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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Remembering my father, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, by Tasneem Ebrahim

I remember the passing away of someone close to one’s heart is at all times a difficult thing. This is more so when that someone happens to be one’s own father: a figure so prominent in one’s life as to defeat any effort at recollecting a time when he was not there in one’s living memory – a memory that started off with one’s entry into this world. Indeed, next to one’s mother, the father remains the cause of that entry, the human source of preservation, of protection and guidance for one’s life, post the entry into it.

It is then not without the deepest sense of deprivation, sorrow and irretrievable loss, that this writer can hope to recollect the memory of the late Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait: a man, a personality, who while being the leader and public figure that he ultimately became, was also father to this daughter and to all her other siblings. Much, of course, has been said about his activism for the cause of the Muslim community in India over the past half a century of his dignified public life. In fact, nothing should be a better testimony to this than the fact that he was elected a record eight times to the National Assembly as a Member of Parliament. But, it is not one’s intention here to dwell upon the details of his steady growth in stature as a genuine Muslim – indeed, Indian – leader of our times. As his daughter, on the other hand, one’s purpose here is only to highlight those basic traits of the man which endeared him to all those who came into close contact with him. For, while even at a distance - even from mere hearsay - Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait commanded respect and admiration, for those who got to know him more closely, they could not but come away with a feeling of affection and love that bordered on reverence for the august personality that he undoubtedly was.

Beyond the cherished memories of a childhood wherein the fatherly love and attention poured on his children came without asking – without any asking back in return – what shall permanently be etched in memory, perhaps, was his ability for self control without in the least being unaffected by the events and situations he found himself in, whether in his personal, family or public life. It was a trait remarkable for its presence in a man who faced the unending storms that visited his long career as the representative of a hapless minority in India. More than the trait itself, it was his perseverance with it - no matter what the provocation - that saw him climb a pedestal of human character where he stood unassailable by lesser human beings. In anger, or in sorrow, he exhibited that optimum, that elusive, balance of temperament so much so that it is difficult, even by the admission of his own children, to recollect an instance when he might have exploded in at least justifiable frustration. In many undeniable ways, therefore, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait belonged to that rare class of people who owed their rarity to their perfection of manners and etiquette. In having lived in close company with him, one can hardly fail to ponder over that timeless admonition of the last messenger of God when he declared that ‘the best among you are those best in manners.’ Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait’s strengths were, therefore, of a very different kind from the strength and power associated with people of prominence today. Yet again, Prophet Muhammad’s words that ‘strong is not he who floors his opponent in a fight, but strong is he who in a fit of anger controls his temper’ is the best explanation for the strength of character exuded by the persona of Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait.

In remembering him, one must easily concede that in all his affairs Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait was meticulous, indeed, systematic. To this writer, it was among the simple joys of life to watch him manage his mundane, day-to-day affairs: his regulation dressing sense and style, immaculate as it was with his matching clothes right up to the headgear which was among the few gifts he heartily acknowledged and cherished, his unhurried, yet firm, deportment in arranging everything from his traveling suitcases to his pillow and bedding, and even his alignment of pen and paper after his having used them. In retrospect, one finds that his most trivial acts registered an indelible influence on the immediate members of his family, inspiring in them the true meaning of orderliness and systematization. As a natural corollary to this emphasis on order and discipline, his appreciation and respect for the value of time was likewise among the most unforgettable aspects of his character. Like this writer herself, the other members of his family will unfailingly remember that on appointments he would invariably be there before time. In later years, when he had to depend on others for traveling, he preferred to be accompanied by the present writer’s husband particularly because he was a stickler for punctuality himself.

As a communicator with, and well-wisher of, all those whom he came into contact with, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait had never the need to be pretentious or artificial. Communicating with others came naturally to him: so much more the reason behind his popularity as a mass leader. It was in his nature to remember and address not just his acquaintances but even those related to them by their names: a gesture that was immediately reciprocated by the attention of those whom he so addressed. In fact, this was but part and parcel of his inborn talent in understanding the myriad masses that cut across a strikingly varied cross section of the public starting with his family members, party activists, kings and government heads, the rich and the poor, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It was his wont to encourage the goodness and talent that was in others whenever it was displayed before him. Himself a master in many disciplines, he would not be wanting in his warm praise for any achievement or effort that was done to his liking. His concern for the affairs of those whom he met was genuine, and was often punctuated by his personal attention and care. This saw him going out of his way to address and solve problems affecting others with a diligence that was remarkable for the rank that he possessed. Indeed, to him, it was perhaps exactly because of that perceived rank in society that he had to exert himself even more in the service of his family, his acquaintances and the public that he led and addressed.

On one particular occasion, when a recent marriage in the extended family was on the brink of termination, with the bride confined to her house in Bangalore, and her husband staying put at his native place in Cochin, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait was immediately at his persuasive best. Despite his own busy schedules as a public figure, he personally visited both husband and wife individually and at their respective places of residence and, over time, engineered a certain warmth and affection once again between the two: a bonding that was just enough for them to get together again and to thereafter get on with their married life. He had spared no opportunity, no chance for dialogue, no relative from each side, wherefrom, and through whom, he could bring about a rapprochement between the young couple who already had had a child between them.

It is in this context of his commitment to the cause of others that, at least for this writer, one incident will forever stand out amongst her most treasured and touching memories of her father. It is touching in the sense that it came about a few days before he passed away forever from her earthly presence on the 27th of April, 2005. Having to travel to Calicut via Cochin on Saturday, 24th April, for the first state conference of the Indian National League five days later, he was supposed to have been accompanied by this writer’s husband, his preferred travel companion. But while this writer was busy helping him pack his suitcase for the coming journey, he turned to her at one point and referring to her husband, said: “Inshaallah, Shajahan will be back on the morning of April 27th.” He had known – and remembered - that the 27th of April marked his daughter’s wedding anniversary which, although not an event for celebration going by his strict principles, was an occasion wherein he sensed that husband and wife would prefer to be together. However, as fate would have it, by the evening of April 24th he was feeling uneasy and had to be admitted to Manipal Hospital where he finally breathed his last three days later.

One also remembers that his last three days in hospital were days of heavy rain. The streets outside Manipal Hospital, where he practically lay on his death-bed by his room window, were enveloped in an untimely gloom and wetness. But despite the wet and gloomy weather outside his seventh floor window, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait would surprisingly see through it the beauty of a resplendent spring: a scene that he would repeatedly describe to those attending to him in his room. Perhaps, in further visions of what was to come, or maybe because of these visions, he would read aloud prayers of forgiveness (istighfaar) to God in front of all who visited him, and would ask each visitor to confirm whether he had read the prayers aright. His preferred travel-companion – this writer’s husband – who was there in uninterrupted attendance till the end would remember later that on the night before he passed away, his father-in-law would thank him profusely for all that he had done for him, before he finally asked him to retire to bed. But, in every following hour till the hour of his passing at around 5: 30 AM, he would awaken and enquire with his son-in-law about the time. Earlier that evening he had insisted that his youngest son, Siraj Ebrahim, take down his written statement that was to be read out in his absence at the first state conference of the INL due to be held a couple of days later at Calicut. Seeing his father’s condition, Siraj Ebrahim had reminded his father that he could take down the statement the next morning, but Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait had been strangely adamant that he must do it then and there. ‘There is little time left to wait:’ he had counseled his concerned son. Uncharacteristic of him, the statement, when its dictation was finally over, was unusually long, covering, as it did, a host of issues confronting the Muslim community not just in India, but throughout the Muslim world.

Uncorrupted to the very marrow of his bones, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait never had it in him to possess what was not rightfully his. Indeed, even if this was the only thing known about him, it was sufficient to prove that even in corrupt times such as these, a clean and morally strong politics - of which he was a prime exponent - was still quite a possibility. In later years, this writer’s husband would complain that his father-in-law would diligently strive to repay even a ten-rupee currency note that he had borrowed from him. Before he passed away, he had handed him a bank-cheque which he had, in his hurry, forgotten to sign. The amount written across the cheques was a loan that had to be repaid to his son-in-law who, to this day, has preserved that unsigned bank-cheque as a token of the fondest memories he has of Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait – the man, the father, the husband, the politician, the leader, the visionary and the patriot all of which he easily and undeniably was.

PS. This article has appeared in Young Muslim Digest, May 2007, print version.

  • Complete profile and ideas: Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait Akbani, 1922 - 2005; and
    Muslims in India have to begin again Somewhere by Mohammad Siraj Ebrahim, Young Muslim Digest, April 2007: Click here

    See also a prvious message in this blog about my mentors. See:
  • Prof. Isaac Sequeira, 1930 - 2006
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