My father, Dr S. Fazaluddin (1942-2021), passed away earlier this month. After a brief battle fought in the wards and ICU of the hospital, he left for a life hereafter—the unseen yet the promised world which he unflinchingly believed was his final destination. Amid deaths and despair caused by the pandemic all around, grief itself is a casualty. How much can one be in a state of bereavement, how much sorrow and pain can one bear? The other day, a young friend lost his father to covid, and he wrote on his Facebook wall—‘I buried a part of mine today’. His immediate concern now was to ensure regular oxygen supply to his mother, a grim reality. No, my father was not covid-infected, but the pandemic’s spread took a toll on him too. From being virtually confined within the precincts of home for more than a year, anxieties of losing his friends and acquaintances one by one struggles to get himself admitted to the hospital from where he was discharged just a couple of days earlier, to his final journey that had to be restricted to fewer than 20 people—the virus was agonizingly present everywhere.
Less of an obit or a remembrance, I am writing this in praise of how ordinary lives are led—in quiet and unassuming ways, meandering through the joys and sorrows that life offers, making their little contribution to the world around them. This, I believe, is the life story of not Dr Fazaluddin alone, but most of his colleagues, friends, those known and even unknown to him. Born to a father who was a court typist and a doting mother in an obscure village of Nalanda district, he was the youngest among the four siblings, and perhaps the only one fortunate to have received formal education. The elder three were all sisters, and in a society bound by tradition and deep-seated conservatism, it was rare to send girls outside the confines of the home, that too in a village, for education. There was no exemplar to emulate or seek inspiration from; nonetheless, the precocious child caught the attention of the elders early on, whose persuasion and support came in handy. Intriguingly, he seldom spoke about the hardships that he endured or the state of penury that affected his childhood. It remained largely a closed chapter, a fervently guarded one.
Zila schools of Bihar, set up in the mid-19th century by the colonial state, had retained their glory in the 1950s before they lost it out to the convents, and then a few decades later to the mushrooming of public schools. They were sought after both by the elite as much as by the upwardly mobile. My father was enrolled in Zila School, Gaya, where aided by his dedicated teachers and a rare personal grit, he out-shown all others in the secondary school examination. The admission to the prestigious Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital (DMCH) followed the completion of the intermediate from the government college at Biharsharief, the headquarter of Nalandadistirct. But there were glitches again as being exceptionally feeble-bodied, the enrolment into a medical school could be withheld. However, things worked out in his favour finally, which led him to complete his MBBS, and later Masters in Surgery, his chosen field. Established by the generous endowment received from the Maharaja of Darbhanga, the DMCH was a crowning glory among the medical schools in eastern India. The college attracted some of the best faculty, many having chosen to return to the newly independent country after a spell abroad. My father was most enchanted by Prof. S.M Nawab, the legendary surgeon, who was also appointed the principal of the college. Although he spoke admiringly about his other teachers too, the influence of Dr Nawab was far more evident. He would often regale us with stories about how much of a tough taskmaster he was, and the eloquence with which he kept his students spell-bound.
The student population in the DMCH of the 1960s comprised mostly the affluent where he could have been a misfit, but his affable and self-effacing persona won him, friends, all across, some of them for life-long. He would fondly recall the hostel life, where the drudgeries and anxieties of long ward duties were matched by frequent visits to the theatre – male students on cycle, and female students on the rickshaws – to watch new releases of the ever enigmatic Dilip Kumar, Rajender Kumar, Nargis and Madhubala. To evade the embarrassment of being badly off, he and some of his friends would travel in the third class compartments and just a station before reaching Darbhanga, would shift to the second class. This anecdote was told to us many a time, an account of the mischiefs that they would play.
A posting in the small colonial town of Munger in the early 1970swas the turning point of his professional life. It was here that he rose as a prominent surgeon, but more importantly, earned admiration and goodwill from all. Here he involved himself in the city’s cultural life too as a member of its thriving, Urdu Forum. It is to the credit of the Forum that the town, despite its remoteness, could host some of the most prominent artists, poets and litterateurs. Apart from the enormous attention and care that the patients in the wards of the government hospital received from him, he was much respected and applauded for his integrity and uprightness. The Sadar hospital at Munger where he was posted boasted of some of the most reputed doctors of the town. The hospital catered largely to the poorest, but even the affluent found the government doctors far more reliable than other doctors in the town. Private practice thus flourished and the patients rushed to them for more attention. This lucrative pull meant that the doctors would dodge hospital duties for private clinics and nursing homes. Dr Fazal had a reputation to the contrary. There were tales around that how even at midnight, he would make round of the wards, wake up sleeping patients (exaggeration indeed) to enquire about their progress. Justness, honesty and earnestness were the values intrinsic to the moral universe that he inhabited. In a corruption-ridden government system these were not easy to practice or live by as interests were deeply entrenched, but he never flinched. As the civil surgeon of Madhepura district, he ensured that the pharma companies spent commission money on donating beds, generators and other equipment to the district hospital instead of filling the pockets of officials.
Admirers were there, but detractors no less. Yet I never found him bothered by either. In my understanding, it was not the public ovation, awards or recognitions that guided his actions. His moral self was not founded on the extra-ordinariness of life. This could be the reason why he remained closely guarded about his struggles, achievements and accomplishments. A self that he consciously kept subdued. Where did he draw this strength from that kept him resolute on his principles without looking for applause? This courage and conviction perhaps stemmed from his humble roots, which taught him to limit his wants, desires and expressions. The other, more evident, was religion. Despite his pre-occupations, he would never miss his namaz five times a day, or the daily recitation of the Holy Quran. It was a deep personal conviction that had no room for imposition or persuasion. Once in Madhepura, the then chief minister was due to visit the hospital on a Friday but as the visit kept getting delayed, he left for his Juma ( Friday) prayers. When he returned, the staff told him that the chief minister had been very upset at his absence. He calmly replied that he had gone to pay obeisance to a higher authority.
My turn towards agnosticism must have pained him, as he told me on his return from Hajj that he prayed for my forgiveness. His non-invasive practice of religion, I believe, is how most ordinary Indians lived by their faith despite the infusion of politics. Accommodation and mutuality were more of everyday reality than merely prescription. Mutuality amounted to respect and sensitivity. Thus cooking beef was proscribed as it could hurt the sentiments of non-Muslim neighbours. There was accommodation with competing ideologies and philosophies. Despite being a firm believer, his conviction in science and modern medicine were unshaken till his last. In the end, the latter deceived him, but he never deserted it. Alternative medicinal practices such as homoeopathy, Unani or Ayurveda, leave aside shamans and mystics, simply did not impress him as they lacked sufficient research. In the domain of politics, Maulana Azad was his ideal, his India wins Freedom, recommended to everyone who cared to listen. But there was a silent admiration for Jinnah too, purely on account of his sartorial style. My father too liked to turn out well, with a modest collection of blazers, suits and shoes that would adorn his wardrobe. Modernity and tradition found accommodation in myriad ways.
Except for his early childhood, he never lived in the village. I do not recollect him being nostalgic about it too. Nevertheless, the ties were not lost, and he contributed in his distinct way to fortify them. The two-bedroom government accommodation in Munger perpetually bustled with relatives, near and distant, who would come down for treatment and other works. Two of my cousins whose parents lived in the villages completed their school and college education while staying with us. Ideas of origins and belongingness, the political rhetoric of our times, carried a different meaning altogether. It manifested itself in tangible deeds that one could do for one’s people. It was this strong sense of obligation to the land and the people, I guess, that stopped him from heading towards greener pastures abroad. For it would amount to a disconnect from his roots, and that was not acceptable to him. More recently, in the backdrop of doubts being raised about the loyalty of Muslims, he recounted how during their college days, similar accusations were not so uncommon. Instructors would ask whether on learning the craft of surgery, they would go to Pakistan. My father and fellow Muslim students would strongly refute such allegations arguing that they belonged to this land, and it was unthinkable that they would ever leave it. Village, region and nation were in the continuum that defined his idea of belongingness.
In the intimate sphere of home and family, he was a different man altogether. As a parent, he was distant and firm. Perhaps that was his idea of bringing up or was it the preoccupations of the profession that left him with little time to attend to smaller details of our growing up. I do not recall him attending any parent-teacher meeting at school. Extravagance received no encouragement, and living within one’s means was the first lesson that all of us learnt. While upholding a stern exterior, one could see him rattled by even a minor illness in the family. The emotional side of his persona was more apparent post-retirement. During our mother’s terminal illness, he devoted all his time to be at her side, to keep her spirits high during a long and painful treatment that she had to bear. Similarly, when our sister was unfortunately widowed at a very young age, he immediately stepped in to provide guardianship to the two grandchildren. He breathed his last after having satisfactorily guided them into adulthood.
This could be the life story of any ordinary individual. My father was simply one amongst them.