Dignity Personified: A Tribute
By Mohsin Hafeez
San Francisco Bay Area, CA
As a prelude to this piece, it is to be noted that the following lines reflect heartfelt emotions of the writer on the passing of his illustrious father-in-law; the timing of the completion of the piece ironically coincided with exactly the time his funeral service took place about 10,000 miles away. Therefore, the reference to the timeframe in the last paragraph needs to be understood in the context.
February 2, 1987, at 54 Khayaban-E-Hafiz, DHA, Karachi. An important date in my life. As a young, naïve hopeful, I was equally nervous as the preceding date and place represent my first meeting with someone who was going to be a positively large influence on my life for the next 24 years, and will continue to be so.
That person was Prof Dr. Mushtaq Hasan, retired chairman of the Department of Medicine, Dow Medical College, with whom I was meeting for the first time to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage. I had heard of Prof Mushtaq Hasan through my family and others and, given the stature he enjoyed, was on tenterhooks at the prospect of coming face to face with Uncle, as I lovingly called him for 24 years.
I still remember waiting in the living room, which, subsequently became the central part of that home to hold many celebrations, including our Nikah, unsure of what to expect. It was not long before I saw a meticulously dressed man, with the perfect color code, enter the room and smilingly offer me his hand. Of course, I took it and he motioned me to have a seat. That motion, a symbol of utmost respect for anyone in his life, can safely be labeled his trademark.
We talked about me, my past and my future, my family and my dreams. It was all over before I knew it. I was struck by his eloquence, articulateness, enunciation, and an equally perfect command of all three spoken languages that he expressed himself in: English, Urdu, and Punjabi. With me, however, it was rarely the latter two and we mostly conversed in English all his life, which experience I also found interestingly instructive with him. For example, even at his stage, he always had a dictionary handy to explore the various contextual usages of different words and the etymology of anything he might have found obscure. He had to not just know it, but be a master at it. And it didn’t have to be just his profession. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in that process. It was this sense of curiosity all his life that culminated in the unique, one-of-a-kind package that Uncle’s personality represented to a cross-section of people, be they his patients, students all over the world, friends, or his loved ones in the family.
With all the modernity that the man projected in life, and the advanced knowledge of worldly affairs, along with an almost hurried readiness to throw a well-positioned perspective where one was badly needed, I have yet to see someone with that rare level of modesty and humility. That intellectual integrity was ingrained in Uncle and I would assume it came from hoping for a world free of any evil. As his son-in-law who had the privilege of having had with him several discussions on various subjects, I found his views puritanical to the point of being almost innocent. And that is the innocence that endeared him to the world. That trait was almost counter-intuitive for someone with such extensive knowledge of not just his profession but also an interest in everything that affected the planet. It reflected the fact that he could not find himself in the concept of any sinisterness as he was way above the day-to- day pettiness. He operated at another level, and at a height which many found hard to relate to.
Along with the progressiveness of character, Uncle’s pride in tradition was never wanting. He had a beautifully fine blend of the ability to move ahead and that of freezing the time when it came to family customs. That dexterity with which he so clearly married the two might have been a bit baffling for some but having known Uncle, it was expected. In fact, given the noise around the world, one would look for some sort of convergence from him on all issues in life. As an example of the traditional bent of mind, during my trip last year in February, Uncle wished to be reminded of how old now our elder daughter was. To him, she was always Sahar, jan, jan! When I told him she was 21 and was close to graduating from college which she did last June, he, with raised eyebrows, said: “Well, beta, it’s time to start thinking of fixing her up in marriage.”
I found it sweet and told him that I would let her worry about finding someone suitable herself but with our blessings. “Do you think she is capable to make the right decision for herself?” was the next question. I knew where this was going and, after imagining my first-born in mind, I told him that I honestly thought she would know right from wrong and decide accordingly. On this, he sounded satisfied.
With someone so active and still interested in his patients at age 86, the age till which he gave his best to those who needed it, the last few months, and now the 92 nd year of his life, had been naturally distressing. Sensing the situation, I decided to make a five-day whirl across the world around the middle of January of this year to be with him. It did not matter whether we could discuss Tunisia, or the crippling global economy. I would bring my readings to him by his bedside, as I knew he would have liked it. Any kind of learning would be welcome. What mattered to me was the opportunity to have the proximity and my own satisfaction. It was important for me to have that closure with someone who was an educator and healer par excellence, and a doting spouse, parent, grandparent, and parent-in-law. I was able to have him register my presence during my trip as he, with considerable difficulty, showed his usual graciousness by acknowledging it.
The night of January 20 th, same address as above, and almost 24 years later, I bent down to speak into his ear that I was leaving to return to the US and that I was hoping to come and see him again in April. He had his eyes shut and did not acknowledge. I repeated it. Same lack of response. I tried a third time, and there was stillness. Uncle never misled anyone during his lifetime and he was not going to do it now. I had an uneasy feeling on my flight back to the US. He knew my next trip was going to be in vain as far as seeing him again was concerned, hence the total silence and unresponsiveness.
He was not going to kid me. He never did. And, so it went. As I put pen to paper to honor a celebrated life of 91 years, the service for Uncle’s final journey is almost underway across the world in Pakistan. As for me, what would stay with me forever is the last brief conversation we had last week, as incoherent as it might have been.
(The author of this piece is a financial planning professional, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area; he is available at email@example.com)