I have been hesitant to visit India, my parent’s homeland. I had not been there since 2011, and for good reasons. On my last visit, I suffered a bout of serious illness that left me 30 pounds (a quarter of my body weight) lighter and forever wary of all things Indian. However, with my grandparents getting older and having just graduated from college, this summer seemed an opportune time to test my luck.
My father and I visited India from mid-May to early June. And for those who are not familiar with the harsh summer weather of North India, the temperature there could easily peak around 110°F each day. However, this article is not about my trials and tribulations in India per se, but my experience as a first-time visitor to the Aligarh Muslim University, where my father spent nearly a decade and a half of his young life.
I liked to think that I knew a lot about Aligarh as a first-generation American. Not only had my parents been very active with the Aligarh Alumni Association in the Washington, DC, I myself had done extensive volunteering work for it.
Many of my earliest memories relate to the AAA, and my involvement with this Association has been an integral facet of my upbringing. Yet, I failed to visit the Aligarh Muslim University campus in any of my five previous trips to India in my youth. I decided that 2017 was the year I would finally see my father’s alma mater. Only later I realized that there was much about AMU that I did not know.
We departed from Shikohabad, my father’s ancestral hometown in UP, at around 6:00 a.m. to get an early start on our way to Aligarh. My father cautioned me that we would not be able to see all the university in just one day. That sounded a little odd to me. I remembered showing my parents every building on my college campus in Philadelphia in less than two hours.
So, I was skeptical, yet intrigued. I took my drowsy motion sickness pill and went to sleep in the back of our rented Toyota Innova. The blaring car horns in Aligarh acted as my wake-up call. I awoke and peered out the window to see the arched gates of AMU. The entire university was gated in what seemed to be an effort to keep the brilliance and beauty of the campus intact.
We slowly traversed department after department, each housed in its own building, something I was not used to at my college. We started with the department of civil engineering, moving through departments of law, linguistics, mathematics, botany, biology, finally arriving at the department of chemistry.
Our car pulled up in front of the building and my father jumped out and headed for the entrance like clockwork. All that was missing was a sherwani and briefcase. I scurried behind him admiring the grandeur of the decades-old building. Waiting in the first-floor office were several of my father’s classmates.
Their exchange was exactly what one would expect from old friends who were reuniting after many years. I quickly learned that the bonds between members of the AMU fraternity are indestructible. They embraced, laughed, reminisced, and yearned for those early years. I saw the laboratory in which my father earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. I saw lecture halls where he was a teaching assistant.
I even saw the teaching laboratory in which he once tutored his younger brother. The realization that I was walking the same halls my father roamed for nearly 15 years as a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. student was surreal.
The AMU was and is one of the premier institutions of learning in India. We visited the Maulana Azad Library, Kennedy Auditorium and many departmental buildings. I saw my father rejoice in the preservation of most traditions of his beloved university, but also appreciate all the renovations and expansions. Our final stop of the tour was Sir Syed Hall South.
The Oxford-esque dormitory was my favorite part of the trip. The grandiose architecture, pristine landscaping, and welcoming atmosphere made me want to attend this amazing university myself.
Upon entering the dorm, my father turned to me and said, “let me show you something.” He quickly went up to the second floor and started pointing to rooms. “This is where Faisal lived. This is where Sohail lived.
“Munna lived down there. This is where Hilal lived. And this…this is where I lived.” Without hesitation, he opened the door and introduced himself. Upon hearing he was an AMU graduate, the five young students insisted he come in. He showed me where he slept, where he studied, where he installed a makeshift sink, because there was no water supply to the room at that time. He spent all of his college years in this one room.
A decade and a half in one room. This was the happiest I saw my father during our entire trip. He sat down on one of the takhats and began speaking to the students. I sat at his old desk and just listened. He ended his mini-motivational speech with “you all should feel lucky to be here, lucky to be able to study here. This is one of the best universities in India, do not take it lightly.”
Then he got up and we left. I learned a lot from my visit to AMU. My father worked hard to get to where he is today. He and his fellow Aligarians did not take education lightly. They treated education as a privilege. I grew up in America, where education is viewed as more of a chore.
There is much I do not know about my father; we experienced completely different upbringings. However, this simple, day-long visit to the Aligarh Muslim University played a significant role in closing, at least partially, the inevitable generational gap.
(The writer has graduated this year from the Temple University, Philadelphia, with Summa Cum Laude Honors, majoring in neurosciences. He received the Paul G. Curcillo II MD Biology Award for excellence in research, academics, and extracurricular activities. He will be joining medical school this fall.)