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Dr Omar Khalidi's voice will be sorely missed

Last updated on: December 03, 2010 16:56 IST

Dr Omar Khalidi, the Muslim scholar who passed away on Monday, worked tirelessly to lift a mirror for the Indian polity to reflect on its secular credentials and to the Muslim community about the human potential that lay within, says Altaf Makhiawala recalling his association with him

It was exactly six years ago that I first met Dr Omar Khalidi. Dr A S Nakadar, his friend and founding chairman of the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, asked if I was willing to do some background research for his book on Muslims in the Indian economy.

Being a young journalist in search of interesting challenges, I accepted the offer. Happy with the work done for him, he asked if I was willing to assist him on his visit to Mumbai to interview various public figures like the (late) Dr Rafiq Zakaria, Hussain Dalwai (ex-chairman of the National Minorities Commission), Anjuman-I-Islam's (the late) Dr Mohammed Ishaq Jamkhanawala, Amin Khandwani, Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, members of the Dhanrajgir family and other civil society leaders and journalists.

After many months of hectic exchange of emails, his itinerary in Mumbai was finalised. Everything was going as planned. The chauffeur was organised. The car was rented. The hotel booked -- conveniently close to my residence. Everything was in place for his arrival till I called Dr Rafiq Zakaria's residence, a day before his arrival, to reconfirm the appointment.

He cancelled Dr Khalidi's appointment as he had his son Fareed coming down from the United States. That was the first blow to all the planning. Not wanting to waste the important professor's precious time, a journalist from the news agency United News of India came to my rescue and got us an appointment with ex-member of Parliament Hussain Dalwai.

We visited the latter, a former state minister, who was quite accommodating by giving us an early morning slot on a sleepy Sunday, in the art-deco district of Mumbai, opposite Oval Maidan at Churchgate. He had interesting anecdotes to share with us about the time he spent in government. Dr Khalidi was indulgent in his style and was more journalist than an academic in the way he was able to put his interviewees at ease so they could open up to him, and in his inimitable style charmed him and we were invited in. Since there were some carpenters working in Dalwai's living room, he escorted us to his sparsely decorated bedroom -- where he sat on the bed, while we sat on plastic chairs and the interview continued.

Our next stop was a private meeting with an ex-admiral from the navy. He asked for a one-to-one luncheon talk with Dr Khalidi at his residence. Since we had an hour to kill before the next appointment, we went to buy a SIM card for the good doctor. He was particularly interested in seeing Dhanraj Mahal in Colaba, which was owned by the Dhanrajgir family -- the erstwhile royal family which owns the Gyaan Baug Palace in Hyderabad. Some of the 22nd generation of the Dhanrajgir family live in this palatial building.

Since the professor was dressed in a tweed jacket and looked quite important, the security guards didn't raise an eyebrow as walked into the apartment complex. We took a leisurely walk around. By the time we finished our window-shopping at the Government Emporium next door, it was time to drop him at the ex-admiral's residence.

Dr Khalidi carried a heavy file of papers with him. Being a librarian since 1983 at MIT, he was a man who needed information on his fingertips. Before every meeting, he would quickly brief himself for the next. We showed up at the ex-admiral's residence. An elegant elderly tall man opened the door and invited the professor in in chaste Urdu. I wasn't privy to the conversation between them but Dr Khalidi later told me it was one of the most wonderful engaging and rich meetings he had in Mumbai.

I was worrying if Dr Khalidi would cope with Mumbai's humid weather and the back-to-back meetings I had lined up for him without having a moment to recover from his jetlag. He was quick to wave off his tiredness with a swish of his hand. He did not seem like the kind of man who needed rest. A man who was on a mission to fearlessly ask questions and get down to the truth of the matter with meticulous research. His emails with me over the years included requests for the most obscure pieces of writing -- so meticulous in his research that he was willing to wait or cultivate contacts till he found what he was looking for. That was a sign of deep scholarship.

We went to meet the famous Khandwani family of Mahim. Amin Khandwani was the youngest corporator when he first got elected to the municipal corporation of Mumbai, and he successfully won five elections soon after. He was also the ex-chairman of the minorities' commission for some time during his political career that spans many decades. An array of sweetmeats and dry fruits were laid out for us, while Dr Khalidi, conscious of time, dove straight to the point and got into an intense conversation with him.

From Colaba to Mahim and then back to the Taj Mahal hotel for our evening appointment -- I was tired but Dr Khalidi did not show any signs of retiring for the day. The same exuberance and the child-like excitement about the conversations he was going to have, kept him on his toes. We drove down next to the Taj Mahal hotel to meet Humayun Dhanrajgir and his sister Huma. Our meeting was scheduled at the Sea Lounge inside the hotel. 

Being a true-blue Hyderabadi to the core and son of professor Abu Nasr Khalidi, a well-known scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, Dr Khalidi spoke chaste Urdu in Hyderabadi style. There was an instant camaraderie with the Hyderabadi aristocracy that evening. Dhanrajgir told us his sister was soon to arrive, who could throw light on their illustrious family history.

Humayun shared stories about his father Raj Bahadur Dhanrajgir and his extravagant lifestyle. And as we were chatting, in walked a very elegant middle aged lady in a embroidered black sari, Huma Dhanrajgir (the raja's daughter) along with her husband -- a man who looked like Sean Connery with husky voice and a lean young man (their son) just out of Boston business school, dressed in a semi-formal attire. The lady was studded with vintage jewels and emeralds, which shone in the hazy gold light of the Sea Lounge.

She spoke with Dr Khalidi about their many common friends. And then the conversation meandered into royal nostalgia of their childhood Dr Khalidi maintained his professorial calm and listened in with much curiosity and never hesitating to ask more question to delve deeper into the family histories. They shared their family story tracing their lineage to 22nd generations.

Being a proud Hyderabadi, Dr Khalidi took great interest when Humayun said they could trace their family to Tibetan lamas from some early centuries too. The questions wouldn't stop from Dr Khalidi and I could sense a man who took great pride in his Hyderabadi heritage and culture.

The Raja Bahadur had married the famous actress, Zubeida, of the 1930s and Humayun Dhanrajgir and his sister Huma are two of many of the Raja's children from this marriage. They narrated many anecdotes from their father's life. Chief among them being that he had a powerful memory. He had a huge library, every book painstakingly collected over a number of years. The Raja spent his retiring years in his library seeking refuge in books. The conversation continued over chaat and watermelon juice. We were invited to visit their residence and see some of their father's old albums. Being a stickler for schedule and conscious of time, Dr Khalidi politely declined the invitation saying he was going to meet their elder sister in Hyderabad the following week.

Our last appointment on that day was with Dr Khalidi's professor friend from Australia who was to meet us in the foyer of the Taj Mahal hotel. He suggested Dr Khalidi avoid the trendy fine dining places in the city and opt for an Udipi joint for dinner instead. Dr Khalidi, without any hesitation, accepted the invitation graciously. From the old world charms of Sea Lounge to the sweltering humidity of an Udipi joint -- Dr Khalidi was a man in search of interesting conversations no matter where they were set.

The next day sped by in a flurry of interviews. Dr Khalidi was keen on visiting the offices of the Inquilab -- an Urdu newspaper in Mumbai -- and an appointment with Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, who had returned from Sweden that morning after accepting the Right to Livelihood Award -- an alternative to the Nobel Prize. A meeting with Dr Jamkhanawala was planned for the afternoon.

We spent his last few hours in Mumbai before he boarded his flight at the Land's End hillock in Bandra to get a vantage view of the city from the hill and to sip on some coconut water. And while we stood there, he thanked me and said: "Our qaum (community) needs good people like you."

That was the last I saw him in person. We kept in touch over the years. Ever so often, it was information he needed from some archive for an article he was writing. He made it a point to call me when I was in England at university. A quick email to ask for my mobile number, which never changed, but he always asked -- truly professorial in style.

The last I spoke to him was in July. As usual brimming with excitement and news he told me about his current research on the status of Urdu in modern India. So it came as a personal shock when I heard the news of his passing away on Twitter on Tuesday. He met with a tragic car accident in Boston on his way to work on November 29. He was only 57.

Many Indians will fondly remember Dr Khalidi as a brave Muslim academic who made his voice heard through his scholarly writing through some of the community's most trying moments in contemporary Indian history. He worked tirelessly to lift a mirror for the Indian polity to reflect on its secular credentials and to the Muslim community about the human potential that lay within.

His work as a regional vice-president with AFMI -- a community organisation that is striving for 100 per cent literacy among the Indian Muslim community -- has to be reckoned with. He remained unwavering, unapologetic and unequivocal in his stance on the systemic injustices against the Indian Muslim community by continuing to write scholarly articles for journals and magazines, publishing books and speaking at various public platforms -- so that the issues can be recognised and rectified.

He was a strong advocate that Indian Muslims in the diaspora had a proactive role to play in modern India by funding modern secular education for all Indians and to work at rooting out bigotry from within our respective communities.

For India, which prides itself on her secular polity and communal harmony, voices like Dr Omar Khalidi, who kept a check on the excesses of the State, will be sorely missed. And as India carves a new global role for itself on the world stage today, I fervently hope it will pay serious heed to Dr Omar Khalidi's scholarly recommendations and take one of its largest and most backward minority groups along with it on its path to progress.

I have lost a dear mentor today. And the Indian Muslim community -- one of its intellectual guiding lights.

Dr Omar Khalidi was a staff librarian at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and author of books like Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India: Armed Forces, Police and Paramilitary During Communal Riots (2008), Muslims in Indian Economy (2005), Indian Muslims Since Independence (1996)

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