The moon shines bright, even as I write, on a fresh new grave tonight. Syed Ashraf Ali sleeps in its tranquil softness. He has, as he used to put it, finally shuffled off his mortal coil and gone to meet his Maker.
In the spaces made empty by his passing, in the loud silences caused by his sudden silence, I go looking for memories of him, of the individual he was, of the polymath our world will miss.
There was always the banter I engaged in with Syed Ashraf Ali. It could be about religion, about politics, about all my promises to meet him but then not being able to keep those promises. My attempts to stammer an excuse met with a good-natured 'rascal' from him. It was a term of endearment he directed at people whose company he enjoyed. Every time he hurled it at someone, you could be sure he was in the mood to forgive. And I was forgiven a good many times. There was always that smile which came all over his expression, suffused his features with happiness. It was obvious he was happy that I was there or, for that matter, anyone else was there. He was prepared for a good conversation.
My earliest conversation with him was in the early 1980s when, having learned that I was courting his beautiful sister, he wished to have a meeting with me. It was a session I certainly did not look forward to, for two reasons. One was the knowledge that I already had about the fiercely temperamental in him. The other was my reluctance to be interviewed for eligibility as a future member of his clan through marriage. Even so, I did climb the stairs to his Kalabagan home, in conspicuous trepidation. He was properly courteous. We talked and seemed to get along fine. That was the beginning of a long and somewhat intellectual relationship with him. The intellectual was all in him, as I was to discover. I was the one who learned. His home was a rich library, with old, bound copies of Newsweek, Time, The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Economist, journals that I made liberal use of over time. There was hardly a time when I did not walk out of his home without a book, borrowed, for reading. He was an avid reader. Our shared passion for books cemented our links.
Syed Ashraf Ali was forever flailing away at what he surely perceived to be my irreverence where religion was concerned. There was always that sign of friendly exasperation, if I might put it that way, when I let him know that every religion was my faith, that I spotted the Almighty in the movement of a leaf, in the ripples in a pond. Fine, said he, and then quickly went into a philosophical discourse on the universality of the Islamic faith. Of course he put the argument in its proper perspective. There was hardly any question about that. But what always impressed me was the liberal position he adopted in his enunciation of the core principles of Islam. He did not base his arguments on dogma, as his innumerable deliberations on Islam on television and in articles so amply demonstrated. Ali's faith, his belief in its inherent strengths, was not what the bigot appreciated. He did not indulge the fanatic but went into an examination of Islam through recourse to theological analogy. His assertions were made richer through references to Moses, Jesus, Tagore and Buddha. For him, faith was a continuum. And God was for all.
Ali's erudition spoke for the intellectual in him. He had his fingertips on history dating back centuries, needing no reference books to go back to. He was aware of the possibilities thrown up by physics even as he was capable of reflecting on the nature of heaven and hell. Faith and science for him were inextricably linked, with one explaining the other. And then there was literature, a vast canvas he freely surveyed, all the way from Homer to Shakespeare to Goethe to Tagore and beyond. Music caused a flutter in him, to a point where could with ease explain the nuances in a song, any song. It was a delight listening to him, for ideas were what he loved playing with. If you needed a clearer perspective on an issue, all you had to do was go for a session of tea, which for me almost always graduated to lunch, with him.
Integrity mattered to Syed Ashraf Ali. He did not suffer fools. And he had little time for arrogant men. He held fast to the belief that false pride needed to be punctured, everywhere. Many are the instances when he publicly told ministers and secretaries off when they attempted to do the wrong and the unethical. He once upbraided a bureaucrat, senior to him, when the man responded to his 'assalamu alaikum' with a grunt. To everyone's surprise, perhaps even shock, he loudly told the bureaucrat that his response was unacceptable, that a grunt is not 'walaikum as salam' and that he was being obnoxious. It was such a preponderance of ethics, this consciousness of values, that often had some people resent him. It hardly mattered to him. When his superiors sought to get back at him, through moving him to another department or transferring him out of the capital, he would not seek a compromise, let alone say sorry. Principles mattered to him.
In the dark days of August 1975, Syed Ashraf Ali firmly put an assassin of Bangabandhu in his place when the latter tried instilling fear into employees at the Shahbagh station of Bangladesh Betar. At the Islamic Foundation, he firmly told a member of staff back from a long unauthorized leave and armed with a letter from a minister asking for the man to be allowed to rejoin duties to go back and inform the minister that his letter was unacceptable. He was grateful to Bangabandhu for making it possible for him to attend his father's last rites in Calcutta in 1974. He respected Ziaur Rahman and remembered with gratitude H M Ershad's assistance in some of his critical times.
Tonight the moon does not wane.
In the cold of a deepening winter night, I hear Syed Ashraf Ali reading out phrases and paragraphs from his new article on the phone to me, asking me in the midst of the narrative if the vocabulary needed improvement. I recall the way he laughed once he had cracked a joke. A ready wit, a great sense of humour complemented the missionary zeal in him to disseminate wisdom in his world, in those around him.
He loved his wife. He cared hugely for his child. He watched sadly as his siblings began to go to their graves, in rather quick succession. Tonight he joins them, in a grand reunion somewhere up there . . . where the light of God shines.r
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer