Yunus JAFFERY, distinguished Persian scholar, teacher and a living legend, died on Monday, August 29, at the age of 86 in Delhi. An authority on Delhi and Indo-Persian literature and the author of influential editions of Persian historians and poets who wrote during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, Yunus Jaffery taught Persian at the Anglo-Arabic school of Zakir Husain college (previously Delhi College) until his retirement in 1995. His room — his hujra — in the historical building of the madrasa of Ghaziuddin, in which the Anglo-Arabic school is situated outside Ajmeri Gate, became a place of pilgrimage for an international community of scholars, writers, students and journalists, who sought to study classical Persian, acquire knowledge of the history and culture of old Delhi and the Mughals, sought a rare publication from his library, or those who just wanted to meet the famous Yunus Jaffery who had been William Dalrymple’s guide to his City of Djinns.
Jaffery was born on September 27, 1930, in his family home at Ganj Mir Khan near the Turkman Gate of old Delhi, where he lived throughout his life. His father, Syed Mohammad Faruq, who worked at a printing press in Paharganj, came from an eminent family: His ancestors were Persian teachers to the Mughal princes at the Red Fort. After Jaffery finished school, he continued higher studies at Delhi College where he obtained an MA in Persian in 1958 and was appointed as a lecturer of Persian. In 1962, he went to Iran to pursue a doctorate in Persian studies from the Tehran University. He stayed for two-and-a-half years and did his DLit on Sa’ib, one of the Persian poets who came to India during the reign of Shah Jahan. Throughout his life, Jaffery remained passionately involved with Iran, its literary culture and art. He visited the country several times as a guest of the Iranian government or Tehran University and his last visit was in 2006 when he won the Farabi International Award, a prize given by the Islamic Republic of Iran for outstanding scholars in the Humanities and Islamic Studies. He also won the Sa’di Award from Iran and the Award for Translation Works from the Urdu Academy, Delhi as well as the Ghalib Award of the Institute of Ghalib in 2008. An issue of the journal Qand-e Parsi was dedicated to him and published in 2015 by the Centre for Persian Research, Office of the Cultural Counsellor of the Islamic Republic of Iran, an institution with which he collaborated on many projects for the translation of Persian literature with special relevance to India.
During his studies in Teheran, he had met Manizheh — a fellow student who became the love of his life but whom he could not marry — one of the reasons being his dedication towards the education of his sisters whose higher studies he financed against all odds, and eventually, their weddings. He remained a bachelor throughout his life and continued to look after his extended family. He had high hopes for his niece Nausheen and expected her to follow in his footsteps as a Mughal scholar, but she died tragically in 2004. Her book Jahan Ara Begam was published posthumously in 2011. His nephew Faridun and his wife Shazia looked after him during his last years and he was very fond of their two daughters.
Jaffery wrote numerous articles in Persian, Urdu and English. He authored translations from Persian to Urdu and from Urdu to Persian, and contributed greatly to making hitherto unpublished Persian poets and historians who wrote during the reign of Shah Jahan accessible through his editions of their work. They include the Persian edition of the Diwan of Sa’ib-i Tabrizi (1982 and 2010), Chahar Chaman by Chandar Bhan Brahman (2007), The Shahjahan Nama by Jalala -i Tabataba’i (2009) and he co-edited and translated with Margrit Pernau, Information and the Public Sphere: Persian Newsletters from Mughal Delhi (2009).
Fluent in English, Jaffery assisted many scholars from India and abroad in their work, including myself. He taught me classical Persian when I came to him in September 1976, and introduced me to Persian literature and its intricate metaphors, which he sometimes illustrated with a drawing or acted out in front of my astonished eyes. He was a living example of the adab culture of Delhi, of a bygone age. For 40 years he was part of my life as a friend and scholar who assisted me in my study of the historians and poets of Shah Jahan. He was the most selfless human being — a true Sufi — dedicated to his own research as much as to the research of those who sought his help.