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. The Thumb Print has put together this special section of reminiscences and tributes in his honour.
Noorul: Allahabad, Delhi and Firaq
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”
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.
Good-bye to Noorul Hasan
It’s impossible for me to think of North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong without Noorul Hasan in it. He was an admirable fixture there from its inception in the 1970s till he retired in 2004, and his passing has now made the connection and fixture permanent in my mind.
I worked closely with Noorul in the English department for six years, from the time he returned to NEHU with a PhD from University of Manchester, England, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar, till I left for the United States in 1984, to do my doctoral studies. Noorul was my closest and most trusted colleague in NEHU. So even all these years later, living continents apart except for the couple of memorable visits with him and his lovely and generous wife Meena and the children in Shillong, and regrettably not regularly in touch with each other, when he recently passed away, Noorul left as one of my dearest and most trusted friends.
So I miss him, greatly, especially now as I think back on those years. No need to recount the memories here, except to say I learned so much from him in Shillong. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor and colleague as I started out, totally green, in the literary profession in NEHU. But he was a mentor also in much else, like finding a principled place in life’s fuzzy situations in general. But in the early 1980s there was nothing general or easy about the moral demands the events in NEHU made on its faculty, students, and the community. And these were the times I saw Noorul’s clarity of understanding, up close, and toughness of mind and moral conviction, all come together into play, and shine. But in normal times, too, if you were a student or a friend, but especially his family whom I came to know and appreciate greatly, you came under the beneficent influence of his intense intellect and compassionate nature.
“Beneficent influence” was a favorite phrase of Noorul’s to describe the writers he most admired, and all who knew him well understood why. Noorul lived passionately and loved deeply, much of it hidden under a cool exterior that easily gave way to a genial smile; he thought grippingly and could talk like a book when the occasion and the company were right. But in the end it all came down to two things for Noorul: integrity and compassion. He pursued literature with passion and honesty, and was deeply committed to the values the profession of literature taught, which he believed were best manifested in the love, authenticity, and loyalty among family and friends across the human-made barriers and borders of every kind. He believed in and lived for the better part of humanity.
Looking back, I see that Noorul came into my life, Rose’s and our young family’s life, as a gift at a critical time, and we are grateful to him and to his family. I know we lose something irrevocable when a friend and compassionate intellectual like Noorul leaves. But he leaves behind a family any man would be proud of. The loss is permanent, that’s the physical reality, but, fortunately, permanent also are the joyful memories we treasure, until we ourselves become part of the joy and the loss for the dear ones and friends we leave behind – if we’re lucky, like Noorul was.
Thank you, Noorul! Good-bye, my friend!
Paul Pimomo is Professor of English at Central Washington University, USA.
Far From The Madding Crowd
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.
Great Love in His Heart
My wife Frances and I have been grieving lately at the news of the death of a dear old friend in Shillong. Noorul Hasan was appointed Lecturer in English at St. John’s, Agra, shortly after I left there to go to Oxford, and when I returned in 1964 on a holiday and visited Agra was told about him, whom people praised as being bright. So I went to meet him and found him prostrate in bed with typhoid, but holding a book of Thomas Hardy’s poems in his hand.
We talked for a bit and struck up a kind of friendship which fructified when I joined St. Stephen’s College in Delhi the following year and he Kirori Mal College. As a bachelor he lived in Jubilee Hall, and we met frequently, went walking on the Ridge, and talked incessantly and passionately about books and literature. I was very fond of him and admired his piercing intellect, his polished diction, and the clarity and depth of his thinking as well as his commitment to the discipline of English. He had a sense of humor too, and was full of a joie de vivre and enthusiasm for life. A year later he moved to the International Students’ Hostel. One day when I went to see him I was astonished that he wasn’t there and no one knew his whereabouts. This situation continued for several days, and then rumours started circulating that he had left town. I went off to Yale in 1968 without ever finding out where he had gone or what had happened to him.
Well, to cut a long story short, in 1974, when we decided to move to Shillong, I was given to understand that two people had already been appointed to the new English department there. One was my former student Prabhu Guptara, but senior to him was none other than Noorul! So I was curious to meet him when we got to Shillong, and when we met our old friendship and my affection and respect for him were immediately revived. His wife Meena and he had three children (twins were to be born to them later), and they were living happily together. Many were the meals we had at their house and they came over to see us often too. We became fond of the children, and they would play about happily in our house. Noorul wanted to go abroad to do a PhD, and he and I co-authored a letter of reference for him which I then signed as part of his application for a Commonwealth scholarship.
The year after we got to Shillong Noorul and family proceeded to Manchester, where he wrote a brilliant PhD on Thomas Hardy, his old love, and his children acquired strong Manchester accents. I still remember the first sentence of his dissertation which was subsequently published as a book: “The English countryside has always been in a state of retreat.” (I’ve always thought of this sentence as one of the more memorable openings of scholarly books). In the meanwhile Noorul’s father and aunt were in Shillong, and Frances and I would go there frequently to check on them, and they always served us delicious meals. I remember those visits to the old man and his sister very fondly still, as does Frances, and we talk about various small little things that transpired during those visits.
Noorul and family returned from Britain in 1978 just before Frances and I returned to Delhi; I went to meet them at the Gauhati airport when they arrived. So we were not able to spend much time together, He came once to Delhi for an interview for a Reader’s position (which he got), and in 1990, when Frances and I went back to India from New York for a couple of months, we visited and stayed with Noorul and his family for a very happy and pleasant week. That was the last time I saw him, though we would exchange emails from time to very infrequent time, and he very kindly sent me a copy of his translation of Firaq’s poems, with a foreword by Harish Trivedi, published by the Sahitya Akademi. He also translated the actress Meena Kumari’s poetry.
I received the news of Noorul’s death with great sadness. He was one of my oldest and dearest friends, one for whom I cared deeply and admired greatly. He was wise, compassionate, sensitive, intelligent, a shrewd observer of men, and above all he had great love in his heart, for his family, his friends, and for the profession he had chosen to follow, which was more a calling for him than a profession. He was an inspiration to his students and colleagues in the genuine love he bore for his subject. I will miss him greatly and grieve for a long time.
Brijraj Singh is the author of several books and has taught English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, North-Eastern Hill University, Delhi University, and Hostos Community College of the City University of New York.
I have a few memories and reminiscences of Noorul from the short time that Brij and I knew him in Shillong, which are deeply impressed in my mind.
When we came to Shillong in the year 1974, we used to go over to the house near the Fire Brigade. Noorul’s father and aunt hovered in the background but Noorul’s deep respect for them was palpable. As they must have been a link to a childhood which he never talked about, I came to think of Noorul as a loved and loving son, but also as a secretive, guarded and guarding man.
In the living room of the Fire Brigade house, we used to play Scrabble to pass the time, and Noorul played the way a sniper shoots: accurately, precisely, and with intent to kill. Noorul was a wordsmith but when engaged in a game of Scrabble, he used those little words which could be counted vertically and horizontally and so he always won.
Many years later, we visited Noorul and family again. By then they were living in one of the very big houses NEHU provided for its professors. The children – there were now five of them – kept out of sight. Noorul was very much the same, very respectful to his father, in his presence he never, ever smoked, and very much the wordsmith. I remember him tossing off breathtaking phrases. I imagine he had polished them over and over in his head before uttering them, but they sounded fresh and natural.
We did not stay in touch, but had the pleasure of getting to know Bulbul and meet Adil and Anjum, in New York. Noorul’s spirit lives on in his children.
Frances Singh has taught English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, North-Eastern Hill University, Delhi University, and, since 1983, at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York.
“Sweetness and Light”
One of my enduring, and most endearing, memories of Dr Hasan comes from a farewell gathering that he hosted with two other faculty members for my graduating MA class in the summer of 1983. Dr Hasan addressed the class in an informal setting. In retrospect, his words had the quality of a commencement speech. He spoke with much feeling of the “sweetness and light” that this group of students had brought to the department of English at NEHU. To me it brought at once an astonished and humbling realisation of the depth from which he addressed us, his beloved students. I still carry an imaginal sense of his demeanor as he spoke to us.
The moment held gravitas, and a “profound tenderness and concern”. This phrase that Dr Hasan has used to shed light on one of Thomas Hardy’s protagonists is an apt reflection of his own approach to teaching, and to us, his students. That quality would surface again and again in many ways, in many conversations, and in the early letters of recommendation that he unhesitatingly offered.
This ability of our teacher to reflect to us that which we could not at the time have seen in ourselves has been, for me, a talisman. I take out that talisman from time to time to check that its truth has stayed untarnished. I have, in my turn, given it to those in whom I have seen that quality of sweetness and light. And it remains by my side, undiminished.
“The gift of the English language.” This was a remark Dr Hasan had made in conversation about the often uncertain place of the English language in the shadow of colonial history. For me – as for many of my generation who navigated daily life with our respective mother tongue at home, and with English in the outer world – this not-mother tongue had a wobbly public-private quality. The mother tongue has an elemental intimacy. This other tongue that helps navigate my own place across borders, inner and outer, and embraces its own centrality in being, has had to be stewarded into legitimacy. I hold in grateful safekeeping the idea of language as gift.
In making my birth city his home, Dr Hasan unwittingly offered me what I can only call a memory of returning. When I left in the mid-80s, I had only ever lived at one “permanent address”, an uncomplicated, unexamined term in my vocabulary at the time. I was something of an unreconstructed native. The sense of home has since undergone many incarnations. After my childhood home disappeared, a much loved city slipped into the necessary mythology that is safeguarded by memory. Visits to the Hasan home at the permanent campus of the university during my infrequent trips back were a slender yet sturdy thread of unspoken homecoming.
My memory of Dr Hasan is inextricably interwoven with my memory of his great-hearted wife, whose laughter is leaven. And that of his little children when I would meet with Dr Hasan for consultation on my MPhil dissertation at their home near the Fire Brigade well before they moved to the permanent campus. Today those once little children are global souls whose embrace of the world seems as surefooted as Dr Hasan’s choice of city to call home.
Many who have breathed this air may recollect a magical epoch of a city whose embrace was wide, its spirit heterogeneous and unafraid. I am delighted that my beloved teacher’s life and work have been an integral part of that time.
Tazma Ahmed-Datta is a psychotherapist living in Portland, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, where the craggy hills and waterfalls, and its people, are a daily reminder of the land of her birth. Shillong remains, indubitably, her bedrock.
A Tribute to My Mentor
The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord! O, wither’d is the garland of the war, The soldier’s pole is fallen: young boys and girls Are level now with men; the odds is gone, And there is nothing left Remarkable Beneath the visiting moon. Antony and Cleopatra
Memories cloud my mind as I reminisce and travel back in time to the days when I first met a person who like a Hardyan character towered over everyone else in intelligence, personality and a rare, curiously appealing combination of arrogance and humility. The setting for our first meeting was aesthetically appropriate – the beautiful Mayurbhanj Palace (the location of the department of English, NEHU then) steeped in history and elegance. He strode into the classroom with barely a smile and was transformed into Bronte’s Heathcliff: dark, foreboding, cutting a romantic figure in the hearts of students whose imagination was nurtured by the Victorian novels. When he opened his mouth, we were magically transported into this wonderful world of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, a world so poignantly beautiful and heartbreaking, where we were introduced to a woman more sinned against than sinning (one of Prof Hasan’s favourite quotes). He planted, in that moment, a seed that germinated and blossomed in my heart into a fascination and love for the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy, culminating in my PhD thesis on Hardy’s shorter fiction.
Is it vanity to laud and shower accolades on a teacher, a mentor, a human being par excellence only when he is gone? Is it meaningless and empty to regret the last few years when I should have visited him, but did not? Is it too late to say “Thank you for being a great influence in my life!”? Notwithstanding the emotions running riot within me, I need to do this – the nuggets of gold he gifted me as my mentor are priceless, he was instrumental in guiding me into the teaching profession by arranging for my first experience as a teacher, with the Union Christian College in Barapani, he procured a British Council scholarship for me to complete my PhD at Oxford University which I had to sadly decline, he gently but persistently encouraged me to complete my PhD and gave me the title for my thesis, he even suggested firmly that I work under Professor Moon Moon Mazumdar. Always impeccably accurate, faultlessly wise and heart-warmingly correct, his advice never failed me. We shared a mentor-student bond that few can emulate and fewer still can boast of. The cold exterior, the barriers I saw in first meeting him, once torn down, revealed a heart of gold, a scholar unparalleled, a soul so sensitive that it has been an honour and a privilege to have known him well.
Misunderstood and misjudged by the lesser many, he never retaliated and like Hardy’s Michael Henchard took the blows without flinching, hurting within but never unkind, he found solace and comfort surrounded by his family and the books that he loved. Stoic, strong, a passionate Hardy scholar, a translator, a wonderful father, a great teacher, an unforgettable mentor and a genuine human being, these are the images etched into my memories of Professor Noorul Hasan. Cherished and never forgotten!
Whence comes solace? Not from seeing, What is doing, suffering, being; Not from noting Life’s conditions, Not from heeding Time’s monitions; But in cleaving to the Dream And in gazing at the Gleam Whereby gray things golden seem. ‘On a Fine Morning’ Thomas Hardy
Clarissa Sawian is Associate Professor of English at Lady Keane College, Shillong.
“Birth Heaped on Birth; Grave on Grave”
If death be a passage, Noorul Hasan is not to be found there. And if the grave is a home, he isn’t there either. He has gone to stay, and stay on, in an eerie zone between birth and death. As Yeats said: “Birth-hour and death-hour meet,/Or, as the great sages say,/Men dance on deathless feet”. Noorul Hasan swirls now on deathless feet but gently and humbly as he did in a life overshadowed by illusive images.
In this melee of images, Noorul Hasan looked for the ones that could afford him a moment of resolution. He was shy but intimate, unassuming but confident. A modern mariner, a silent subject, he looked uncertain at times, at times quite sure of his predilections. Was he anguished, even betrayed, I do not really know. I presume he was looking for a dot on a canvas that could be his own.
If I call Noorul Hasan a friend, I would only enrich myself. I had met him only four times – twice in Delhi, once in Kolkata, and once in Shillong. After each meeting, he left me craving for yet another meeting. We spoke sporadically, even disjointedly, of Thomas Hardy and Firaq Gorakhpuri, Manchester and Meena Kumari, Allahabad and Noorul Hasan, Shillong and Anjum, Daisy and Swansea. This was his personal cosmos where he had assigned a comfortable space to each one. He allowed me to enter this space where Hardy was a passion, Manchester a memory, Meena a love, Firaq an ally, Allahabad a condition, Shillong a state of being, Daisy and Anjum – two lovely daughters – all hope and all faith. He also spoke of his wife and his son with equal warmth and brought me to realise what his family meant to him.
Noorul Hasan took me on a tour of his treasures during our long and short chats. Growing nostalgic, he showed me the carefully preserved drafts of his PhD chapters on Hardy when I visited Shillong for a meeting at his department in NEHU. As we moved from page to page at his cosy university residence, he told me of the precious advice he’d got from his mentor on his writing and how that helped him grow as a scholar.
He also lovingly shared with me how Daisy and Anjum were striving to make their places as poets and writers. He trusted them with their merit and was sure they would succeed. They did indeed and he saw them arriving.
He smilingly told me once how he’d found a copy of Meena Kumari’s poems at AH Wheeler book stall at Howrah railway station. He had not believed then, he said, that he would ever translate her poems but actually did when he realised that she was a fascinating study of suffering and her poetry a moving representation of her anguish. When the book appeared from Roli in 2014, I organised a launch in our university – Jamia Millia Islamia – which Daisy attended. I wished he could have joined us but when I spoke to him I found he would not be able to travel.
On a different occasion, he spoke enthusiastically about Firaq. He thought that Firaq was a true representative of the Indian ethos in Urdu poetry, and was thus inspired to translate him into English. He asserted with great confidence that Firaq enriched Urdu poetry in a very different way from those before and after him. Sahitya Akademi chose to publish a volume of his translations in 2008 which brought Firaq to the English readers for the first time and helped them appreciate his worth as a poet of unusual merit.
He also shared with pleasure how Hardy was still his hangover. I could very well appreciate what he meant. I told him that anyone reading Hardy would necessarily read his The Sociological Imagination. Being so frequently issued from our library, it had literally become old but carried the best of the new knowledge on that novelist. Considering his passion for Hardy, I invited him as a Visiting Fellow at our Department of English to deliver a series of talks on him. He happily accepted the invitation and delivered some of the finest talks on this novelist to the great appreciation of students and faculty.
During one of our meetings, he dreamily looked at me and talked of a possible home – a little dot on a large canvas. He said he belonged to Shillong, a place he showed me lovingly from the highest point of the city. It had been raining for two days and the sun had disappeared but it revealed its gentle face just a little before setting. The city below twinkled as if lit with fireflies. He said this city on the hill would be his abode.
Three are many people you meet many times but you don’t remember them. But there are some others whom you don’t meet many times but you remember them more often than others. You even miss them sometimes and wish you could see them more often. Such a wish cannot be fulfilled now for Noorul Hasan has drawn the curtain; he would not take my long distance calls anymore.
Noorul Hasan lived between extremities of many kinds and found his way through them. He ran his course fully well. Once again, I would go to Yeats who wrote in ‘Vacillation’:
Between extremities Man runs his course; A brand, or flaming breath. Comes to destroy All those antinomies Of day and night; The body calls it death, The heart remorse. But if these be right what is joy?
Noorul Hasan has found his joy but in a different wood.
Anisur Rahman, formerly a professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, is currently Senior Advisor at Rekhta Foundation.
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.
Literature as a Way of Life
One of the people who taught Noorul Hasan at Allahabad University in the 1960s was the great Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri. Writing about Firaq shortly after his death in 1982, Noorul noted that his academic identity was a curiously hybrid one. In spite of his dazzling gifts as a literary critic, he eschewed the “academic mode” and encouraged his students to “look upon literature as a way of life, perhaps the way of life”. At bottom, Firaq believed that the purpose of literature is to breathe aesthetic passion into the individual sensibility. The successful reader is the one who allows a great novel or poem to irradiate his entire sense of self, elevating his emotions and sharpening his understanding at one and the same time. If academic study is a vital part of the literary enterprise – and Firaq never doubted for a moment that it is – it must never degenerate into an aridly cerebral affair. The literary scholar’s most important responsibility is to induct his students into the ways of the aesthete.
Like teacher, like pupil. Noorul Hasan’s insightful remarks about Firaq could equally be applied to himself. Noorul’s academic career unfolded at a time when the study of literature was undergoing what some historians have euphemistically termed “professionalization”. Under the influence of abstruse critical methods like structuralism, deconstruction and new historicism, many literary scholars turned their backs on the general reader and wrote only for fellow specialists. As important and insightful as their readings frequently were, they often smothered literature’s aesthetic power beneath layers of jargon and interpretative complexity. Noorul Hasan was deeply uneasy with these developments. Although his own critical gifts were every bit as subtle as those of his more modish contemporaries, he never forgot that his ultimate goal was to nurture the soul as well as to burnish the intellect. This marked him out as something of a dissident in the modern university. His scholarly writings differed from the norm in combining critical acuity, accessibility and deep aesthetic engagement.
Indeed, his distinctiveness as a scholar even expressed itself in his appearance. I recently saw a highly evocative photo of the members of the NEHU English Department in the early 1980s. It is noticeable that Noorul stands slightly apart from his colleagues, his hands plunged nonchalantly into his pockets. With his slender frame, his abstracted expression and his lengthy fringe falling across his forehead, he is clearly a man for whom the distinction between art and everyday life has broken down. Here is a Paterian (or Firaqian) dandy at the heart of the Indian academy.
Noorul’s sceptical attitude towards the academy shaped his literary interests in a number of ways. It is surely no accident that the two novelists whose work he loved most deeply were Thomas Hardy and EM Forster – the former a self-taught outsider with a jaundiced view of universities, the latter a sensitive Bloomsbury aesthete. More broadly, his respect for outsiders prompted his pioneering interest in the non-canonical byways of literary culture. Noorul knew on his pulses that neglected or marginal writers can often move the reader just as deeply as their more celebrated counterparts. His respect for the non-canonical was most obviously on display in his superb translations of the poetry of Meena Kumari, most of which were brought together in his book Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema in 2014. While Noorul was the first to acknowledge that Meena’s poetry was no match for that of a Firaq or a Ghalib, he firmly believed that its distinctive blend of childlike vulnerability and brooding bitterness had a resonance all of its own. As such, he laboured hard over many years to ensure that his translations captured the precise spirit of the Urdu originals. A lesser translator might have been tempted to disguise the disarming naiveté of Meena’s poems, imbuing them with an intellectual toughness they never actually possessed. By contrast, Noorul stood firm by Meena’s poetic intentions and produced a series of verses whose crystalline beauty will never be bettered.
Noorul’s death has come as a bitter blow to everyone who knew and admired him. I was 5000 miles away in Britain when his daughter Daisy rang to tell me the news. Two days later, when Noorul’s funeral was due to begin in Shillong, I sat at my desk in South Wales and said a prayer of thanks for his life. Then I re-read some of my favourite translations from the Meena Kumari book. Noorul’s voice rang out so clearly that it almost had the character of an auditory hallucination. Suddenly everything came back to me: his deep culture, his enormous linguistic flair, his finely honed intellectual gifts, his wry sense of humour, his scholarly passion, his incorruptible independence of mind, his pungent opinions about politics and history, his endearing eccentricities, his unbounded love for his immensely talented family and his relish for everyday life. Noorul Hasan was one of those rare men who embody the virtues of democratic culture in their most heightened form. As I wrote later that day in an e-mail to Daisy, I believe that he is as much with us now as he ever was.
Philip Bounds is the author of Orwell and Marxism, British Communism and the Politics of Literature and Notes from the End of History. He and Daisy Hasan contributed a co-authored essay to Noorul Hasan’s Meena Kumari The Poet.
“Noorul has lived, not died”
Noorul Hasan was one of my closest friends and certainly someone I loved and admired most, although I am sure there may be many more who would proclaim that. In fact, who wouldn’t? He was, indeed, an incredibly amiable and lovable person and hence loved by everyone also because he knew how to return your love in full measure. His gentle and sincere disposition endeared him to one and all. He was an embodiment of true love and loyalty, virtues which may appear rather quaint and outmoded now but to many like me they are not abstract qualities but concrete and tangible realities in this world which is otherwise a mere mirage. I am absolutely sure that he believed in (I certainly do) the extraordinary power of love that conquers all – “omnia vincit amor”.
In most of my epistles (or rather emails) I preferred addressing him, perhaps at times to his annoyance, as Noor rather than Noorul partly because of my linguistic whim which suggested that Noorul meant ‘light of something’ but mainly because he was to me light itself, independent, effulgent and ‘vivant’. Yes, he represented light which dispels all manner of darkness that obfuscates the mind. The light in him ignited his mind and lent him rare intellectual brilliance evidenced in his student as well as teaching career. He was a high-ranking student in his MA batch and a mesmerising teacher who impressed everyone with his profound erudition and eloquence. He was an outstanding research scholar at the University of Manchester and his thesis on Hardy is one of the best on the subject.
What we shared most between us was an incandescent passion for language and literature which was reflected in our academic pursuits and in our profession. Both of us took our Masters in English, though not in the same year, from the University of Allahabad and chose the profession of teaching English language and literature to which we devoted all our energies. He was an aesthete of a higher order who adored beauty whether in Nature, literature or in a creature of flesh and blood. I remember how passionately he loved and appreciated great literature, be it Hardy’s novels, Shakespeare’s plays, romantic poetry or, above all, Firaq’s poetry which he could recite endlessly and with élan. He had a great penchant for a subtle kind of wit and humour which made his conversations sparkling. I recollect enjoying together with him the scintillating wit of Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. He was a translator nonpareil: he translated the inimitable poetry of Firaq and Meena Kumari with such a creative brilliance that the original seems to pale in comparison.
He was an ideal host who always extended warmest hospitality to his guests. My wife and I visited him in Shillong this year and were simply overwhelmed by his effusive warmth and care equally shared by his extremely elegant and suave better half whose elaborate and meticulous effort to regale us with her ambrosial dishes left us simply speechless. As if this was not enough, they showered us with a plethora of valuable and memorable gifts when we were leaving. It’s hard, rather impossible, to find such hosts these days.
The news of Noorul’s sudden demise last month plunged us into profound grief and we are not yet able to get over it completely. But they say wallowing in grief for too long is not advisable. Therefore all the members of the bereaved family and friends have to seek solace in a wise counsel like the following:
Say not in grief, “He is no more” But live in thankfulness that he was.
They say that in Ancient Rome, it was considered disgraceful to say somebody ‘died’. There were other effective ways to say it. For example, they said ‘vixit’ which meant he or she ‘lived’. Therefore let us all say, “Noorul has lived, not died” because he has lived and will always live in our memory.
Krishna Dutta is former professor, Department of Modern European Languages, University of Delhi.
Take a Bow, Sir
FREDERICK ROY KHARKONGOR
My phone suddenly beeped and vibrated in my pocket. I was thousands of miles away from Shillong, sitting almost awestruck in the ‘war room’ of the Seoul Metropolitan Office in South Korea’s capital, with 3-D glasses on, not merely looking at the business presentation on advanced traffic management systems but experiencing it in minute detail. I surreptitiously glanced down at my phone to find Anjum Hasan’s terse message which read “Freddy, just wanted to share with you that my father passed away this morning.”
Despite the gripping immediacy of the present, my heart and mind were quickly overwhelmed by the news, as I thought back to the leafy groves of academia in the stately Mayurbhanj Campus where NEHU’s English Department Block was located, in a corner by itself. I was one amongst many young students seated in a class being addressed by the Head of the English Department, the distinguished and venerable Professor Noorul Hasan, a name widely known and respected, an academic giant and luminary whose classes always commanded a full attendance, even when bunking was more the norm than the exception.
I remember all too vividly each of his lectures crafted with precision, laced with erudition and a summation striking in its chiselled analysis, not a word too many, not a word too less, and in those forty-five minutes, each week, spread over four unforgettable semesters, across an equal number of seasons, we collectively absorbed and hung on to his every word. Under his consistent tutelage, the class transformed into an ignited crew of wayfarers, as it journeyed with him, navigating the layered realities of the ‘weltanschauung’ of various writers. Prof Hasan provoked us into seeing the macrocosm of the world, and concomitantly literature as a microcosm both multilayered and nuanced. He helped us cut loose and jump off the cliff of received and clichéd narratives and understanding.
He skilfully threaded the spectacular English classics with his own innovative take that left a lasting impact on his class. Perhaps his stint in the UK gave him the international perspective that enabled him to seamlessly meld various works, combined with his own native ingenuity gleaned from Allahabad University –and distil them for us in his classroom lectures, which in their authenticity, unfailingly proved to be a cut above the rest. He transcended English literature, possessing an enviable repertoire of Urdu poetry – his sensitive interpretation and translations of Meena Kumari’s lyrical works became widely acclaimed for their signal service in opening Meena Kumari’s ghazals and nazms to a wider audience. It’s no surprise that his daughter Daisy proudly shared in a Facebook post excerpts from a letter from Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan, in which he generously remarks that Prof Hasan’s translations do Meena Kumari’s poetic expressions justice. They are as near to the original as can possibly be and yet a new work in another language. Meena Kumari would have been happy with the result, he wrote.
Prof Hasan’s enduring legacy remains richly manifest in us his students and perhaps most tellingly in his accomplished children, each creative in their own respective spheres. I salute the extraordinary courage of a man who decided to share his gifts in the frontiers of India’s North East, at a time when perhaps many were reluctant to even contemplate venturing here. His ultimate choice to set up home in Shillong speaks volumes of the man and his life! What he has instilled in us students will forever remain and is perhaps the best tribute to Prof Hasan.
Take a bow, Sir. You taught and enriched a generation! We are truly grateful.
Frederick Roy Kharkongor is by profession an IAS officer, by disposition a lover of words, by inclination a traveller.