Syed Feroze Ashraf was a life coach who ran a silent mission for needy students at his Uncle’s Classes in Jogeshwari
It was befitting that the two boys who rushed Syed Feroze Ashraf to hospital when he was tragically knocked over by a speeding autorickshaw on Friday night, were students, both strangers to him. Aman Jain in Std X, and his friend Mohsin Shaikh in Std XII, could well have been among the hundreds of children in Jogeshwari whom Ashraf helped to complete their education. Many of those first generation learners wept at his funeral, remembering how “Uncle” boosted their morale through school and college.
“Uncle’s Classes” became an institution in Jogeshwari. Daughters mainly, but occasionally sons too, of hawkers, construction workers (one girl lived in a half-finished building, surviving on the eggs of pigeons who shared space with her family), and even a grave-digger, found in Ashraf a “farishta” who guided them for free through the fog their syllabus was for them.
It all began when the watchman requested the only man in his building, who spent all his time reading and writing, to coach his daughter for a modest fee. Ashraf, by then retired from Indian Oil Corporation, refused the fee. Soon the girl’s cousins landed up at his door, then the entire neighbourhood’s children.
Supported by his wife Arifa, a municipal employee, Ashraf didn’t just coach these children. First he fed them, then cajoled and sometimes chided them, even took them on outings. Simultaneously, his wife made them realise the importance of their own lives, showed them that they could dream of a future beyond an arrested education, early marriage and motherhood. Together, the Ashrafs taught these girls to do something no one else could have: stand up for themselves in a society loaded against them.
For Ashraf, seeing to it that these children finished school and at least Std XII, became a mission. He would visit their homes to convince their parents that it was their duty to ensure that their daughters got a couple of hours’ respite from housework, a quiet corner to themselves, a bulb, a pen, a notebook and some food. This wasn’t easy; their homes were tiny rooms teeming with large families hooked on TV soaps, where daughters ate last.
It was this life mission that made Feroz Ashraf so contemptuous of Urdu intellectuals who bemoaned the fate of Urdu and of their community, but did nothing for those who had no choice but to go to Urdu schools. Ashraf himself might have ended up like these intellectuals, had it not been for the 1992-93 riots which forced him to shift, for the sake of his traumatised school-going son, from his Hindu neighbourhood in Malad to Muslim-dominated Jogeshwari.
In Malad, he would discuss the day’s headlines with his Hindu neighbour. In Jogeshwari, no one read the papers. No one played Holi either. “Mumbai’s riots stole the colours of Holi from me,” Ashraf would often lament.
But victimhood was not for Ashraf. He used his changed circumstances to get to know his community, initially visiting the nearby mosque every Friday, then navigating the narrow, slippery lanes where his students lived. The poverty and ignorance which reigned in Jogeshwari’s Muslim ghettoes never ceased to shock him, but he spent his life trying to change the lives of as many as he could.
In the last decade, confident that his work was being carried on by his ex-students who have started “Uncle’s Classes” in their own areas, Ashraf developed another passion: discovering Muslim leaders from across the country whose contribution over the centuries remains unknown even to the community. He chronicled their lives in a weekly Hindi column which will soon be a book.
Hindi came as naturally to Ashraf as Urdu. Growing up in Hazaribagh, Holi, Saraswati Puja, Vande Mataram and dressing up as Bal Gopal on Janmashtami was as much a part of his childhood as was wearing fresh clothes for the Eid namaz. It was this legacy that he imparted to his students.
At his funeral, half a dozen veiled figures made a sudden appearance; they were the latest batch of students to whom he had taught Urdu journalism at Bombay University. Feroze Ashraf would have been proud to know that breaking tradition, these girls managed to pay their last respects to their ‘Sir’ inside the cemetery.
(This article first appeared in The Mumbai Mirror dated June 9, 2019. It is being reproduced here with the permission of the author)