Saturday, September 10, 2011

Professor Altaf Hussain: Gravitas and Humour Unplugged

             I cannot put any plausible reason why, but as it panned out, I was not to see him again after my wedding reception. Quite often he has filled my mind, all these years since that muggy evening we met last, when he had blessed us, the newly-weds, and wished us luck in our life’s path. He lived a good twenty-odd years thereafter and, although I remembered him often in far-off places wherever I was posted – Siliguri, Meerut, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore – and retailed his brand of inimitable humour to many of my friends, sadly I never could make time to visit him in his home. It shall always remain a lasting regret for me.

        Professor Altaf Hussain was the head of the department of History at Ravenshaw College when we joined the B.A History honours course in 1972. Of the six history papers prescribed for us, Altaf Babu taught two: medieval Indian history, and European history from 1789 to 1919. 
For us, youngsters, in the 1970s, Ravenshaw was the college we longed to be in. It was a college of more than a hundred years old, and the grand red structure that sat squat in the heart of Cuttack was the go-to place for higher education. It was a symbol of pride to be a Ravenshavian; fronted by tennis courts and the massive multi-purpose field on the rear, and trimmed by the newest hostels springing up off the field’s semi-circular perimeter, it was a campus that, in the small world of our minds, epitomized the grandeur of the past and the surefire passport to future success. 
Apart from the impressive campus there was the freedom and independence we so fervently longed. There was no compulsion to be in the college – from morning till evening – as in school. Even if we stayed in college there was no compulsion to attend all the classes. We could choose attending lectures! 
Some lectures were of no consequence, though they provided ample entertainment. Some others though were invaluable. Professor Altaf Hussain, with his erudition, wit and quiet shy smile, stood on the other end of the spectrum. He veritably held us in thrall.
I must admit that the first few lectures on European History explaining the run up to the French Revolution of 1789 were very confounding. A string of thoughts that went into the making of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity tracing its root to distinguished political thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were not only tantalizing but were rather intimidating for my small mind. Nor were the recommended books authored by Kettleby, Hazen and Riker, easy reads. The text containing the ideas appeared dense and the language not the kind one was used to yet.
After a few lectures when the dialectics of revolutionary ideas appeared well beyond me, I approached Altaf Babu. I bared my heart out and told him the difficulties I was confronting. He heard me out in his quiet way. “For a start, you’ll find it difficult to wade through the books,” he said, “but over time you’ll surely find them easy to understand. And after a few months you’ll be able to write as good as these authors.”
His words were music to my ears but his homily appeared a chimera. The disquiet stayed and refused to leave me. Not only when I took his leave but also when I tried to turn the dense pages of the fat history books. I thought I’ll never get over the bump.
But slowly I could grasp the import of his lectures and from the welter of ideas and events, I could discern a pattern. Professor Hussain never used any notes or even a slip of paper to serve as aide memoire. Words and events gushed out of his mouth in torrents as though he was reading out from a prepared script – trying to dissect historical ideas for our innocent minds. His command over the English language was exemplary as was his delivery of punch lines. We fell head over heels for his lectures. They turned out to be moments of epiphany for us.
A gold medalist from the Aligarh Muslim University, who had passed up his chances to pursue doctorate courses at London and Cambridge Universities where he had earned placements due to personal reasons, Altaf Babu was a fabulous teacher of medieval Indian and European History. His lectures were full of historical details not easily found in textbooks and almost always laced with humour. He was our professor non pareil.
Many incidents of his wit engulf my mind today but I’ll narrate one that is indelibly etched in my memory. A friend had fumbled through his speech during a debate competition where Altaf Babu was a judge and had wound down in three minutes instead of the assigned five. Next morning, first up in the class, he tickled our funny bones looking at our friend piercingly, and poker-faced, telling him: “Ashwin, you spoke well… real well. But you finished far too early. Why didn’t you speak the entire length.” He hemmed and hawed, looking distractedly at no one in particular, and then with a wisp of a smile gracing his face, said with a simper. “Must say, you’ve all the sonorous and dolorous voice of your father… (and after a long pause, fighting hard to smother the simper threatening to blow out of control and engulf his own face) and all the nervousness of your mother!” We were in splits.
His reputation as a humorist went beyond the bounds of the college; he still is remembered for having conferred the moniker on our Principal. It was ridiculously simple: the first syllables of his first, middle and last names (as spelt in Oriya) were hoicked and juxtaposed to form an acronym in a delicious and explosive mix! No, I will not give out the moniker here. But old-timers will know! Let me tell you, though, everyone without fail used this moniker every time they referred to the Principal – and which was often.
We never missed his lectures. Never. Apart from the nuggets of historical wisdom his lectures conveyed, we didn’t wish to miss out on his witticisms. It was like “There’s no replay!” if we missed one or, at times, many. Some times there were wisecracks inside wisecracks. I can vividly recall when he once walked into the class and gently berated us, students. “You know,” he began, his mischievous smile never too far out from his mobile face, “the Principal called me over to his room and told me ‘Altaf Babu, you’ve made me a laughing stock in the college. Everywhere I go to, someone or the other seems to be calling me out from a distance with the moniker you’ve given me. What’s this Ma….?’ as he gracefully mimicked the Principal’s stutter and stammer. I told the Principal that ‘your name is too long and doesn’t come easy on the tongue. I merely abbreviated it for everyone’s convenience’. Let me tell you he wasn’t happy with my explanation.” Then he continued with his advice, simulating a gravitas that attended his face when in full flight of a lecture, “Don’t use it aloud and very often. If you wish to, use it once a while and quietly, among yourself! So that the Principal is not offended.”
After a moment’s deafening pause and silence, the entire class erupted into peals of belly laughter. Altaf Babu too joined in the fun, now a beatific smile gracing his face.
When I returned to Ravenshaw in July 1978, this time as a lecturer after a short teaching stint at the PG Department of History of Utkal University during 1977-78, I was in cloud nine. Altaf Babu was still heading the department of History and for a Ravenshavian, nothing could be more soul-satisfying than returning to his alma mater – this time to teach. The students were full of vim, brilliant and inquisitive; and for a young lecturer it was blessed heaven. Despite the passage of more than three decades when one has bounced around the country working in different climes, I still covet the short stint of a year and a half that I spent in my college – teaching.
For me, teaching in Ravenshaw was a challenge. It wasn’t only because the best of students were here. Altaf Babu was amiable and unassuming, even undemanding. Yet, I knew his professional standards were exacting and he would brook no compromise. More important was the fact that his second daughter, Jaweda, was a History Honours student and it was natural that my performance or the lack of it would be an instant feed for Altaf Babu on their dinner table. I agonized that my joining Ravenshaw wasn’t such a bright idea.
I quailed inside though I put up a brave front every time I trudged into a classroom for a lecture – more, if was Jaweda’s. Every time, following a Jaweda class when I met Altaf Babu first up the next morning, my heart beat faster than ever – waiting for his response. If his looks were benign and his face showed no overt signs of tics and grimaces, I knew I had done my last job well. But soon I realized I needn’t have bothered. As it turned out, as days went over, he grew fonder of me by the day. I knew I had lived up to his expectation. In my career of over three decades in bureaucracy, they remain the years of my instant feedback and gratification of my performance. Thinking back, it amuses me no end.
It was during my teaching stint in Ravenshaw that I got to know Professor Altaf Hussain intimately. We had a small room on the perimeter atop the auditorium where we sat and discussed. It was Altaf Babu who invariably held centrestage with his unremitting fount of knowledge on history and contemporary politics. He was fond of “mixture”. Many a time all of us would walk over to the Gujarati namkeen shop and carry the “mixture” back and partake the same in our department room. Often he held forth in the Staff Common Room as it was then called, where faculty from all disciplines often wished him to expatiate his ideas on goings-on of the world. He never failed to impress them with his erudition and critical analysis of events happening around us.
After I left the college to join the civil service, every time I went home to Cuttack, visiting Altaf Babu was a kind of pilgrimage for me. I would chat with him late into the evening and partake the delicious biryani which he himself would have fondly prepared. I was then freelancing copiously for The Statesman and he would be always forthcoming with his words of encouragement. He invited me for a lecture in his department every time I went home. The last occasion I was there, it was in December 1982, to speak to the post-graduate and graduate honours students. A month before, I had written a fairly long piece titled The Changing Face of Clio in The Statesman Literary Supplement, and Altaf Hussain, then the Professor and Head of PG Department of History, invited me to speak on this subject of Indian historiography. It was a pleasant experience to meet up with my former colleagues and many of my ex-students and travel back in time and exchange ideas with them. Jaweda was there too, but, mercifully now, I was outside her scanner and radar!
       I haven’t gone back to the college after that. Notwithstanding this long absence, as I write this piece I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. How times have gone over! Days have merged into weeks and months, years have merged with decades, and my memory casts back to well over three decades. I say this, my voice tinged with a quiet longing. Life is full of little ironies and tiny hubbubs to provide wings to introspect. Alas, the youthful college days have well rushed past, the world has grown older, and Altaf Babu is no more with us. When Jaweda called up one late evening about a month back, as I sat dozily in front of the television screen, requesting me to do a piece on her father and my favourite professor, my mind punched up fond memories of a time and of a person I deeply value and adore. 


  1. Excellent read by all reckoning. It is not a mere nostalgia on the part of the author but a reminder to an era that was packed with man making values. The author surely does not stand alone there while paying obeisance to Prof. Altaf Hussein. All those who had a taste of this wonderful person hold him dear to heart. Youthfulness ruled his persona from head to toe as Prof Hussein carried everyone with his characteristic mix of academics and fun. Only a mind capable of simplicity can revisit those days with such graphic details. I place loads of respect to the author for holding on to the bliss of a relationship that was a fusion of personal intimacy and value sharing.

  2. Excellent piece on a legendary person of my college days at Ravenshaw! As I read it, Prof. Hussain's humorous and witty classes brought back my memories of 1977 alive.
    Regards, M A Alam now working in Jeddah,KSA at a senior level in a bank. Email :