where Brilliance Fails
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
genius he was quite content… Of inspiration
one percent; of perspiration, ninety-nine”
said Edison once. It is true of Zulfiqar as well.
His profile is an inspiring tale of struggle against
odds in a country, (America), where success greets
those who learn to beat them relentlessly.
Every year, hundreds of Muslim kids start their
Residency program in July in America, and there
is nothing unique if Zulfiqar also joined their
ranks this year. What singles him out is his tenacity
and single-ness of purpose to stay in line till
the call came.
Zulfiqar, or Zulfi as his friends call him is my
first born, and as the saying goes, the first born
are natural strivers. Success always came to him,
but with a price. After the completion of his undergraduate
studies at UC Davis, when he could not earn a place
in a Medical School on the mainland, I think as
a watchful father I knew the cause. He had been
spending a lot of time at the local Islamic Center;
lately he had begun reading books on religion, philosophy
and mysticism in dozens, registering diligently
on the inner page the day, time and even the locale
when he started and ended it, as if it were an event.
Iqbal’s “The Reconstruction of Religious
Thought in Islam”, line by line stays annotated
on my shelf; his Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shakwa with
Urdu and English explanations became the center
of his thought-process; Baziuzzaman’s Iqbal
and Quran; Michael Curtis’ “Two Great
Political Theories” in two volumes; Maudoodi’s
Tafheem-ul-Quran in all its six volumes and Shibli’s
Seerut-un-Nabi, along with Martin Lings’ and
Karen Armstrong’s biographies of Prophet Muhammad,
Dr. Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Islam, and James Fadiman
and Robert Frager’s “Essential Sufism”,
Munshi Prem Chand’s 100-short-stories, to
name only a few replaced books on Physiology, his
Major. His friends like Wali knowing Zulfi’s
taste began sending him books with special notes,
“…hope to hear your analysis…love
to cherish your jewels of wisdom, as you so generously
bestow them upon me…”
As if this were not enough, Zulfi started digging
the family history. He carefully collected all the
letters his Dada, Grandpa, had written to us from
Pakistan (1987-89), and put them in a binder with
a label “Dada-Ji’s Letters”. The
saying is that taste is morality, but in his case,
under the circumstances, these great personalities
and authors who were supposed to awaken him to his
first priority, appeared to me as one of his major
distractions. Basically, Zulfi stood nowhere by
the end of 1995.
One evening in 1996, I finally thought that it was
time to talk to Zulfi in no uncertain terms. I had
to tell him that he was distracted, had lost a sense
of direction and aim, had become an escapist who
took refuse in these books, not to learn from them,
but to escape the ground realities that confronted
him. He listened to me patiently, but then with
an unusual posture of defiance and determination
said, ‘I am not a failure, and one day I am
going to prove it to you that I am not”. “I
will wait for that day”, said I. Inwardly,
I was happy because this precisely was what I had
yearned so long to hear from him. I myself had passed
though such phases many a time in life.
Zulfi chose a long, windy, but sure way to success.
Investment in education always pays. He went to
San Diego, and did his Masters in Public Health
in 1998; completed a fellowship in Ohio; took the
California State Exam, for induction into Cal. OSHA;
passed it and joined the department at Foster City.
With his consent, we got him married to a wonderful
girl in 1999. Life appeared all set for him.
Then came the eventful year of 2001. Amina, his
wife was expecting their first child and they seemed
ready to buy their first home. It was in late August
that one day Zulfi appeared unusually happy, but
apprehensive as well. He broke the news that he
had been granted admission to a medical school in
Dublin, Ireland, and that he has decided to give
himself a chance. I knew all his friends had done
exceedingly well. Chiragh had gone to Harvard; Deepak
was on his way to becoming a doctor. I never knew
that Zulfi still nursed a desire to become a doctor.
Was it for his own satisfaction, or was it because
he had vowed once to prove it to me that he was
not a knee-jerk? His placid life once again appeared
Once again, I had to lecture him about his “New
Project” reminding him that this time the
stakes were higher. He was a married man. Here was
a father dissuading his son from not becoming a
doctor in America, because it was a very rickety
proposition that promised more risks than benefits.
I had to tell him that he was no more that young
to undertake this nerve-wrecking adventure. Medical
education warrants tremendous amount of stamina,
commitment, hard work, aptitude, and in his case
a great amount of sacrifice in the form of separation
from his wife and baby that was due in October.
Besides, it also involved a tremendous amount of
money. In real terms it meant deferring all his
dreams indefinitely to live with his family in his
own home; foregoing his secure State job of over
60K per annum, and all his savings and incurring
a debt that makes even most doctors major defaulters
in this country. Passing of the USMLE exams, also
stood there like a China wall, even if everything
went the way he could anticipate.
What annoyed me most was Zulfi’s reply to
my final question, “Are you mentally prepared
to endure separation of years from your wife and
baby?” Without wasting any time, he replied
rather innocently, “I’m not. I cannot
go against the vow I made with my wife that we would
always stick together”. “Forget then,
because you cannot butter the bread on both sides.
Success demands sacrifice which you appear unwilling
to make”. Zulfi remained resolved and unshaken,
but mere resolutions do not make people doctors.
Medical education in Ireland is of six years. Zulfi
got exemption of one year. He completed his studies
in five years. In April of this year, my wife and
I finally traveled to Dublin to spend a few days
with him as he finished his studies there. He passed
his USMLE-I and II, achieving a respectable score
of 88, and has started his Residency in Internal
Medicine at St. Vincent Catholic Medical Hospital
in Manhattan, New York. What once appeared to me
a distraction (religious books, Iqbal and all that
Sufi stuff); now that fund of knowledge became his
strength, an invaluable asset to him. Indeed, nothing
succeeds like success. “The joys of parents
are secret, and so are their griefs and fears”,
Zulfi’s tale of success has many actors and
factors behind it. One potent factor had been my
own dissatisfaction and my initial frustration with
him. It did not dampen his spirits, rather it furnished
him with an impetus to prove that he was not worthless;
his mother who loved him in all circumstances; his
wife who near his exams prayed profusely and fasted
for days and months and endured his separation with
courage and hope; his daughter, Sana, who often
was overheard telling her friends, “My Baba
will also be with us soon”; his brother-in-law
Dr. Ejaz who guided him all along; his brothers,
Yasin and Iftikhar and sister, Uzma and friends
like Dr. Joan of Ohio, Dr. Leon, Dr. Allan and Dr.
Mohsin, and Dr. Samber, and his buddies like Dr.
Deepak, Chiragh and so many more who remained in
constant touch with him, telling him that if they
could make it, why couldn’t he.
Harry Truman (1884-1972), once said, “I never
gave anybody hell, I just told the truth and they
thought it was hell”. Zulfi is notorious for
creating such hells. He is artlessly truthful and
blunt to a fault. Once I asked his mother how she
would characterize Zulfi. Tipu, as she calls him,
“is truthful and humble”. Humility and
being helpful is what endears him to all who happen
to interact with him. Sometimes he does it to a
point of intrusion. The joke is that if somebody’s
hen lays an egg, or a cow gives birth to a calf,
Zulfi feels constrained to send them a card of greetings.
People inform us how indifferent we are while our
son, is so “good”. When he started his
job with Cal-OSHA, secretly he kept sending money
to his uncle in Pakistan binding him not to tell
me. That really made me proud of him.
I call him now a well-rounded person, an old-soul
in a young body, who can discuss a virus and a verse
from the Quran and Iqbal with ease and relevance.
Often people join the medical profession because
physicians make good money. About Zulfi, I say with
certainty that he equates money with muck, not good
except when spread.
“Why did you wait so long if you wanted to
be a physician?” asked his cousin, Mubashir
who himself is in the same field. “That was
a mistake and I paid the price. Do it if you think
you can. Don’t wait,” and of course,
“all rising to great place is by a winding
stair,” he smilingly ended his reply.