Obituary: Prof Asad Ahmad

By Naved Masood,

Prof. Ahmad was Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta and a distinguished Molecular Geneticist.

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The news of Prof Asad Ahmad’s passing away came as a complete shock for though for the last several months we were not in touch, such ‘net silence’ on his part was not unprecedented. It comes out though that this time round it was his serious illness and not his occasional hibernation that led to his silence. His death gives me much thought to reminisce and introspect.

Despite the significant age difference over the years, we had developed a degree of familiarity which at least in part was due to my being the son of one of his teachers whom he evidently held in high esteem – something that by no means was a matter of routine for him!

I remember meeting him for the first time in or around 1965 when he had already completed his second PhD from Yale and had come to meet his parents and brothers and sisters in Aligarh. After the initial diffidence he gave us ( i.e. me, his youngest brother late Saeed aka Shabbu and Saeed’s several friends) certain impromptu lessons in Biology outside his father’s residence at Marriss Road. That was quintessential Asad Sahib – basically a teacher and always a teacher.

I particularly remember a chance encounter with him several years later (and after several meetings in the interregnum on his fitful visits to Aligarh from Canada) on the path leading from the Swimming Pool (then known as Meston Swimming Bath) to the Gymnasium when he explained to me at length why though the Fruit Fly (Drosophila melanogaster) was such a suitable species to study for an understanding of Genetics but after exhausting all ‘research possibilities’ with the fly, Neurospora (a fungus) yielded yet more insights in transmission of traits over generations. To the contemporary student of Genetics this may sound rather basic but back then in 1971-72 Aligarh it was cutting-edge Biology. I wonder if it is still possible for a teenager to receive such impromptu lessons in cutting edge science near the Hockey field. That this road-side instruction came from someone who will be cited as authority on ‘neuropora genetics’ in standard text-books occurred to me a little while later.

In the last few years we had fairly regularly corresponded and had exchanges of views – and differences of opinions – on diverse topics. I realized that he had an impressive collection of poetry and music and pointed out to him that he shared many personality traits with the maverick Mirza ‘yas’ “Yagana Changezi”. While he did not appreciate the poet’s claims of superiority over Ghalib (his favourite), he conceded that he (i.e. Asad Sahib) shared the twin distinctions of being derided by his contemporaries, who realized his intellectual superiority, were jealous on that score, and his own lack of tact in dealing with people he considered to be not ‘good enough’ academically.

He was deeply mindful of the fact that some small glitch in his visa to the US in 1961 prevented him from continuing there post PhD and led to his move to Canada – I think this rankled with him throughout his life. He blamed a particular Aligarh academic for incorrect advice without full knowledge and found some solace when I pointed out that the gentleman in question himself did not deal with his professional life very smartly. The fact, however, remains that he felt that despite significant achievements in original research he could have scaled much higher on the academic ladder had he played his professional cards well.

Something has already been written about his ‘Summer University’ project in Aligarh over the years and I am sure much more will follow from those closely associated with it. It will suffice to mention here that if it has not made greater impact, there is a strong case for the AMU faculty to do some introspection about whether their attitudes and responses to the initiative were based on objective considerations and best interests of their students. In any case, many will agree that Asad Sahib’s initiative did some good in an unintended way; it led many west based alumni to resolve to do something to better the prospects of students in their alma mater particularly in the field of advanced research.

Within a span of less than a year the two brightest products of Botany Department Aligarh are gone rather suddenly. Apart from Asad Sahib I refer to Prof Obed Siddiqui. The moot point is whether the distinguished faculty members of that Department appreciate the fact that the best came out in the 1950s which is now more than half a century ago. If they appreciate it, may be something good will come out in the foreseeable future.

Alumni doing their bit for their alma mater is not so uncommon. What is not so common is for some alumni to be so ‘fixated’ on the institution from where they sprung into the larger world. Aligarh Muslim University is exceptionally fortunate that it has committed, indeed obsessed, die-hard lovers like Asad Ahmad. The generation of such selfless altruistically inclined individuals (referred in Persian poetry as aashiqeen-i- pak teenat) is on the verge of extinction. Will the University authorities do something to make things more friendly for that declining breed for the good of its students.