Prof. Lily Want. KO Photo by Taha Wani.
The professor receives accolades for her academic spark that lit up some dark times of Kashmir’s recent history.
By Asma Majid
WHEN Agha Shahid Ali was preparing to shine “a light on the darkness” on his beloved Country Without a Post Office from the borough of Brooklyn, his acquaintance back home was setting records straight about the poet’s life with her elegant eloquence.
Making her academic debut in the dramatic eighties, the professor had her brushes with the “beloved poet” in the Department of English, University of Kashmir about which it was widely disseminated that Shahid, the witness, wanted to render his services to it.
Decades later, as Professor Lily Want invigorates her memory, she dismisses all the hearsays bandied about by people in the poet’s name.
“I knew Agha,” Lily says with her signature succinct stance.
“I knew his family. He would be invited to the English Department for lectures and we would interact with him. It was a joy listening to him. But given the ecosystem he had been brought up into, he was content with his life in America. He never wanted to serve in the University of Kashmir.”
What Prof. Lily says is perhaps the first testimony of an insider about the popular notion pertaining the poet’s life.
Back then, in the midst of crisp Kashmir upheaval, while Agha Shahid Ali was unfolding his verses, from a distant land, like charmed whispers and half-remembered dreams that were magically transformed into narratives, Lily Want had already begun a solemn procession towards the evolution of English language in the Department.
Agha, the ‘poet of dreams’, eventually won the American Literary Pushcart Prize, while Lily Want, with her eurythmic persona, went on to touch and fashion many literary lives.
After her superannuation at the University of Kashmir in 2020, while Prof. Lily Want is now holding an estimated chair in the picturesque South-Kashmir varsity, she doesn’t only have the Agha Shahid Ali rumour to bust.
In her thirty-four years of academic life, the lady who steered away from the shore with her striking individuality has more legends to start.
In a time when the vile mindset of “boys being the assets and girls only a burden” was prevalent, Lily Want was born after three boys to her parents.
“The moment I was born, my father’s world lit up,” the professor says with sparkling eyes.
A change of fortune brought forth by the birth led to the shifting of her family from a rented house to a palatial one with a good stretch of farmland and lots of pets.
Lily Want eventually assimilated the purity of the idyllic lifestyle she was brought up into, away from the humdrums of the world, and went on to become a perceptive person.
Going against the grain, Lily was admitted to the renowned missionary school of Srinagar, Presentation Convent. While the love she harboured for English Literature had percolated down from her beloved father’s DNA, her school played a pivotal role in budding that love into blossom.
Lily Want recalls how her late father, Prof M. Sultan Want believed in the education and financial independence of girls. “Father would say, ‘I will show the entire world how girls are to be brought up’,” she recalls with nostalgic vibes.
Greatly influenced by Prof. Sultan’s impressive personality, Lily Want would spend a greater chunk of her time with her father, grasping the texture of his being, the nuances of his persona and his moral construction.
Possessing all the qualities of an emancipated individual, partly ingrained in her personality and rest acquired by the way she lived her life under the influence of her father, Lily Want had her priority compartments where professional settlement was given the first place.
But like all the role models of the world, Lily Want too witnessed the phase of much drudgery and little pleasure.
After several adhoc positions in colleges and a job in State Institute of Education (SIE), she finally got appointed as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, University of Kashmir in the year 1986 while pursuing her M.Phil in the same Department.
What followed was a 34-year-long academic streak kindled by her services to the Department paving way for the evolution of English language in Kashmir by virtue of the alumni of the Department.
“Father wanted me to be a student of Literature,” she recalls her youthful time spent in the shade and shadow of Prof. Sultan — the revered teacher who held sway over masses due to his mastery. “When I joined the Department of English, I felt I have fulfilled his dream.”
Lily talks about how the people who had earlier worked with her father compared her with the genius he was but she dismissed it all for she believed he was gifted and she could never attain that level.
Yet, she would look up to her father not just as a polished human being but as a veteran academician as well as a habile administrator.
“Every day that I spent in the office,” she continues detailing her life, “I acted the way he would. Everything for me would revolve around his personality, how he carried himself and how he ran the Department. Even now, I always have him in my mind. I am two persons within me – me and father.”
At her home study. KO Photo by Taha Wani.
But then, it often intrigues many to know as to how a person so close to rose was named as Lily.
“My real name is Aamina Jehan Ara,” she says with a smile. “Father would always give two names to a child. He lovingly called me Lily.”
She goes on to say as to how a casual error of name in her matriculation form rendered her term of endearment to be the name she would be one day recognized with.
Lily laughingly recalls how some people would deem her to be a Christian because of her western outfits, short hairdo and of course, her name. “Do you go to the Church every Sunday,” some mistaken people would often inquire.
But while conducting her professional life with elegance, Prof. Lily Want, a workaholic to the core, never refrained from being an assiduous homemaker.
Maintaining a strict predawn waking up routine, she would make sure that she’s able to tend to her domestic life perfectly well, while ensuring her punctuality in the Department.
“Domestic responsibilities must be delivered as efficiently as the professional duties,” the Professor believes.
Even after being an accomplished working woman, Lily does not look down upon those women who play the roles of homemakers. She denounces the thankless attitude of people towards such unsung sheroes who are not given the credit of their endless work hours within the boundaries of their households.
“They must be lauded for their roles,” Lily exclaims. “Those women are true icons for all of us as they teach us empathy and a sense of institutional building. Our families won’t be the same without them.”
Thus, while mentoring her scholars back there in the Department, she would captain the ship of her household by the same token.
Having pursued research under the guidance of Lily Want, Dr. Ameen Fayaz Parray, Assistant Professor, Department of English (North Campus), describes her a professional who wears heart on her sleeve.
“Prof Lily belongs to the league of extraordinary teachers, administrators and mentors as she has been through and through a votary of the pedagogy of heart,” Prof. Ameen says.
The Professor’s ideal life has influenced her students so much that they hardly mince words for their “guiding light”. For them, Lily Want symbolizes confidence, pride and passion in her life pursuits.
Prof. Lily even made a difference of opinion with people work out so well and productive academically, administratively and intellectually.
“There are very few people of her stature in the academic world today,” says Prof. Zafar Reshi, Dean Biological Sciences, University of Kashmir. “Perfection is her hallmark.”
By virtue of her radiant personality, Lily charmed anyone who would interact with her.
Recollecting her as a good friend and a great colleague, Prof. Farooq Masudi, Dean Academic Affairs, University of Kashmir, says, “We always felt that we’ll get academically upgraded once we sit with that wonderful lady.”
Much of these accolades have to do with Lily Want’s academic spark that lit up some dark times of Kashmir’s recent history.
As a go-getting professional, neither political nor pandemic lockdowns could ever stop her from attending to her duties.
She would cross the bunkers and barricades just to sustain the flame of learning at the varsity.
This intrepid conduct helped her lead the Department of English to excellence and heights of thought and action. Not just an adept administrator, the academician in her knew how to connect with her students at a level extraordinaire.
Unrivalled as she has been to school intelligence in her students to make them stand out as billows of brilliance. Thus, having been her student and later being a part of the faculty under her headship, Dr. Ishfaq Yatoo pours his heart out while reminiscing the Lily’s blooming influence.
“She’s an amazing human being, a classic example of an academician, an astounding teacher and the gem of a genius,” Prof. Yatoo asserts.
Her fastidious attention to details further made her distinctive in a class by itself.
Thus, even after her departure from the University of Kashmir, Prof Aejaz Muhammad Sheikh, Department of Linguistics, is able to sense the supernal melodies of her sombre mien and aptly defines her as “Integration, dedication and commitment at its best.”
With her spouse, Prof. Sahaf. KO Photo by Taha Wani
Starting off with Enid Blyton, the exotic air of her taste led Lily to master the art of reading classics, all of which amalgamated to give birth to the kind of literary prowess she eventually began to hold.
“Give me anything and I’ll read it,” she says being a voracious reader in the truest sense of the word.
While she holds no favourites, the reading of classics, she believes, is the cornerstone of a budding writer.
Lily appreciates the kind of literature Kashmir has been able to produce post 1990s, especially hailing Mirza Waheed, Basharat Peer, Siddhartha Gigoo for their pivotal works spiralling around the Kashmir conflict, praising them as pioneers of Kashmiri writings in English.
She believes that these journalistic writings every inch fit in the western theoretical framework when seen from the prism of post-colonialism.
But what makes her worried is the kind of repugnant writings being produced by an emerging class of ‘young adult writers’ that leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Lily is especially concerned about such writings going out in the arena as representative literature of Kashmir. A check on the self-publishing houses that unwittingly encourage these writers, she believes, is the need of the hour.
But beneath her striking erudition lies placid disposition – a calm and considerate character unshaken by challenges.
Lily has the propensity to understand the full gamut of human emotions vis-a-vis her students. She has the ability to suck out the vexations of life under canvas.
A kind word, a friendly smile, a gentle tap on shoulder or a warm embrace, she knows how to make it right for her beloved students.
“My students have been my brand ambassadors,” she says with a beaming face.
Methodical in her approach, she may at times have a bitter tongue for discipline, but her students have seen the golden heart that she holds in her bosom which makes her sensitive to the handling of every affair pertaining to their welfare.
Her students even reveal how they have always counted on her as the one person who shall always have their back amid all odds.
Back in her home in the city uptown, she now leads a merry life with her partner who has been able to touch the cords of her heart at a different level.
Prof. Musadiq Sahaf, former Dean Academic Affairs, University of Kashmir, says the couple can’t find fault with each other.
“Although we have difference of opinions, but it never reaches to the level of conflict,” says Prof. Sahaf, explaining how their 29-year-old marriage has been so precious and invaluable to them. “She’s intellectually and socially very high.”
He even fears that their ideal life may be jinxed by evil hexes and mischievous sprites and thus recites the protective verses from The Holy Quran very often.
But after her departure from the University of Kashmir, Lily had already chalked out her plans – a wholesome list headed by the desire to read all those books she was unable to go through during her hectic campus life. But as luck would’ve it, she was once again offered to mentor a new class of students.
Looking back, Lily has no regrets to hold. She laughs at her shikwahs that she held at one or the other points of time in her life.
For her, the key to lead an agreeable life is to have an unflinching faith which practically leaves out no scope for shikwahs.
“It’s not that I never made any mistakes, but we learn at our own peril,” she says.
The purpose of life, she believes, is nothing more or nothing less than being a good human being.
“People should annihilate their egos and the complexes they are caught up into and just focus on enriching the humans in them. I believe in the doctrine of goodness and have faith in the fact that whatever happens, happens for good.”
Once recalling the entire catena of the events of her life, Lily, sitting in her South-Kashmir varsity chamber, assumes an air of quietness.
For a while, she lets the very silence of the chamber speak volumes about herself. It feels like the matron has relieved herself by letting out the story she had been carrying all her life.
But there is still that one conjecture about the beloved poet of Kashmir, which she goes back to, for she believes it is purely deduced by surmise and thus far from fact.
“It’s unfortunate that people often bruit about big names,” she says with a certain weight.
“There’s indeed much more to Agha than the myth of forces refraining him from serving the University of Kashmir. He’s a guiding light to the budding writers of Kashmir. I’m happy that I could endorse some of the researches under his name.”
While the poet, having bedazzled the world with his poetry, rests peacefully in Amherst, the lady has still miles to go to light the lamps of Literature and create an epoch in itself that would be remembered for all times to come.
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