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True bearings

December 22, 2008


He came to Karachi from Myanmar (Burma) through East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the ship Safina-i-Arab and he made this city his home.


Grandmaster Mohammed Ashraf Tai's story is remarkable, sensational and inspirational. He came to a place from where people plan of escaping to other far away lands and having come here with not a single penny in his pocket, he made a life for himself. And not just for himself, he also put back on track the lives of many a disillusioned, misguided soul — his students — all of whom he talks about with much pride and fondness.  

A direct descendant of Hatim Tai, Ashraf Tai was experiencing a miserable existence in Burma after the then government nationalised everything. Just about everything owned by his family was taken away.

That was when we decided to move to East Pakistan as Pakistan was created to give Muslims a home, reasons Tai.

But this was the time when East and West Pakistan too were parting ways and after the violence in the East became unbearable, Tai decided to make a move once again, this time to the West. He landed in Karachi in 1970.

I had no job and no place to stay so I spent my days looking for work and slept on the pavement around Merewether Tower. Still my sixth sense kept telling me that this was all temporary and that one day I would find success in this very city, he narrates.

As luck would have it, one of the men I shared the pavement with was a bodybuilder, who flexed his muscles at a health centre in Hill Park, he recalls.
Having earned my black belt in the Bando style in Burma at age 16, I was already a martial arts expert and would accompany him, occasionally. After a while, I took on six students of my own at Hill Park, which improved my financial situation to an extent that it allowed me to rent a room, says the founder of the Pakistan Karate Federation (PKF).   

Then one day, my students persuaded me to accompany them to Capri Cinema for a movie. There I got into a fight with security guards, who started abusing and beating me for jumping the queue. I weighed only 90lbs back then and they were big burly men. My students started yelling for me to do something, retaliate. Then they wondered aloud, saying that maybe I just didn't know how to fight back. When they started having second thoughts about my ability, I stopped taking the beating and knocked out 11 security guards just like that, laughs Tai at the memory.  

Luckily for him, the entire scene was witnessed by a young customer sitting at a neraby kabab house. He inquired if Tai knew karate.
When I said yes, he said he wanted me to teach him karate and asked where my school was located, he says getting on with his story.
He felt that Hill Pak was a little too far away for him so after informing me that his father happened to be the secretary at the KGA Gymkhana, he took me to see him.

The ground was offered to me for rent at Rs350 including utilities by Mr Luke, the young man's father, but I only had Rs270. That's when Abid Islam, one of my students, chipped in too and we moved the school from Hill Park to the KGA Ground where it still stands, says the grandmaster, who has taught martial arts to over 600,000 students to date.     

This was 1972-73 and Bruce Lee's famous movie Enter the Dragon had only just been released. It helped bring me more students. Everyone wanted to learn karate and I happened to be the only one teaching the art here.

And in his efforts to give back to the city what it gave him, the President's Pride of Performance recipient has also been a big part of the festivities arranged by Yasmin Lari's Heritage Foundation a while back.
We organised demonstrations at the many celebrated historic sites, one of which also happened to be  the Merewether Tower, says rather nostalgically the man, who has found his true bearings in Karachi.