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An Extraordinary Indian passes into the ages

By JYOTI PUNWANI
Last updated on: June 10, 2019 10:55 IST

Jyoti Punwani pays tribute to Syed Feroze Ashraf, the eternal do-gooder who changed the lives of many children.

IMAGE: Syed Feroze Ashraf with his students. The do-gooder ran his Uncle's Classes for free and helped many poor Muslims graduate. All photographs: Afsar Dayatar/Rediff.com

If there ever was a Muslim who qualified as a 'victim', Syed Feroze Ashraf fit the bill.

But though he remained acutely aware of the change that the 1992-1993 riots had forced upon his life, this journalist and former trade unionist who never stopped believing in the Revolution, spent his time transforming the lives of those around him, not wallowing in victimhood.

After the 1992-1993 riots, Ashraf felt compelled, for the sake of his young son, who had been traumatised by the violence he had witnessed, to shift from a quiet lane in Malad to a noisy bustling colony near Jogeshwari's main mosque.

It was more than a change in location for this Urdu-Hindi journalist.

 

The hardnosed businessmen of his new neighbourhood, he found, had no use for newspapers; and the only festivals celebrated were those of their own community.

They had never even had a flag hoisting there -- Ashraf organised the first one.

It took a long time for Ashraf, who had grown up in Hazaribagh celebrating every Hindu festival and reciting the Saraswati Vandana without giving it a second thought, to adjust.

He might never have done so had it not been for the sudden responsibility thrust on him -- that of coaching the neighbourhood's poorest children for free.

It started off with his watchman's daughter, and soon, his small home was full of children, mostly girls, from the ghettos of Jogeshwari East, north west Mumbai, just across the tracks.

Ashraf soon realised that if he had to get them through school, he had to meet their parents.

For the moment they failed one academic year, their parents would pull them out of school.

IMAGE: Mr Ashraf with his students. A former Indian Oil employee, he wrote columns for the Navbharat Times for many years.

Somehow, making his way through the narrow, garbage-filled lanes of Jogeshwari East, Ashraf convinced their fathers: Most of them illiterate daily wage earners, that if their daughters had to scrape through in school, they needed a two-hour break from housework, some food -- even a vada pav, the TV off for a couple of hours and a brightly lit corner in their crowded, tiny one-room homes, that was away from the perennially open door.

But winning over parents was just half the battle.

The other half was to persuade school principals to stop the callous practice of failing academically weak students in Standard 9, just so that the school could boast of a 100% SSC result.

Inevitably, parents of girls who failed would declare that studying till Standard 9 was more than enough for a girl.

Finally, Ashraf had to simplify the syllabus for these first generation learners from Urdu medium schools.

Mugging, he realised, was the only way they could master topics completely alien to their lives.

To help them with English, Ashraf would summarise entire chapters in short sentences easy enough for them to memorise.

But none of this would have worked had his classes not included some food (most of the girls came there on an empty stomach), the occasional outing, and Ashraf's wife Arifa's comforting presence.

A BMC employee, Arifa taught the girls to think as if their lives mattered.

'Uncle's' first batch passed their SSC in 1997. At his home on Saturday, June 8, it was that batch that surrounded Arifa and cried their hearts out remembering the man because of whom they could discover the joys and pride of college and graduation.

Ashraf's fights for the rights of his students extended to colleges too.

He would plead with principals to forget the applicant's low marks and think of admission into college as a chance to change a life.

He would point out the rule that said Standard 12 board exams could be written in Urdu.

Some of the 500 + students Ashraf has coached are today lawyers, teachers, advertising agency executives, coffee shop assistants, teachers; some write poetry.

A dream Ashraf had for long was to see at least one of his students graduate in English Literature. Unbelievably, that dream too was fulfilled.

Niloufer from his first batch told this reporter that just two days before his sudden death, 'Uncle' had made her promise that she would finish her last law semester.

"Now I will have to do it for him," she said, wondering at the same time how she would pay the fees.

IMAGE: Syed Feroze Ashraf changed the lives of so many.

Ashraf hated begging for funds; apart from the occasional grant from some donor who had read about his work, he dug into his own shallow pockets and those of friends to run his classes.

That was why he had nothing but contempt for his community's 'leaders' as well as 'intellectuals'.

"Everyone tells me: You are doing great work. Shouldn't they be helping me? For all their talk about the community, have these leaders and intellectuals made a single free reading room for their community's children in these ghettos?" he said in a 2015 interview to Rediff.com.

"Have these Urdu intellectuals ever ventured into these areas? It is their duty to go there. If they don't, the mullahs will. These are the places where Urdu is being kept alive," he pointed out angrily.

"If at all they go there," he added, "they end up writing disparaging things about them. They don't see that in those very congested garbage-filled neighbourhoods, girls are struggling to build their lives."

In the 20 years that he ran his classes, Ashraf found that the poverty in these ghettos remained the same.

What did change though, was the attitude of the parents.

He no longer had to convince them to educate their daughters.

The daughters were speaking up, and parents were listening.

It is this mission that left Feroze Ashraf with little time to indulge in intellectual debates about secularism and the like.

Journalism and teaching poor children -- these remained his two passions.

Feroze Ashraf won many awards for journalism. In November 2017, the Maharashtra state Urdu Sahitya Academy honoured him for his 'services to Urdu'.

A more worthy recipient could not have been found.

Recently, an Urdu school asked Ashraf for help with some of their Standard 9 students who couldn't string a few sentences together. Ashraf asked his ex-students if they were up to the task.

At the end of the three months given to them, the parents of those Standard 9 students reported that their children, who would make any excuse to avoid studying, were actually now studying on their own.

And in what was perhaps the greatest tribute to him, some of his ex-students began their own branches of 'Uncle's Classes' in their neighbourhoods for poor Urdu-medium children.

With more time on his hands, Feroze Ashraf started on a new voyage: Discovering Muslim leaders who had contributed to the country in the pre-Independence era.

"Muslims feel bad about their leaders having been ignored since Independence," he once told me.

"It's as if Muslims made no sacrifices, as if their only contribution was to create Pakistan."

He began a weekly column on such leaders in 2009; it will soon be a book.

Ashraf's discovery of his own community began around 1996. Till then, he had spent his life amid progressive intellectuals, Left activists -- years that he could have spent educating a generation, he often said wistfully.

But in the last quarter century of his 78 years, Syed Feroze Ashraf more than made up for the years he spent away from his community.

Had he not been so tragically knocked down by a reckless autorickshaw driver on Friday night, his community and all of us would have continued to benefit from his commitment.

JYOTI PUNWANI
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