I pass the Shia mosque near Johnson Market workdays when in Bangalore. Early morning I see a blur of it in good traffic; evenings, I’m force-paused before it, and I gaze in boredom at the all-white thing. Saturday last week, I went in there with some folks to look.
It was built in 1891 on an ₹800 charity from Iranian immigrant Aga Ali Asker. The purse came from wealth he’d accumulated in Bangalore, trading in Arab horses imported from home. The British in Bangalore and the Maharajah in Mysore were his patrons; he could count Mark Cubbon his friend, and sit in the Rajah’s private durbar.
Ali Asker’s grandson Mirza went to school with the Rajah, and became the Rajah’s diwan when the two had grown. The diwan’s life is a celebrated one, despite daubs of communal colour attempted on it season to political season. There are considerable luminaries succeding Ali Asker in his lineage, but it seems that wealth on the scale of Ali Asker’s hasn’t stayed in a single pair of hands after him. Perhaps it cannot; perhaps it shouldn’t.
On an expansive tract in the area where his Shia mosque came up is where Ali Asker settled, set up stables for his studs and fillies, and built his home. The central structure in the area is the now-crumbling, largely empty, dark and dank Johnson Market. Behind the the mosque and the market used to be Ali Asker’s house, now razed. Between these spots run alleys that are called Arab Lines, and on the widest Arab Line a high wide gate leads into what looks like a homestead which encloses an elegant colonial-style home, a big whitewashed structure that must be a private ashurkhana, and other, lesser structures. M.H. Agha, direct descendent of Ali Asker, lives there.
From the mosque we went over to Mr. Agha’s. We were a group of six, on a walking tour of the area. Mr. Agha offered tea soon as he saw us, walked us to a room on the front of the compound and, seating us there, began to speak. Tea came soon after, made and carried by his daughter, served sweet in gilt-trimmed china.
How was life here during Ali Asker’s time? Mr. Agha was ready to tell it, but first he needed to narrate his own story, his career at state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, and his part in defending India against Pakistan in ’65.
India had a few aircraft that were down, he told us, whereas Pakistan’s squadrons were in fine shape. The chief of our air force called Mr. Agha, and challenged him to get them off the ground. Mr. Agha went and dug out every spare they had, took them to his “dispensary”: The ailment of the planes was in their engines. With ingenuity he had them spinning again, and the planes soon had their noses up in the air, pining for the skies.
Mr. Agha mimed with both hands the flying planes. When the enemy jets came over the border, Indian planes met them with the full force of their second wind and cut them down.
One among us was a journalist from New York, working in Asia ten years now. She is published in the Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review. She applied more than once her skill.
“Sir, can you describe this place to us in Ali Asker’s time?”
“Yes,” he said, surprised each time to be so interrupted, “but I must finish my story first!”
It is not easy to dislodge an elder from his mission, and Mr. Agha’s was less to sell the glory of Bangalore’s old Shia than to secure in us an understanding of the living Shia here, even if we were a mere inconsequential six in weekend attire. So he went on to the story of his son, a sportsman who has won the Ekalavya award, and then to the message of love and peace in the Muslim religion. The picture of Ali Asker's times, when Mr. Agha came to it, was dealt with in a single brush-stroke: "Yes, you can come again. Please call me before coming."
But he took us into his home, and allowed us to peer into showcases, and at portraits and photographs on the walls — Diwan Mirza with the Maharaja Wodeyar, Mr. Agha's grandfather in a very long car of the day, and so on. The past was living well in the nice old house.
Men at the mosque had also described Islam earlier in the morning. They'd narrated the history of Karbala, “the greatest tragedy ever”, to which the Shia identity is tied. They'd explained Shia icons, and robe, and sword, and turban, and asserted: “Whether Shia or Sunni, the Muslim is not an enemy of India." They'd urged us to go to the annual gathering at Karbala. “Five crore persons gather in a city smaller than Mysore. You'll find there the meal you demand. Idli-dosa? Just wish for it. You’ll see miracles all round you in Karbala.”
Ali Asker arrived here circa 1824. He didn’t come with an invading army. He was an immigrant in a place ruled by a Christian colonizer through a Hindu maharajah. His assets spanned the best parts of Bangalore, and many of them are landmarks well after his time. The official residence of today’s governor was Ali Asker’s, which he gave Mark Cubbon, which free India inherited. The length Ali Asker Road has been populated by a multicultural set of a quiet, elegant, rich people. When the Prince of Wales visited Mysore, the Maharajah introduced an aged Ali Asker to him.
We were visiting a community Ali Asker’s enterprise had spawned. We were listening to decent people of that community who, in these complex times, feel a need to explain themselves to others. I didn't feel good about that. But I'm glad I discovered Aga Ali Asker.
Reference: A Turquoise Cloud