“I Am His Book”
Ali Madeeh Hashmi pays a heartfelt tribute to a legendary educationist and a man of letters who trained a generation of medical practitioners and built institutions. Above all, he was a sensitive man of vision and fortitude.
vafā ke baab meñ kār-e-suḳhan tamām huā/ chalo ki rishta-e-rūh-o-badan tamām huā
“The practice of poetry in the act of faithfulness is done/Move on, the bond between body and soul is done”
There is a story told about Allama Muhammad Iqbal: when he was offered a knighthood by Her Majesty’s government, he insisted that he would only accept if his beloved teacher Maulvi Mir Hassan was awarded the title of ‘Shamsul Ulema’ (the ‘Sun of Scholars’). When the government objected that Mir Hassan had not written a book (or books) worthy of that title, Iqbal famously replied ‘I am his book’. It is said that Faiz Ahmed Faiz would answer the same way if people ever disparaged his teacher and mentor Ahmad Shah Bokhari ‘Patras’, teacher, diplomat, educationist and humorist.
Just last night, many of us received the news that a towering figure of Pakistan’s medical community had died suddenly of a heart attack. Prof. Dr. Faisal Masud was just 65, young by today’s standards and apparently in good health; which is why most of us who visited his house soon after his death were in total shock. As I write this, condolences on his death and accolades for his medical genius continue to pour in over social media. Former Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif tweeted “Just heard an unbelievably sad news about passing away of Dr Faisal Masood…He was not only a great medical genius but also an amazing human being!”
Writing a Facebook post or a tweet seems such an inadequate way to pay tribute to a man’s life and work. And from all accounts, Prof. Masud, or ‘Faisal sahib’ as we affectionately called him died the same way he had lived: on his own terms. He served as the first permanent Vice Chancellor of my alma mater and the place where I currently teach, King Edward Medical University.
It was at the same place 30 years ago that I first made Faisal sahib’s acquaintance as a medical student. He had arrived back from the UK just a few years ago, armed with an advanced medical degree (and, it was whispered in class, an English wife!) and a passion to teach. With his immaculately tailored suits, piercing eyes and unruly salt and pepper hair, he made for an arresting figure and one that we, the male medical students, desperately wanted to emulate. In class, holding a piece of chalk in one hand and an old style mike in the other with the wire trailing behind him, he would hold our class of two hundred mesmerized for 45 minutes. Unlike most of our other faculty members, when Faisal sahib spoke, you could not take your eyes off him.
His command of his subject was so complete and his style of teaching so fascinating that it was impossible not to pay attention. Even today, more than thirty years later, I remember nothing about what he taught me but can still picture him in my mind waving the chalk while he paced around in the front of the lecture hall.
A few years ago, when he was our Vice Chancellor, I happened to walk by the same lecture hall and paused outside. Faisal sahib was inside taking a lecture. Despite being a Vice-Chancellor, he had not given up teaching. Every few minutes I would hear the class erupt in laughter as he regaled them with his stories. I asked him one day if I could sit in the class and he graciously agreed. With over three hundred senior medical students hanging on to his every word, I sat in the front row and once again watched Faisal sahib work his magic; gesticulating, talking, whispering, joking, laughing along with the students and by the end of the class, he was drenched in sweat, so complete was the effort he put into his teaching. The students were in awe of him and so was I.
When he came to our University as Vice-Chancellor, I was on the verge of leaving after a few years teaching there. I had become increasingly disheartened by the bureaucratic and administrative inertia and the sometimes bloody minded laziness that I had encountered at every turn. He took a liking to me and singled me out for his special attention (sometimes infuriating senior faculty who, I learned, would often whisper about me behind his back). Faisal sahib’s attention was a double edged sword though. It meant taking on onerous tasks that I was singularly ill-suited for: going to a local market and picking out the lights that he wanted to install in our grand University Senate Hall; using my family connections to contact eminent local architects and trying to persuade them to renovate our Senate Hall for free(!); I even once ended up sorting through roof tiles to weed out the ones that Faisal sahib decided were low quality (my colleagues still tease me about that).
In exchange for this drudgery though, those he liked were rewarded with teas and coffees with him in his grand Vice-Chancellor’s office where we would be regaled with stories about his exploits in England, his singular dislike for lectures while he was a medical student (even though he ended up the best graduate of his college) and even recipes for making the best pineapple up down cake that he personally had taught his chef.
In addition, his tenure as VC of our University was a breath of fresh air compared to the stultifying atmosphere before it. The renovated Senate Hall was decorated with reproductions of paintings by famous masters from Michelangelo to Van Gogh to Monet, Iqbal Bano’s rendition of Faiz’s ‘Tum Aaye Ho’ would play in the background at official functions and once Faisal sahib insisted that I sit in his office and listen with him to a rendition of Amir Khusro’s “Har baat hai rindana” while his office staff looked on bemused.
Another time I had gone to his office for some errand and was waiting my turn to speak to him while he conferred with senior professors. Suddenly, he looked up, pointed at me and held up a book on his desk “Oye, suna hai tum bahut kitabain waghaira parhtay ho? Yeh kitaab parhi hai?” He was holding up an Urdu copy of “Baital Pachisi”, the famous Sanskrit collection of tales about a vetala (or Baital), a celestial spirit analogous to a vampire in Western literature who hangs upside-down from a tree and inhabits and animates dead bodies. He paused his meeting and called me over. I took the book, turned its pages and told him I would like to read it. He looked at me and said with a twinkle in his eye “Yeh bahut mushkil kitaab hai. Tum parh lo gay?” I could feel the eyes of the other Professors boring into me. Faisal sahib smiled and said ‘If you can read it, I will gift it to you. Sit.’. So I pulled up a chair next to his desk and sat down. I opened up the first page and started reading. The Urdu was slightly difficult with some Sanskrit words mixed in but after the first paragraph I began to get the hang of it. Every so often Faisal sahib would stop me to ask the meaning of a particular word and I would tell him. I had read about two pages to him when he stopped me, beaming. He looked over at his other Professors triumphantly and handed me the book ‘Shabaash!’ I asked him to sign it for me and he did in his elegant long hand. That book is one of my greatest treasures.
There are too many stories like that for a short article but suffice it to say that Faisal sahib was, in a world where the word has been vulgarized beyond recognition, a true legend.
Before leading our university, he had established, built and led another public medical college in Lahore, the Services Institute of Medical Sciences and had also, within its premises built Lahore’s first public diabetic treatment center with a first of its kind electronic medical record for patient registration. The number of doctors he trained is countless, easily in the tens of thousands and the number of patients he personally treated is even larger. Even on the day of his death, he had spent the morning in his office at Punjab HOTA, the Human Organ Transplant Authority that the government had established at his urging to regulate Pakistan’s mushrooming illegal organ trade. Faisal sahib was appointed PHOTA’s first Director General.
He could be irascible, rude and even aggressive but he was also unbelievably kind, giving and affectionate. When I first got to know him, I too felt the lash of his tongue but when we got to be friends, he was nothing but affectionate and always inspiring. My colleagues and I, all of us in our fifties, senior medical teachers all, agreed that we never sat in the company of Faisal sahib without learning something new and being inspired. He once joked to me that he had no ear for poetry (although he had a keen appreciation for art) but also mentioned that he wrote short stories and I asked him why he didn’t publish them. His answer “They are not for others. They wouldn’t understand”.
So, if anyone is tempted to argue that Prof. Faisal Masud didn’t live up to his promise because he didn’t publish any books, I can proudly say “I am his book”. And there are thousands of doctors and medical professionals in Pakistan and all over the world who would say the same.
The writer is a psychiatrist and a faculty member at King Edward Medical University in Lahore. He taught and practiced Psychiatry in the United States for 16 years. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh