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Remembering Shuja

March 2015

 

 

"Take care of all your memories for you cannot relive them"

- Bob Dylan

 

Bangalore in the mid 1970s was an easygoing, verdant, mid sized city, with extraordinarily great weather, and Basavangudi was considered one of its cultural, if conservative, hubs. The East-West school that Sajju (as I remember calling him first, but for not more than a couple of years) and I went to, in that part of town, was marked by a liberal, non-denominational ethos – having been established by American Theosophists in 1961. We sang Dylan in the morning ‘assembly’, along with Kabir and Sur, Christian & Vedic hymns and Bhajans – none of which – as an eight year old I entirely understood the import of. Some of the tunes were enjoyable – but the words, I suspect, completely escaped most of us.

This is the setting in which I met Syed Shujauddin sometime in the first three months of 1974. Losing him, suddenly, on March 8, 2015, a few days before I turned 49, has been devastating, and impels me to write about my friend by way of reminiscing and reflecting on his life and what it meant to my own. As I do so, I realize that writing about him is, at least circumstantially, terribly like writing about myself. So large was our common history and common memory.

My earliest memories of Sajju are not particularly sharp. I remember him as a fuzz-haired 8-year old who was accessible, affable and likeable, and I befriended him easily. He must have been, in retrospect, very popular with the other kids, and perhaps the teachers at school, as well. Throughout our school years, I recall his perfectly white shirt – always whiter than my own - and orderly hair – always more orderly than mine.

Within a couple of years of the ‘Sajju’ period, for me, came the Syed period when almost everyone, except within his family of course, began to call him this. I suspect most of us did not realize until much later, if at all, that his given name was Shujauddin (shortened colloquially, later, to Shuja). But, as is the way with school, you get called a certain name, and that sticks. So many Facebook messages that were posted on his passing still refer to him as Syed.

Back then, you had friends in school and, unless you lived in the immediate vicinity, you had friends in your home neighborhood – but these two groups stayed distinct until you were old enough to ‘get around’ on your own. So it was a couple of years later, in our middle school years that I got to know Syed outside of school and met his family in their home in the Das Compound area of Basavangudi.

It was evident to me, even then, that there was a Hindu part of Basavangudi and a Muslim part to it, but Das Compound, albeit almost entirely Muslim, was separated from what was often referred to as the ‘Mohammadan block’ by RV road, tucked in, as it is, on one side of Vijaya College. I recollect finding the communal reference to the area distinctly embarrassing, besides being a little quaint, since, by that time, as far as I was concerned, we preferred the term Muslim over ‘Mohammadan’, which seemed like some British-era hangover that my grandparents might have used. So to me, I always took off on my bicycle to meet Syed who lived either in Basavangudi or in Jayanagar either of which Das Compound could safely claim to belong to.

I recollect Syed’s parents as warm, un-intimidating and welcoming – but most importantly as folks who were willing to indulge even us kids in non-patronizing and genuine conversation. As a vegetarian, I recollect Syed’s mother telling me that I was welcome to eat with them anytime and that there would be non-vegetarian dishes on the table on only certain fixed days of the week. Needless to say, the vegetarian food was always delightful.

But the real attraction of hanging at Syed’s was of course that, as all good buddies do, we shared all and discussed everything that our middle, and later high school, brains and bodies were dealing with.

As we got into high school, Syed was beginning to demonstrate what organizations might call ‘leadership qualities’. In a perversion of democracy, the school had this practice of nominating a small set of students who could run for the office of ‘school captain’ – which position was then filled through an open election. Shuja was, of course, nominated, as was I, in that group. I had no stomach for this ‘front person’ role and did not campaign; nor did the other nominee, as best I recall. Shuja on the other hand, ran a well organized campaign, with his supporters, and handsomely and fittingly became school captain. That year, he was also named “student of the year” for his all round abilities.

The early 80s were for us, what could be best described as the “India Today, arrival-of-post-Asian-Games-nationwide-TV” years and the first, earliest flush of the arrival of ‘big city’ India into Bangalore with all its attendant attractions, aspirations and frivolities, as selectively reported by the mass media that we were being exposed to. Shuja and I navigated this with a certain self-aware and deliberately constructed aloofness. The crass commercialization and mass consumerism (even the earliest form of it, from that, relatively innocent, and still socialist era!) was not something we were going to uncritically accept. I remember us referring to “India Today” as “Delhi-Bombay Today”, to suggest that the India they reported was not something we considered ourselves a part of! Looking back, this may have been an early indication that both of us were going to retain, despite ending up doing fairly conventional things, a dissenting view of the world and indeed make some unconventional choices.

From about late 1988, having pursued a different set of immediate collegial cues and interests came the ‘gap years’ for Syed and me. I went into a career in engineering, first for a few months in (what was then) Bombay and then left the country, while Syed entered advertising, then technology sales, followed by a business management degree and a career in the IT industry in West Asia. It was perhaps these ‘gap years’ that allowed me to seamlessly transition to calling him Shuja when we reconnected in the early 2000s.

I don’t have a close understanding of the things he did during these years, but as I learned, subsequently, when we came together again in Bangalore, he had traveled widely in that part of the world, developed a nuanced understanding of the society and politics of the region and created a large network of friends and business contacts. It was in these years, too, that momentous and tempestuous events occurred in his life that I was not a part of, at all. I learned about these, only second hand, and much later, from close, common friends. He met Ishviene while studying business management in Bombay in 1990. They married in 1995 soon after which she moved to join him in the United Arab Emirates where they lived and worked jobs for many years. Their son was born at this time.

I seem to recollect speaking to Shuja only twice in this entire period – once, when I called his parents home in Bangalore, on a whim, to find out where he was, and found him on a visit there, and in the midst of a visit, in turn, by common friends. The second was a brief occasion from the airport in Dubai when I was in transit – but that call was truncated because of problems with my connecting flight that I needed to run off to deal with. I recall Shuja speaking slightly British inflected English when I heard him on these occasions and wondering if this was an accessory of his business years in West Asia.

I met Ishviene & saw Shuja again for the first time in well over a decade in maybe 2001, when they visited Bangalore together. Ishviene moved to live in Bangalore in 2003 with her son, Zoheb, when I got to know her and learned more about the astonishingly complicated and emotionally wrenching times they underwent getting married. The communitarian schisms underlying Indian life developed into deep and very unfortunate rifts that kept their families apart right to the end of Shuja’s life.

Shuja himself moved back to Bangalore, in 2005. I see the years starting with my reconnect with him as the ‘Shuja’ years. I think what characterized our relationship in this last decade and a half, and made it particularly constructive and comforting for me, was that while we had the closeness of a long, common history, our interactions and assessments of each other, and the world, somehow seemed only lightly weighted and never constrained by our past. We talked at length, discussed the world in fresh terms, acknowledging, fully, our journeys since then, without allowing the past to weigh us down with baggage that we might have evolved from, jettisoned, or rejected along the way.

I find, when I examine other similar, long, close relationships, that they tend to get murky when they rake up too much from the past that, for whatever reasons, might be uncomfortable, embarrassing or no more valid. I think Shuja and I had a tacit understanding of the virtues of allowing our lives, persuasions and the present to speak louder than our past, without denying any of it. Acknowledging both success and folly was easier, more honest and impersonal from this ‘retrospective’, almost ‘writer-like’ position. And once more, like far in the past, but in a different present, we discussed everything – openly and freely.

Shuja was always the unabashed ‘front’ man, willing to stand in the limelight, seemingly unfettered by self doubt; I, almost the opposite. But we shared common concerns, doubts, fears and a common assessment of life in many ways. We also shared a dissenting streak, healthy skepticism about the mainstream, and shared liberal, political common ground. When we reconnected, I was pleasantly surprised, for example, at how seamlessly he, with his corporate, business development career history, would slip along with me into the role of dissenter and critic of corporate life and ways.

The basics of a great working relationship were always in place and although we often shared contacts, had common conversations, recommended each other, opened doors for the other, and, on a couple of occasions, came close to it– we didn’t do any professional work together. I can only wonder how it might have turned out, had we teamed up.

I had often suggested to Shuja that he consider entering active politics – given his personal traits, deep interest in public affairs and energy. Once more, this stayed at the level of conversations he had, with me, and with many others. Given a time extension, perhaps we would have seen him find a suitable political platform, at a time when there are viable alternatives emerging. I sparred with him, all the way until a few days before he left us, over why he was being apologetic about India’s current government, their distrust of civil society organizations, dilution of land acquisition protections, etc., and over why, as I saw it, he was taking a ‘politically correct’ tone on the social media platforms that he was so comfortable with (and I so uncomfortable with). I will never know what he wanted to talk about when I missed a call from him a few days before he left us.

A couple of years ago I had suggested to Shuja that he would be the right person to get on the managing committee of an old cultural institution in Bangalore that had been operationally sagging and seemed to have been taken over by culturally conservative and ‘exclusivist’ thinking, quite contrary to its founding charter. He was keen, as were key people on the other side, to take this ahead. This was another of the many roles that Shuja might have played and influenced so positively.

He lamented, on so many occasions, the loss of the liberal voice and contraction of the liberal space (within social communities and in public) and had proposed that we get involved with an online news portal that would step beyond the conventional boundaries of left-progressive-liberal and right-conservative and appeal to the young and non-ideologically biased without highlighting the old, hackneyed fault lines between the two. We were to connect with a senior journalist friend to sit down and discuss this, but that remains another unfinished thread.

There was just too much going on, between us, albeit unstructured, and at the level of conversation. There were enough south Bangalore coffees and idlies to share, enough arguments to have, common joys to celebrate, doubts to dispel, and things to do, to fill another lifetime. And there remains that one great unrequited wish of mine -to travel the back roads – something I truly love and enjoy - with Shuja. This is something we never, ever managed to do in our times together. I had a theory about why this never happened, but that shall remain now, undiscussed.

I often called Shuja the true ‘Basavangudi Brahmin’ for his cultural affinity to the place – and deep comfort with it – far greater than my own. He would not have wished to live anywhere else, even if Basavangudi made it difficult for him to find a home to rent, because he was Muslim. Perhaps had he lived longer and influenced more people, such sad prejudice might have found itself on an ever weakening footing.

I have no one now to call on each time I am in his vicinity, to discuss what is bothering me, or him, to discuss the world, to discuss my uncommon interests, to plot the future, or just laugh with.

We had a custom handshake between us, that developed many decades ago and we unfailingly used every time we parted. I give him a big one now. So long, mate.