir Bhai may not remember the episode I narrated above but it is etched in my mind and will be part of the memoir if I ever write.
And let me end this long essay with Wasim Barelvi’s couplet as Professor Mushtaque Ahmad, registrar, Mithila University, Darbhanga, quotes it in his Urdu piece on Aamir Subhani.
Jahan rahega wahin roshni lutayega(Wherever it goes, it will keep spreading light
Kisi charagh ka apna makaan nahin hota
A lamp has no home of its own).
Mohammed Wajihuddin is journalist associated with Times of India, Mumbai. He has recently written a book on AMU which is being appreciated by readers.