Lessons from a Life Well Lived

    Civil societyDiversityLessons from a Life Well Lived
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    Lessons from a Life Well Lived

    This is the last part of my series of columns about my father – M Rashad Mahmood – who was born in Bombay in 1932 and completed 90 years of his life this July. Since Dr Jaffar Ahmed is compiling his old comrade’s biography that the Institute of Historical and Social Research will soon publish, I am not going to give more details here.

    Naazir Mahmood

    I would like to conclude this series by outlining some lessons I have learnt from my father. Having lost both his parents while still a teenager, he has always kept himself busy. From doing various odd jobs as a child labourer to being an employee at various glass shops and factories in Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, and Karachi he has been a hardworking man all along. When he opened his own shops and then set up a small home-based factory of glass, mirrors, and picture framing in Lahore and Karachi, he made them a success.

    This is the first lesson: keep oneself busy. At times he suffered losses, especially in the 1970s when he fell on hard times – but he always bounced back. My three brothers and I were required to be present at the shop and work with him after school time. He made sure that his sons could earn their livelihood with their own skills rather than relying on somebody else. The lesson we learnt was to never be lazy or just lounge around wasting time.

    Love for Reading

    Love for reading is the second lesson I received from my father. In Bombay he used to frequent Shahid Free Library in Madan Pura, and numerous other book banks, apart from receiving books, magazines, and newspapers from his senior comrades living and working in various areas of Bombay. From our childhood we have seen him reading at least a couple of newspapers daily. He always kept himself abreast of what is happening in the country and around the world. He was not able to complete his school education but his interest in reading on various disciplines instilled a similar streak in me.

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    I learnt from him to read intently current affairs, history, literature, political science, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and many other disciplines. He bought me books from old book venders and even during my school years prompted me to read Urdu literature and translations of world literature in Urdu. Thanks to him, I was able to develop a reasonable understanding of political and social issues and the literary trends of the past and the present. The lesson was to be interested in everything that is happening around us. He is a curious man and tried to make us so too, with varying degrees of success.

    Shun chauvinism

    His commitment to and understanding of Marxist philosophy is exemplary. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and disappearance of the socialist bloc from the scene, he remains a Marxist, and still believes in the fundamental ideas propounded by Karl Marx. I have learned from him that dialectical and historical materialism are useful tools for understanding intricacies of social development anywhere in the world. Though I have reservations about any universal applicability of Marxism with all its determinism and inevitability of a socialist revolution, what I have learnt from him is still valuable to me.

    The next lesson from him is to remain above all bigotry and prejudices in life. He has had friends from all ethnic and religious groups; never allowing any chauvinist or jingoist to enter his inner circle. His advice is clear: make friends from all orientations and never be swayed by denominational considerations. He gave us a lesson in secularism that has stood us in good stead. There are many who have retracted their earlier secular inclinations, especially in their old age, he has not.

    His love for art and culture has been another major lesson for us. Films have been his passion and he has remained a movie buff from his early years in Bombay. He recalls with vivid description nearly all the movies he saw in his youth and later. You name a movie of the 1940s and 50s, and he will be able to tell you about its actors, director, musicians, and lyricists. You recite a line from a song of that period and he is likely to recite the entire composition with the names of composers and singers.

    Arts and the activist

    He taught us that good films are a fairly beneficial source to learn about different societies and their problems. Appreciation of dance and drama is also something we learnt from him, coupled with a clear and even academic level of understanding of poetry. He still remembers the ghazals and poems by Kaifi Azami, Sardar Jafri, Niaz Haider, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Arif Jalali, and many others that he listened to in his younger days in Bombay. Ghalib is his favourite and thanks to my father’s explanation of couplets, I am able to enjoy even hard to understand poetry.

    Involving oneself in literary and political activities is also a lesson to learn. He took us to literary sittings and political gatherings from our childhood. In Malir, there was a ‘Bazm-iIlm-o-Danish’ that he frequented and took us along. There were also various programmes that the PMA, PWA, and Irtiqa organized in Karachi that we attended. They were informative and interesting – some we found boring too – but they taught us a lot and developed our sense of appreciation.

    Simple life

    Another lesson that I have learned from him is his lack of all sorts of pretensions in life. He has remained an open book – warts and all – for all to see. Living a simple life, even when his sons managed to own cars and homes, living reasonably better lives, he never cherished or enjoyed material luxuries. Once, one of my brothers took him to a big departmental store in Karachi where his family spent a considerable amount of money on shopping, from groceries to many necessary and unnecessary items. They bought different types of breads and cereals, beef and mutton, prawns and fish, numerous bakery items and flavoured yogurts and what not.

    My brother told me later that on their way back, my father had tears in his eyes. When asked, he said he remembered the days after his father died and his mother was unable to give three square meals to her children. He missed his mother and added that he was so happy that his children and grandchildren were able to afford that much. This was all possible thanks to my father’s tireless struggle in life and proper guidance to us. His mother died of tuberculosis; now his grandson is an MD (doctor of medicine) and owns a private hospital in Karachi.

    The last lesson is about him being conscious of his health. He attributes his good health and longevity to his habit of not eating much. We have always seen him eat a little. We don’t remember him filling his stomach ever. Just a small roti or chapati, or a small portion of rice. What he ate aplenty was fruit; from apricots, mangoes, and oranges to papayas, peaches, and melons – of course in small quantities, but frequently. He refrained from drinking alcohol and smoking, so none of his children or grandchildren ever smoked. My father loved to walk long distances and also cycled in his youth. And that pretty much sums up his life in a nutshell.


    The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at:  [email protected]


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