Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Professor Muhammed Zillur Rahman Khan

It was the monsoon season of 1985 when I arrived in the Physics Department of the Aligarh Muslim University to pursue my masters degree course. A myriad pleasant memories clog my mind and my feelings when it comes to the first impression.

For the first time I saw that people have personal chambers with their respective names written on a plate hanging at the door. For the first time I saw that many of the names were Muslim. Soon I would see that the British and US text books were actually being used in the class rooms. For the first time I saw that men in Muslim beard would talk of current Physics with ease.

One of the peculiarities was that some teachers had up to four letters in the abbreviations of their names. Could names be that long? I did feel like Alice in Wonderland. One of these long names was of Professor Muhammed Zillur Rahman Khan. MZRK.

Soon I got the fortune to attend his class. few minutes before the class I asked my new classmates who was MZRK and they told that he was former head and something called Dean. Then he came for the class. A pot bellied man who looked impressive. For next two years and more he was not only a prime academician around but also a man who had a cultural presence of some class - the culture that makes a society not only cultured but at some sort of royal proportions. The elegant Muslim style of Salam was not a fable from movies but a day to day affair. Good Physics, good ambiance and a beautiful campus. Life has both positive and negative and sometimes a negative can overwhelm all positives but in the rest of the time one has to focus on positives only and this was as good a combination as one can get. Yours truly was in a state of trance for those two years of post graduation. Professor Khan was one of the pillars.

Mine was not a very close relationship with him those I too went through many of the phases of the legendary aspects of interaction with him. I always enjoyed good Physics and Professor Khan had lots of it with him. I had a joy ride but it would derail his joy. The psychological dynamics was as follows. When a concept unfolded before me or when I understood a finer point in the class, and there were ample moments of this sort in his class, then a spontaneous smile came to my face. The joy ride. This he did not understand. He assumed the worse, as if I am upto some mischief or distraction or even worse - caught a mistake. It was nothing like that. It was academics of highest level. A teacher offering the most exquisite pieces of pure knowledge and me, the grateful student, lapping it up, hook, line and sinker. Academically things can not be better than that. But he would be in a different state of mind. "Understand these things properly, even big guns don't know these things", he would repeat so often. I was psychologically not mature enough to calm down his fears and hence till his end I did nothing. I suppose I should have done but I suppose it will be fine with him if I smugly use the privilege of a favourite student. He was a man who rarely kept a grudge.

This last point he himself made explicitly when he came, decades later, to take part in the centenary celebration of our Department in 2011. Aligarh has its strengths but grudge is a nasty weakness around here. In view of that one can only feel bad at a higher level after having lost  him on 24th of January, 2016.

I was thinking that others will write about him in sufficient detail and I shall be spared the birth like pain of extracting the emotions from the narrow corners of memory. It has not happened. I suppose people will do the needful later.  but my fears are worse. Apart from good things of Aligarh its bad things too are legendary. Thanklessness is one of them. I do remember that in case of another teacher of mine, late Professor Israr Ahmed, due attention to his contributions was not accorded after his demise. I did read an article on him by Professor Kabir Ahmed Jaisi in Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq, an Urdu monthly published by our university, but that piece can not do justice to his Physics career. Professor Israr Ahmed, in my view, was most illustrious research student of Professor Khan, though I did witness very high praise for another student Professor Qamar Nasir Usmani by Professor Khan himself. But this comparison should not distract us from the actual academics. I I have personally seen even Russian physicists citing Dr Q.N. Usmani's work on many body physics.  Every single research student of Professor Khan is a serious academician in his own right. Apart from the above names I personally know, in a sort of reverse order, Dr Habibul Haq Ansari who specializes, apart from Nuclear physics, on philosophical aspects of Physics including interpretation of quantum mechanics, environmental science, reactor physics and he is a scholar of Urdu far better than so many known signatures. Dr Nasra Neelofer serves in the Women's college of our university while Dr Fauzia Mujib had retired after serving the same college for decades. Dr Muhammed Shoeb is a professor in our department. Dr Mahmood Mian is a professor of physics at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar while Dr J.H.Naqvi has retired as a professor from our department itself.

The last named one had done part of his research work with Professor A.N.Mitra who then shifted to Delhi university. His dissertation, hence, was completed under Professor Khan's supervision. His name is associated with Naqvi-Mitra nuclear potential and I heard Professor Mitra himself saying, "I call it Naqvi potential".

Being from the local fiefdom family of Shahjahanpur he carried that erstwhile royal blood and was known by a nick name reserved for the off-springs of such families. He was married to a daughter of late Dr Zakir Hussain, former president of Republic of India. In his time he had done mentoring of hockey players of AMU and his name is associated with that glory which brought Olympic Gold Medal to India - Moscow Olympics 1980.

People say that an elephant has no idea about its size and strength. Be that as it may Professor Khan was like that - he had rather high levels of humility. His irritation with some students, like  yours truly and many others, was a manifestation of this characteristic. He never knew that his students smiled in the class because he was opening up the knots in their respective minds. I have had a number of excellent students but he was the person who untied the largest number of knots of technicalities of physics.

I personally learned quantum mechanics and nuclear physics from him. It was well known that he will enjoy teaching so much that inordinately large amount of time will be spent on explanations and inevitably there would be syllabus crisis even after extra classes someone or other from his former students would be scrambled to finish the course.

His extra classes too were legendary. In these classes there was no natural time limit and hence these could extend even up to five hours. For me too many evenings were consumed by such classes. Two years ago  I told one of my classes that as a one time demonstration I am going to implement MZRK long extra class routine for them. And I did that. Calling them on Sunday morning and leaving them at lunch time with two breaks in between. That was for BSc final year students. Students must have enjoyed it in their own way for I also arranged refreshments for them. Students relish it when they get even a cup of tea from their teacher. Soon the other two classes, first and second years of MSc, also tasted the same experience.

Quantum Mechanics is real physics and it is an involved formalism. Even the west, where it all originated, is still awed by this subject. Professor Khan had a flare for it. generations of Aligarh physics students owe their quantum mechanics to him. During 2011 centenary celebrations Professor Tariq Aziz, an alumni of the department, said that Professor Khan is the God of quantum mechanics in India. We shall ignore both the theological and historical exaggeration but this statement does give some perspective on Professor Khan stature in teaching of that difficult and glorious subject.

Many times our own teachers would come from the back door and sit in Professor Khan's quantum mechanics class. this too was a different experience. This too should be taken as a manifestation of highest academic traditions. I shall leave the task of acknowledgement of his teaching by Dr P.K.Ayengar in universities in general to another colleague.

When Professor Khan joined the department as a lecturer the then Head was not so perceptive about actual value of quantum mechanics and he had the silly idea to make it an optional paper. Young Dr Khan would not have anything of that sort. Quantum mechanics can not be optional, it has to be in the core - he asserted. Not only that, he banged the door on the Head of the Department - an extremely rash thing to do in those days. But he had his way ultimately.

Apart from quantum mechanics I was fortunate enough to take two courses on nuclear physics by him. The story in this topic was a continuation of the one in quantum mechanics. He was as lucid about concepts in one topic as in other. Years later he wanted to write a text book of graduate level on nuclear and particle physics with a young faculty member. Latter one was well aware of the fact that Professor Khan was not as up to date in particle physics and hence the project didn't come to a fruit. On second thoughts I feel that they should have gone ahead with the book for they had enough to tell. One of the past pleasant, in fact romantic, feelings of physics department of AMU for me is that even before coming to Aligarh I knew that there is a physicist there who has written a book on Transistor Physics, Dr D.C.Sarkar. Lately Professor J.P.Srivastava has written a book on Condensed Matter Physics and so has Professor R.J.Singh while Professor R. Prasad has written one on Nuclear Physics. This adds to the dignity of the department and same would have been the case if above mentioned book had come out. I am personally aware of another still born book - Professors S.M.A.Hashim Rizi and S.K.Singh were working on a book on Modern physics but they too did not finish it.

One of the characteristics of physics mentoring by Professor Khan was his long walks with his students and sometimes with young physics faculty members. these walks would be inside the campus but these could go out, on Anupshahr Road, for kilometers. everybody doesn't have that kind of stamina but that is what it takes to do the mentoring of a modern scientific tradition.

Even for a physics department nuclear physics is usually not everybody's cup of tea. Consequently only a handful of departments in the country have this specialization. Among the universities Aligarh at one time had the biggest nuclear physics group and even today it is one of the biggest ones. In fact there was a time when the heads of the physics departments in north India were all Aligarh products. Professor Khan lived and worked in those times and he established an academic culture that added to the credit of not only the Sir Syed's Aligarh Movement but even the country as a whole.

There are a myriad more things that I can say but this emotional journey is getting out of control and hence I shall put a lid on it and conclude by paying my most sincere tributes to a very loving teacher with utmost feelings of gratitude.

Verily we are for our Lord and unto him is our return.

Nami gardeed kotah rishta-e-ma'ni riha kardam
Hikayat bood bepayan, bakhamoshi ada kardam

When this thread of interpretation did not shorten I released it
There were a countless stories to be told, these I narrated silently