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Flashback: A rare experience

March 24, 2013

“‘Tumhari ammi bula rahe hain, zara jaldi se jao!’ To this day, these words bring a smile to my face but back then I was terribly mortified when one of my classmates came and said this to me,” reminisces Dr Tipu Sultan.

Being the eldest child is never easy and being in the same college as one’s mother would make any youngster’s life ‘difficult’. However, not one to be fazed, Dr Sultan managed to pass the test with flying colours at the Dow Medical College, Karachi, and luckily for him, by the time he was in the second year his mother had graduated.

A member of possibly the largest family of doctors in the world, with the present count being 34, Dr Sultan’s achievements are towering, and at the same time a strong reminder of how education can lead to positive changes.

A former head of anaesthesiology and medical superintendent at Pakistan’s largest public sector health facility, Civil Hospital Karachi, he has also served as the principal of Dow Medical College and dean of the faculty of anaesthesiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Add to these various other national and international distinctions as well as a strong commitment towards giving back to the community, Dr Sultan is an exemplary Pakistani.

Mild mannered yet always willing to share an anecdote, Dr Sultan is father to two sons, both doctors and a proud grandfather of four grandsons.

The eldest son of Syed Abu Zafar and Atiya Khatoon and elder brother to Dr Shershah Syed and Dr Sirajuddaula (both luminaries in their fields), he saw his parents struggle as they built their lives from scratch.

Recalling the old days, he says: “We lived in Lyari, where my father’s school was situated. Back then, there were no issues whether one was Urdu-speaking or a Punjabi living in Lyari. It was a great society, a very peaceful society for that matter.

“My mother started practcing as she had her Licetiate of Medical Faculty (LSMF) certification and held her clinic there, while in the evenings I worked as a compounder while studying in intermediate. Back then, it was a GP clinic and medicines consisted of mixtures and small sachets of compounds.

“When she joined DMC for her MBBS my mother and myself would set out together from Agra Taj Colony to attend college. We’d take the ‘10 number wali road’ in a rickshaw (Bus no. 10 plied there). She was regular to the college but when she wouldn’t go to college I used to take a bus. Back then, the fare was one aana (there were 16 annas to a rupee). The tram also plied on the route, which we, the students, used as ‘freely’ as possible,” said the elderly doctor with a glint in his eye.

Walking home from Kharadar onwards was a routine matter and there was no fear. “Now try walking in that area and I can assure you, you will either be mugged or shot dead,” he remarked sadly, adding that things have changed massively and not in a good way.

On how Pakistan’s largest family of doctors came into being, Dr Sultan says: “My father was studying to become a doctor during the early 1940s but when World War II broke out, he left his studies and joined the Quit India movement under the leadership of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Gandhi. He left his studies without telling his father and I feel that to assuage his sense of guilt he got us all to become doctors.”

Following the partition, when the riots broke out in Bihar, Zafar sahib left India with his young wife, two children and some other family members and settled in Karachi. “My father was no better than a pauper and started earning a meagre amount by penning letters for people near Bolton Market. It was barely enough to support a family of seven people. He studied throughout and later earned his Masters’ degree; in the meantime he started the Ghazi Mohammad Bin Qasim School in Lyari with the motto: ‘educate everybody’.”

Dr Sultan says that he has seen ‘women empowerment’ first hand, with his father making an active effort to educate his wife and later his daughters.

“My mother began her formal education in 1957, after marriage and two children. My father would ban my mother’s entry into the kitchen when she was studying for her exams. I used to knead the dough and take it to the tandoor for chappatis to be made while my father cooked food for us. In a way he was a true supporter of women’s rights,” he reminisced about his deceased father.

Reverting to his story, he proudly relates the twist. “I had to repeat the second year of Inter science!” However, once that hurdle was cleared, Dr Sultan says he was all set to attend college only to be informed that he was a year younger than the minimum age limit. “I waited for a year as I was barely 16 years old and the college allowed a minimum age of 17 years.”

“In 1962-63, I joined Dow Medical College. My mother had joined DMC in 1961; she was doing a two year course (condescended MBBS course) after her LSMF. The one year she was at Dow with me, well that was the most restricted year of my life!”

Elaborating on his one-of-a-kind ordeal, he says: “I became a ‘novelty’ or rather a ‘namoona’ in the college as people, students and teachers alike, would walk up to me just to see the boy whose mother was also a student in the college. The girl students would laugh at me; it was fun for them, I guess.”

However, once he was sure that his mother had left for home, he was like any other teenager. “My parental supervision ended at around 4pm. Then I could go and stand with the National Students Federation friends and shout ‘zindabaad!’ ‘murdabaad!’ to my heart’s content. I was active in student politics. At that time Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Sher Afzal Malik and Rasheed Aslam Khan were our leaders,” he recalls.

Dr Sultan says that seeing his parents struggle day and night gave him and his siblings the motivation to aim high.

“We all grew up too soon but we all went in the right direction thanks to our parents’ sacrifices,” he says.

However, he poignantly notes as to how life has changed for his mother. “She was an inspiration for us, be it studies or dealing with people. However, age has not been kind to her and Alzheimer’s has taken its toll. She doesn’t remember any of us and it’s very painful to see a woman who was so full of life in this situation.”

Now a grandfather himself, he says that he has the best life could offer. “I remember the time when we lived in a one-room house. I have seen shortage of food. My parents made sure that we got the best possible education despite their limited means. But what I never felt was the hunger of love and that is what made things easier.”