Tenacity Wins Where Brilliance Fails: Dr. Zulfiqar Chaudhry 2006
ByMohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
“Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way”. Booker T. Washington, an educator and reformer.
His 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 the odds 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 his single-mindedness 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 belatedly, and in a hard way, and with a price, too. 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 being a watchful father I knew why he couldn’t.
During those years, I remember his spending a lot of time at the local Islamic Center; and reading all sorts of books, especially on religion, philosophy and mysticism in dozens. He made sure that he highlighted all the important points, and recorded on the inner page the day, time and even the locale where he started reading a book, and the time he ended it, as if it were an event. Iqbal’s “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”, line by line stays annotated by him on my shelf; his Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shakwa with Urdu and English explanations remained the center of his thought-process for quite some time; 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 sent 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…”. I knew my son had fallen in a “Messiah Trap”.
As if this were not enough, Zulfi also began digging for the family history. He carefully collected all the letters his Dada, Grandpa, had written to us from Pakistan (1987-89), and he spent hours to put them in a binder with a label “Dada-Ji’s ki Khatoot”. The saying is that taste is morality. But in Zulfi’s case, under the circumstances, these great personalities and authors who, as I expected, were supposed to awaken in him a sense of what his true, and first priority was, now they appeared to me as if they basically had become his one major distraction. In all earnestness, Zulfi stood nowhere by the end of 1995.
One evening in 1996, I finally thought that it was time for me to talk to him in no uncertain terms. I wanted to tell him that he was distracted; had lost a sense of direction and aim; had become an escapist who took refuse in those books. He read them not to learn from them, but to escape from the ground realities that confronted him. He listened to me patiently, but then with an unusual posture of defiance and determination he said, ‘I am not a failure, and one day I am going to prove it on you that I am not”. “I will wait for that day”, said I. Inwardly, I was happy because this was precisely what I had yearned so long to hear from him. I myself had passed though such a phase many a time in life. Defiance and determination run side by side in our family. We perform best when we are close to losing everything.
Zulfi chose a long, windy, but a 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 his 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 to have become all smiles for him for the first time. He also appeared complacent.
Then came the eventful year of 2001. Amina, his wife was expecting their first child and they were getting ready to buy their first home. It was in late August that one day Zulfi appeared unusually happy, but apprehensive as well. He wanted to share something with me, but appeared scared too. Finally, he broke the news that he had been granted admission to a medical school in Dublin , Ireland , and that he had decided to give himself a chance. I knew all his friends had done exceedingly well. Chirag had gone to Harvard; Deepak was on his way to becoming a doctor. I never knew that Zulfi still was nursing 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 in turmoil. It was a strange news.
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 entailed more risks than benefits. I had to remind him that he was no more so young as 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 who 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 as major defaulters in this country. Passing of the USMLE exams, also stood there like a China wall, even if everything went the way he anticipated.
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 a moment, 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 so 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 for 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 finally 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 is his strength, and an invaluable asset to him. Indeed, nothing succeeds like success. “The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears”, Bacon.
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, Chirag 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 in the family is that if somebody’s hen lays its first egg, or a cow gives birth to a calf; these events create a job for Zulfi, because instantly he feels morally compelled to send a greeting card to their owners. People inform us how indifferent we are while our son, is so “good”, because of this habit of his. When he started his job with Cal-OSHA, secretly he kept sending money to his uncle as financial help in Pakistan binding him not to tell about that to me. On learning, I really felt proud of him. His education had a human face, too.
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 can 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.