Learning from Others Leads to a Stellar Life
By C. Naseer Ahmad
The stories of a stellar life from “Learning from others” are some treasure found in the autobiography by Syed Babar Ali who is considered by many as an institution in Pakistan. From the front page picture, you will see a man who is at ease with himself and appears to be interested about hearing from you, the reader.
The book’s preface contains both a paradoxical statement – “I don’t want to be remembered” – as well as a challenge to use this memoir as “a case study.”
Organized very artfully, you will find a wonderful record of ‘who, what and when’ as told by Syed Babar Ali. It has the personal touch and a feeling that you the reader are having a dinner conversation with the giant of a man. So diplomatically let us attempt a mini case study in a historical context.
A verse from the great Persian poet SaadiShirazi simply states:
“My companions’ virtues elevated me
I am otherwise the humble creature.”
In a historical context, the era of the great poet Saadi, who was born in 1210, overlapped with the powerful barons whose rebellion brought about the Magna Carta in England in 1215. Neither Saadi nor the English barons could imagine how their different civilizations from where they originated would meet.
The poem “Ballad of East and West” containing the verse ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’ - by Rudyard Kipling who worked as the Assistant Editor of the ‘Civil & Military Gazette’ - was published in 1889, seven years after Syed Wazir Ali, the author’s father, was born in Lahore.
In, 1884, two years after the birth of his father, the Punjab Club was established in Lahore where Syed Babar Ali would become a member and where my own father’s name is listed among its Chairmen.
In 1858, a year after the British had vanquished the once mighty Mughal dynasty, Syed Babar Ali’s grandfather established a shop in Lahore Cantonment and continued to expand his business ventures which included ‘coffee bars’ for the military regiments. It’s a historical tidbit that might enlighten the conversation over beverages.
The reader will find that this book is a journey through time and across the world by many modes of transportation – including horse-driven buggies. Along the scenic lanes, it is up to each reader to stop for a moment along this fascinating journey, asking where he or she or even their ancestors were, or, for that matter, what else was happening in the world.
For me this journey begins with me with my own roommate – my grandfather - in Gulberg, Lahore. When he was in town, my grandfather who was then a retired high school headmaster never missed the opportunity to teach me Persian and the poetry of Saadi, even if I had to prepare for a test of Geography the next morning. He also taught me world history which brings home a point made in this book about the importance of understanding history objectively.
The book provides a broad overview of real estate deals such as a wise advice to the Forman Christian College (FCC) during the negotiations for its current site. It brings back memories of student life at FCC. It also reminds me that though my beloved father spoke always highly of his friend, I had the opportunity to meet Syed Babar Ali in Washington some twenty years after my father’s death. And, the irony is that as a young boy, I would play tennis near his house in Gulberg, Lahore
The reader will learn about many interesting accounts such as how to turn chance encounters into successful ventures. As a reader, I remember the conversation during dinner with common friends at the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Restaurant when Syed Babar Ali shared with me the stories of the joint venture with Tetra Pak and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) as well as the offer to become the Governor of Punjab following the 1999 coup which brought General Pervez Musharraf to power in Pakistan.
Pages of this book convey the feelings of a personal conversation with the author. Having met some of the people mentioned in this book, one finds that the author gives credit where it is due. There is neither negativity nor character assassination in the pages that flow gracefully. There are no doubt subtle critical observations such as the late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto not acknowledging that he had a friend in India.
For the entrepreneurial minds, Syed Babar Ali has some wisdom to share: “Before regulating your colleagues, you have to discipline yourself… you have to be fair … you have to respect everyone.”
The story of obtaining a license for a joint venture with American Express in Pakistan reveals the strength of his character because he did not acquiesce to the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s demand to name a director and to prevent repatriation of dividends. It is also amusing to note that Benazir Bhutto asked his permission whether she could wear a mink coat, out of respect for his leadership in the World Wild Life. His selection as the President of World Wild Life to succeed His Royal Highness Prince Phillip is an interesting anecdote for conversations during parties during this holiday season when fur coats can be in demand.
In 1954, then Vice-President Richard Nixon attended Syed Babar Ali’s traditional wedding at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. With the Presidential inauguration coming up in Washington soon, some challenging words from President John F. Kennedy, who defeated Richard Nixon in 1960, come to mind: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And, when as a reader you have gone through the two hundred and thirty-seven pages of this marvelous book, you will find that Syed Babar Ali has done a lot for his country – through learning from others that led to his stellar life.