ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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S M Yunus Jaffery (1930-2016), Historian and Teacher

Portrait of a Persian Scholar

A tribute to the late S M Yunus Jaffery, a Persian scholar steeped in the adab of a different age, whose translations of Persian manuscripts of the Mughal period enriched Iranian and Urdu literary culture.

I first met S M Yunus Jaffery in 2003. Awarded a scholarship to study Indo–Persian in preparation for my doctoral work, a friend suggested I seek out the renowned Persian scholar and historian, Yunus Jaffery. On a dusty afternoon in July therefore, I made my way to Ghaziuddin Khan’s madrasa, just outside Ajmeri Gate, the site of the 19th century Delhi College and the Anglo Arabic School. Directed by the security guard to a small room on the upper storey overlooking the 17th century courtyard, I nervously knocked at the wooden door and waited while the occupant shuffled over to open it. “Um … I’d like to learn Persian,” I stammered, made even more nervous by the sharp but inquisitive look on the face of the elderly gentleman standing at the door. Jaffery stared at me for a minute or two in silence, his face inscrutable. Then he disappeared inside his room, reappearing a minute or two later with a sheet of paper. We sat down at a small table in the external corridor, which overlooked the courtyard, and he wrote out the Persian alphabet. After a few minutes of drilling me through the aleph, be, pe, te he went back into his room and returned with a massive tome. “This is the Masnavi of Rumi,” he said. “Let us read it.” So, just like that, I, who 10 minutes earlier did not even know the Perso–Arabic script, began my study of Persian.

As a teacher, Jaffery was a mixture of strictness and indulgence. He had great and generous ambitions for his students, upheld, even when—as in my case—there was little evidence that such ambitions would ever be realised. He once told me that I should compile a multilingual dictionary of Persian, Tajik and Dari words, despite me still struggling to read a full sentence in Persian. The pace he set himself was relentless: he met me every morning that summer for three months, my two-hour lessons bookended by equally intense reading sessions with two senior academics, also studying Persian. When I returned to Delhi in 2005 for my fieldwork year, he ignored his own preference for Persian poetry and patiently coached me through a bizarre mixture of Persian technical literature: 15th and 16th century perfume recipes, letter-writing manuals, magical spells and astrological theories, with only the occasional raised eyebrow or wry smile. We would sit in his office in his ancestral home in Ganj Mir Khan, and together we would read each text, wading through esoteric descriptions of the gustatory preferences of various planets or pages filled with the names of the angels, until Jaffery felt I could manage alone. Then he would declare me competent, and request the next manuscript. With unbounded generosity, he commissioned friends in Iran to seek out a rare manuscript in the Gulistan library in Tehran that I had once mentioned to him. On a near daily basis, he would introduce me to the unending stream of scholars, acquaintances and students who came seeking his help or support. “You should be close to them,” he would urge. “They can help you in your work, and you can help them in theirs.” In this way, I became a link in Jaffery’s academic silsilah (chain), a geographically expansive network that encompassed professors, librarians, diplomats, journalists, amateur poets, interested laypeople and students from across the globe.

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