The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Words that weather time

Moinuddin Rahi is a tall and gangling man with an undistinguished appearance. His life-long devotion to Urdu gives his personality an upward tilt. He taught Urdu and Persian to the children and grandchildren of upper-class Muslim families. His regular and intimate contacts with these families expanded his vistas and he became familiar with the contours of a refined and rarefied world.

Rahi sahab was sent to me by a friend of mine to give an impetus to my Urdu conversation that had become one of my major obsessions. For years I have been trying to speak in Urdu with my Muslim friends but the efforts were halting and perfunctory. Rahi sahabís arrival and almost instant rapport with me fulfilled a need that was withering for lack of nourishment. He made me speak in Urdu for hours on end without falling back on a single English word. We chose our topics and the conversation began after that on a highly animated note. Initially, I stuttered and stumbled and felt as if I was drowning in a river with treacherous currents. My teacherís patience was illimitable. He waited for me to find the right word to express myself adequately. How marvellously he bolstered my confidence, presenting me with exciting new words and phrases to add to my vocabulary.

Rahi sahab was an incurable romantic and nothing pleased him more than to talk about love and its various manifestations. His histrionic ability came to the fore when he demonstrated the movements of women in different moods. He was superb when he showed a woman approaching her lover in a state of intoxication or a young woman afflicted by the pangs of unrequited passion. A girl wearing anklets and adorning herself for her tryst with her lover was acted out with the right touches. It could have been Kelucharan Mahapatra displaying the various bhavas through his immaculate abhinay.

It is this vivacity on Rahi sahabís part that made him such an admirable teacher. There was not a single drab moment with him as his sparkling eyes, chuckles and body language contributed to a sumptuous fare. All this was accomplished with suitable quotations and a procession of ornate words that shone like diamonds.

Rahi sahab was in some ways a Sufi by nature for whom a dogmatic approach and rigid orthodoxy were almost criminal offences. He often emphasised that Godís majesty could be savoured in the changing colours of the sky and heady aromas of flowers blooming at night. The resurgence of fundamentalism in both camps is a constant source of irritation to him and he gropes for solutions in his own way.

His popularity amongst his students has remained undimmed over the years. He teaches Urdu at Bapu Intermediate College in UP and I gathered from him when we met last time that students often came to his house in droves. His homespun philosophy, with simplicity as its hallmark, helped him sail through life even when circumstances were adverse.

Rahi was drawn to me by the fact that as a Bengali I was desperately keen to speak Urdu fluently and I had kept my love for Urdu alive for years and years. Urdu poetry acquired a momentum on Rahiís lips and the sounds and scents of another world entranced me by their novelty. Iím reminded of the under-noted lines which had reverberations of their own when Rahi sahab used to recite them for my delectation.

ďDonon jahan teri mohabbat mein haar ke

Woh ja raha hai koi shab-e-gham guzaar ke

Veeraan hai maikada khum-o-sagar udaas hain

Tum kya gaye ke rooth gaye din bahaar ke.

(Having lost both the worlds in your love

There goes a lonely man spending a night of grief.

The tavern lies deserted, the cups have been abandoned

With your departure spring has turned away)Ē

I couldnít have come across a more scintillating and pain-staking Urdu teacher who introduced me to the beauty of a language that could enlarge the heart and kindle my imagination. Steeped in old-world courtesies and quivering with emotion, Rahi sahabís entry into my life was an unqualified blessing.

Amongst my fatherís brothers, my youngest uncle, Dr Bhupendra Nath Mukherjee, better known as Gama, was somehow more interesting than the run-of-the-mill, conventional types we normally come across. Quick-witted, eloquent and intellectually agile, Gamakaka could never be labelled or slotted and confined to a narrow space. He went to London for higher studies before World War II but got trapped by the long duration of the conflict. He stayed in the studentsí hostel at 112, Gower Street while London was being ravaged by German bombs.

I remember meeting him in London in 1948 when he looked terribly English with his cloth cap and curved pipe. He had a large circle of friends amongst the British intellectuals and one often hears the names of Richard Crossman, G.D.H. Cole and Dennis Stoll (whose father Sir Oswald Stoll founded a famous theatre in London). Dennis came out to Calcutta to stay with Gamakaka and went about in proper Indian garb as if he was used to it. My uncle knew Krishna Menon extremely well and I can imagine their animated conversation whenever they met.

My uncle had an aptitude for music from an early age and he tried his hand at various instruments. He played the sarod and tabla with expertise and went over to the esraj and flute later on. After returning home from England in the mid-40s, he gave learned discourses on the radio on Indian classical music. These talks were extremely popular. When the dancer Ramgopal went to London after the War, Gamakaka accompanied him as his impresario. The world of music kept him pleasantly occupied.

He took a lunge at law while he was in England and became a barrister. He practised in Calcutta High Court for a while but joined Calcutta Law College as its vice-principal sometime later.

Just before this, he had a short stint at the Calcutta Corporation as its chief law officer. He was appalled by the messiness of this organisation that was nothing short of a den of iniquity. He felt totally defeated by a deadly combination of inertia and malpractice. Has anything changed in all these years'

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