The first Indian History Congress Annual Session which I attended was held at the Kurukshetra University in 1982. I had just completed my post graduation the same year. And when informed of the impending trip, all of us were quite excited: who after all had not heard of Kurukshetra, the place where the epic Mahabharata was fought, and the place where Lord Krishna had given his sermon which exists today in the form of Sri Bhagwad Gītā! On top of it, I had never gone beyond Delhi, and was quite exited to visit Haryana, which had once been part of the historic Punjab!
The preparations for the Congress, the journey from Aligarh to the Kurukshetra and back, the three day session are still fresh in my mind.
After appearing for the last of my MA exam, I along with my class mate Reena Arya, had gone to meet our teacher Professor Irfan Habib in his chamber to enquire how to prepare for our Grand Viva which was scheduled three days later.
Irfan Sahib after probing us as to how our exams had gone by, pointed towards the corner of his chamber where on chairs were kept some bulky massive tomes. He asked us to pick up certain of them and wrote down for us two themes, one for me, another for my friend.
“These are your topics for the forthcoming session of the IHC which I want you both to attend.”
This is what we disbelievingly heard him speak. Since that day in June till mid of December that year we slogged to comprehend and write our respective papers. In between I had to read and take notes from umpteen European sources, travelogues and English records and myriads of Persian sources: thankfully all published, but unfortunately mostly non-translated. By 18th or 19th of December I had my first draft of the paper ready in hand which was then to be typeset on a manual typewriter.
The last week before the Congress was something which I would never forget: the whole department buzzing with activity from early morning till late nights: big halls and classrooms with five or six typewriters manned by typists, with students and researchers as well as teachers milling around. Tea would be served to all. Sometimes Irfan Sahib, sometimes Iqtidar Alam Khan or M Athar Ali Sahib and Shireen Moosvi would come and buy us mounds of peanuts. Hot steaming Qorma and Naan was fed to everyone. And this activity would continue almost the whole night and entire days. The papers after being typed would then be cyclostyled, yet again by an old hand operated machine which had to be worked through rotating a crank. Late Khursheed Bhai, the Department Attendant and the elder brother of Idrees Beg, who later was to succeed him in the Department, would man these machines. Then would follow the meticulous job of arranging the papers and making sets of volumes of these papers! And this work would be led by Idrees Bhai and Noor Muhammad. The ‘authors’ of respective papers would also chip in, in organising and then mixing the sets. It was only a few hours before our departure by a rickety bus that the volumes were bound and ready!
That fortnight of working together bided us all into a family, which was to last long! It gave us youngsters a chance to comprehend our teachers, and respect the clerks and attendants of the Department as part of our family: the Aligarh School!
And soon came the D-Day when we had to start our journey! The journey from Aligarh to Kurukshetra was also interesting and episodic!
We were supposed to start by an hired bus early in the morning. All assembled in the Department around 7:00 am in the misty freezing morning. But the bus was ultimately destined to depart from the Department only in the late night. What happened was that there was a Grid failure and the entire city was without power! In the absence electricity, the litho-Press of a certain Gupta ji in the city could not hand over the Proceedings of the Congress which we had to take along with us to Kurukshetra! The Press needed one hour of electricity to finalise the volume! Even Irfan Sahib’s Presidential Address on Peasants in History was also in the same press, and the electricity had decided to play truant!
The whole day this, we were in the Department sipping hot tea after hot tea! For lunch we all marched to the nearby residence of Professor M Athar Ali at Tār Bungalow! In his drawing room, Irfan Sahib and others waited, while we lounged in his lawns! It was misty and quite cold all day!
By evening when we finally boarded the bus and proceeded to the Litho Press in the city, it also started raining! And to our horror we found our rickety bus leaking from all sides!
It was a boring and freezing journey till somewhere near Delhi border where our bus was stopped by a posse of police men who demanded to be shown the list of passengers! Fortunately Irfan Sahib who was sitting in the front had it ready in his bag. A policeman took it from his hand and started calling out the respective names of the passengers. Each of us would register our presence by responding to our names. And then he would read the next name from the list:
“Irphan Haviv…Seerin Mooshvi, MDN Sahi, Afjal…” he kept on reading till he called for “Anar Kali!” There was a stunning silence with no one responding. “Anar Kali”!..he shouted again.
Irfan Sahib slowly got up from his seat, went to the policeman who was reading the name in the torchlight from the list… he pored through the list and then chuckled and declared
“Bhai Athar Sahib! Āp ko pukara ja raha hai…Anar Kali nahi, Athar Ali!”
The whole bus was now fully awake and chuckling. It was as if suddenly all our tiredness had disappeared! The one whom everyone had feared, and nicknamed ‘Hitler’ had now been named ‘Anarkali’!
From Delhi to Kurukshetra, the journey was full of mirth: Athar Sahib sitting, almost violet in anger, and Irfan Sahib making fun of him!
The whole route it rained and due to a leaky bus we reached straight to the inaugural venue almost dripping, with the President of the Session along with us. By the time we reached, the inaugural session had started and Irfan Sahib just managed to reach the podium to read his famous “Peasants in History” address. Professor Nurul Hasan Sahib was also attending this session and participating actively ….He presented his paper on the morphology of Delhi.
It was a session worth remembering. For me personally, this session was very important: I was going to present my first paper there: a paper on which I had been struggling since six months! The theme of my paper was on Muqarrab Khan, the physician, veterinary and subadar of many provinces who was a childhood friend of Jahangir.
One last thing: this trip cost me just just nothing in terms of money. My delegate fees and membership was given by either Irfan Sahib or by Shireen Mam. And the ₹50/- which I carried in my pocket remained unspent because one of my senior, Abha Didi, now Professor Abha Singh of Indira Gandhi National Open University decided that juniors are not supposed to pay. Although we ate much, and even went site-seeing – Shaikh Chilli Tomb, the Sarovar, the excavated sites etc, she footed all bills of her sister Reena and mine! And oh yes: I did after all ended up spending ₹5/- ! This was borrowed by another senior but first timer to IHC, Ishrat Bhai, who decades later was to become the Secretary of the Indian History Congress….🤓
This trip to Kurukshetra was not only a trip where we enjoyed Athar Sahib being nicknamed as Anarkali, but also because, while returning back, Irfan Sahib took us to Wazir Khan Tomb complex at Wazirabad in Delhi and the Akbari Bridge near Karnal. At both the places he introduced us to the Mughal bridges and barrages and explained to us how the water was regulated and what the main defect of the Mughal bridge technology was! At Wazirabad he also showed to us the screened off portion within the prayer chamber of the mosque, which he told us, was meant for the women!