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The Man Who Changed Lives

By JYOTI PUNWANI
Last updated on: September 10, 2019 10:20 IST

This Teacher's Day, students remember Syed Feroze Ashraf, the 'Uncle', who changed the lives of many children forever.
Jyoti Punwani reports.

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

Saba is in a fix. She just scored a miraculous 71% in her Std X board exam and is dying to go to college.

But her brother won't let her.

And there's no 'Uncle' to convince her brother.

When Urdu/Hindi journalist Feroze Ashraf was run over by one of Mumbai's trademark careless autorickshaw drivers on the evening of June 7, not just his family, but every one of the more than 500 first-generation learners tutored by him, felt orphaned.

"I'm still trying to understand what I've lost," said Niloufer, his first student. "He was the only person with whom I shared my problems."

Way back in 1997, when she was a Class 9 student weak in Maths, Niloufer's father, who worked as a watchman in Ashraf's building, had requested the only man in the building who read newspapers, to coach her for a modest fee.

Ashraf refused the fee, took Niloufer as his student, and never looked back.

Then on, his modest apartment became the destination for the poorest of the poor children in his predominantly Muslim neighbourhood.

'Don't worry about anything, I'm here. You just study,' he would tell them.

"Uncle never let us leave his house hungry, nor did he let us lack anything. Fees to pens, medicines to rain shoes, he gave us everything, even rations sometimes. What I'm wearing today was given to me by Uncle," says Nagma, who failed her Class 12 exam and is floundering for guidance in a world without 'Uncle'.

IMAGE: Students gather to pay tribute to Syed Feroze Ashraf. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

It's not as if Ashraf was wealthy. The retired Indian Oil employee made a modest living from his newspaper columns.

Yet he thought nothing about handing out Rs 24,000 to three of his students who urgently needed to pay college admission fees.

For another student, he broke his fixed deposit so that the boy could immediately pay Rs 46,000 to join a merchant navy course.

But Ashraf's biggest gifts to these children were of another kind.

These were children whose world was restricted to their nearby municipal school, and who, as Nagma put it, "lived like prisoners in the four walls of our home."

What Ashraf gave them were self-confidence, the capacity to dream, and a rock-hard belief in education.

IMAGE: Niloufer. who fled from college on the first day, is now doing a post graduate journalism course. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Today, Niloufer, who ran to 'Uncle''s ho,e terrified by the crowd she saw on her first day in college, has finished her first year LLB, and joined Mumbai University's Urdu journalism course where Ashraf taught till his sudden death.

As she speks in Urdu, words such as "introvert" and "obviously" flow off Niloufer's tongue.

But she hasn't forgotten the day she stared blankly when Ashraf asked her to translate "ghoda daud raha hai" (the horse is running) into English. Thanks to Uncle, I could write my BA papers in philosophy and economics in English," she says proudly.

Ruksana would hide behind the curtain when visitors dropped in.

Today, her multiple promotions as saleswoman in a well-known chain of jewellery stores have enabled this 22 year old to book a flat and a motorcycle.

"Had it not been for 'Uncle', I too would have been producing kids and washing utensils in other people's homes like my mother used to," she says.

IMAGE: Sisters Naghma, left, and Saba. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Some of these children had absentee fathers, but after they met Ashraf, that didn't matter. Abida. for instance.

The youngest of six siblings brought up single-handedly by their mother, and the only one to finish school and college, she now runs 'Uncle's Classes' from her home, funded by Ashraf, and helped by her two English-school-going daughters who attend English schools.

Abida's eyes fill up as she recounts how she would ring up Ashraf to share every anxiety and every joy.

Nazneen called Ashraf on the eve of her final BA exam to pray for her.

"Next morning, on the way to the exam hall, I called him from the auto. And when the exam was over, I called him again."

IMAGE: Nazneen, right, did her MA in English literature and fulfilled Ashraf's dream. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Nazneen was the special one chosen by Ashraf to fulfill his dream: Seeing one of his Urdu medium students, hailing from a slum in a Muslim ghetto, graduate in English Literature.

Breaking down, Nazneen recalled how her mentor, despite his 70+ years, had come all the way to her house, to congratulate her when she graduated.

"He wept as he thanked me for making him proud," she recalled.

Ashraf even persuaded Nazneen's mother to complete her graduation 14 years after she dropped out.

Today, she runs 'Uncle's Classes' from her home.

IMAGE: Sharifa, one of Syed Feroze Ashraf's students. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Shareefa has just given up teaching in a private school because it paid only Rs 4,000.

"Thanks to Uncle, I'm a graduate, I've done my DEd and BEd. Are my skills worth so little?" she asks.

This was the girl whose only dream as a child was to enter the stately portals of the government college near her slum.

When she failed twice in Class 9, her mother, determined to give her daughter the chances she never had, took her to Ashraf.

Encouraged by Ashraf, this school girl got into a local train alone for the first time, and travelled 26.5 km so that she could get a form for a correspondence course.

Today Shareefa is determined not to marry anyone less qualified than her.

"Why did 'Uncle' struggle so much for us? He taught us to stand on our own feet."

IMAGE: Saba remembers her guide as Arifa Ashraf, Syed Feroze Ashraf's wife, left, and another student Ruksana looks on. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

There were other lessons too that Ashraf taught these children.

Akhlaq, now in the merchant navy, recounts them: "Don't take a decision only to please others. Share what you have. Help others to educate themselves. Don't look at others as Hindus or Muslims, but as humans."

At a meeting held recently by activists Javed Anand and Irfan Engineer to celebrate Feroze Ashraf's life, his students tearfully pleaded: "Please bring 'Uncle' back, we need him badly."

Yet, they also showed that they had learnt the lessons taught by their mentor.

Even as she wept recalling how her father had simply shrugged when she had shown him her SSC report card, and her brother's warning not to study further, 17-year-old Saba admitted that she had already filled up the college admission form without informing these two men.

"Go ahead and take admission," Ashraf's students told her. "How long can your brother stop you? Didn't Uncle teach us to fight for ourselves?"

Feroze Ashraf would have been so proud.

JYOTI PUNWANI
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