"Take care of all your memories for you cannot relive them"
- Bob Dylan
Bangalore in the mid 1970s was an easygoing, verdant, mid sized city,
with extraordinarily great weather, and Basavangudi was considered one
of its cultural, if conservative, hubs. The East-West school that Sajju
(as I remember calling him first, but for not more than a couple of
years) and I went to, in that part of town, was marked by a liberal,
non-denominational ethos – having been established by American
Theosophists in 1961. We sang Dylan in the morning ‘assembly’, along
with Kabir and Sur, Christian & Vedic hymns and Bhajans – none of which
– as an eight year old I entirely understood the import of. Some of the
tunes were enjoyable – but the words, I suspect, completely escaped most
This is the setting in which I met Syed Shujauddin sometime in the first
three months of 1974. Losing him, suddenly, on March 8, 2015, a few days
before I turned 49, has been devastating, and impels me to write about my
friend by way of reminiscing and reflecting on his life and what it
meant to my own. As I do so, I realize that writing about him is, at
least circumstantially, terribly like writing about myself. So large was
our common history and common memory.
My earliest memories of Sajju are not particularly sharp. I remember him
as a fuzz-haired 8-year old who was accessible, affable and likeable,
and I befriended him easily. He must have been, in retrospect, very
popular with the other kids, and perhaps the teachers at school, as
well. Throughout our school years, I recall his perfectly white shirt –
always whiter than my own - and orderly hair – always more orderly than
Within a couple of years of the ‘Sajju’ period, for me, came the Syed
period when almost everyone, except within his family of course, began
to call him this. I suspect most of us did not realize until much later,
if at all, that his given name was Shujauddin (shortened colloquially,
later, to Shuja). But, as is the way with school, you get called a
certain name, and that sticks. So many Facebook messages that were
posted on his passing still refer to him as Syed.
Back then, you had friends in school and, unless you lived in the
immediate vicinity, you had friends in your home neighborhood – but
these two groups stayed distinct until you were old enough to ‘get
around’ on your own. So it was a couple of years later, in our middle
school years that I got to know Syed outside of school and met his
family in their home in the Das Compound area of Basavangudi.
It was evident to me, even then, that there was a Hindu part of
Basavangudi and a Muslim part to it, but Das Compound, albeit almost
entirely Muslim, was separated from what was often referred to as the
‘Mohammadan block’ by RV road, tucked in, as it is, on one side of
Vijaya College. I recollect finding the communal reference to the area
distinctly embarrassing, besides being a little quaint, since, by that
time, as far as I was concerned, we preferred the term Muslim over ‘Mohammadan’,
which seemed like some British-era hangover that my grandparents might
have used. So to me, I always took off on my bicycle to meet Syed who
lived either in Basavangudi or in Jayanagar either of which Das Compound
could safely claim to belong to.
I recollect Syed’s parents as warm, un-intimidating and welcoming – but
most importantly as folks who were willing to indulge even us kids in
non-patronizing and genuine conversation. As a vegetarian, I recollect
Syed’s mother telling me that I was welcome to eat with them anytime and
that there would be non-vegetarian dishes on the table on only certain
fixed days of the week. Needless to say, the vegetarian food was always
But the real attraction of hanging at Syed’s was of course that, as all
good buddies do, we shared all and discussed everything that our middle,
and later high school, brains and bodies were dealing with.
As we got into high school, Syed was beginning to demonstrate what
organizations might call ‘leadership qualities’. In a perversion of
democracy, the school had this practice of nominating a small set of
students who could run for the office of ‘school captain’ – which
position was then filled through an open election. Shuja was, of course,
nominated, as was I, in that group. I had no stomach for this ‘front
person’ role and did not campaign; nor did the other nominee, as best I
recall. Shuja on the other hand, ran a well organized campaign, with his
supporters, and handsomely and fittingly became school captain. That
year, he was also named “student of the year” for his all round
The early 80s were for us, what could be best described as the “India
Today, arrival-of-post-Asian-Games-nationwide-TV” years and the first,
earliest flush of the arrival of ‘big city’ India into Bangalore with
all its attendant attractions, aspirations and frivolities, as
selectively reported by the mass media that we were being exposed to.
Shuja and I navigated this with a certain self-aware and deliberately
constructed aloofness. The crass commercialization and mass consumerism
(even the earliest form of it, from that, relatively innocent, and still
socialist era!) was not something we were going to uncritically accept.
I remember us referring to “India Today” as “Delhi-Bombay Today”, to
suggest that the India they reported was not something we considered
ourselves a part of! Looking back, this may have been an early
indication that both of us were going to retain, despite ending up doing
fairly conventional things, a dissenting view of the world and indeed
make some unconventional choices.
From about late 1988, having pursued a different set of immediate
collegial cues and interests came the ‘gap years’ for Syed and me. I
went into a career in engineering, first for a few months in (what was
then) Bombay and then left the country, while Syed entered advertising,
then technology sales, followed by a business management degree and a
career in the IT industry in West Asia. It was perhaps these ‘gap years’
that allowed me to seamlessly transition to calling him Shuja when we
reconnected in the early 2000s.
I don’t have a close understanding of the things he did during these
years, but as I learned, subsequently, when we came together again in
Bangalore, he had traveled widely in that part of the world, developed a
nuanced understanding of the society and politics of the region and
created a large network of friends and business contacts. It was in
these years, too, that momentous and tempestuous events occurred in his
life that I was not a part of, at all. I learned about these, only
second hand, and much later, from close, common friends. He met Ishviene
while studying business management in Bombay in 1990. They married in
1995 soon after which she moved to join him in the United Arab Emirates
where they lived and worked jobs for many years. Their son was born at
I seem to recollect speaking to Shuja only twice in this entire period –
once, when I called his parents home in Bangalore, on a whim, to find
out where he was, and found him on a visit there, and in the midst of a
visit, in turn, by common friends. The second was a brief occasion from
the airport in Dubai when I was in transit – but that call was truncated
because of problems with my connecting flight that I needed to run off
to deal with. I recall Shuja speaking slightly British inflected English
when I heard him on these occasions and wondering if this was an
accessory of his business years in West Asia.
I met Ishviene & saw Shuja again for the first time in well over a
decade in maybe 2001, when they visited Bangalore together. Ishviene
moved to live in Bangalore in 2003 with her son, Zoheb, when I got to
know her and learned more about the astonishingly complicated and
emotionally wrenching times they underwent getting married. The
communitarian schisms underlying Indian life developed into deep and
very unfortunate rifts that kept their families apart right to the end
of Shuja’s life.
Shuja himself moved back to Bangalore, in 2005. I see the years starting
with my reconnect with him as the ‘Shuja’ years. I think what
characterized our relationship in this last decade and a half, and made
it particularly constructive and comforting for me, was that while we
had the closeness of a long, common history, our interactions and
assessments of each other, and the world, somehow seemed only lightly
weighted and never constrained by our past. We talked at length,
discussed the world in fresh terms, acknowledging, fully, our journeys
since then, without allowing the past to weigh us down with baggage that
we might have evolved from, jettisoned, or rejected along the way.
I find, when I examine other similar, long, close relationships, that
they tend to get murky when they rake up too much from the past that,
for whatever reasons, might be uncomfortable, embarrassing or no more
valid. I think Shuja and I had a tacit understanding of the virtues of
allowing our lives, persuasions and the present to speak louder than our
past, without denying any of it. Acknowledging both success and folly
was easier, more honest and impersonal from this ‘retrospective’, almost
‘writer-like’ position. And once more, like far in the past, but in a
different present, we discussed everything – openly and freely.
Shuja was always the unabashed ‘front’ man, willing to stand in the
limelight, seemingly unfettered by self doubt; I, almost the opposite.
But we shared common concerns, doubts, fears and a common assessment of
life in many ways. We also shared a dissenting streak, healthy
skepticism about the mainstream, and shared liberal, political common
ground. When we reconnected, I was pleasantly surprised, for example, at
how seamlessly he, with his corporate, business development career
history, would slip along with me into the role of dissenter and critic
of corporate life and ways.
The basics of a great working relationship were always in place and
although we often shared contacts, had common conversations, recommended
each other, opened doors for the other, and, on a couple of occasions,
came close to it– we didn’t do any professional work together. I can
only wonder how it might have turned out, had we teamed up.
I had often suggested to Shuja that he consider entering active politics
– given his personal traits, deep interest in public affairs and energy.
Once more, this stayed at the level of conversations he had, with me,
and with many others. Given a time extension, perhaps we would have seen
him find a suitable political platform, at a time when there are viable
alternatives emerging. I sparred with him, all the way until a few days
before he left us, over why he was being apologetic about India’s
current government, their distrust of civil society organizations,
dilution of land acquisition protections, etc., and over why, as I saw
it, he was taking a ‘politically correct’ tone on the social media
platforms that he was so comfortable with (and I so uncomfortable with).
I will never know what he wanted to talk about when I missed a call from
him a few days before he left us.
A couple of years ago I had suggested to Shuja that he would be the
right person to get on the managing committee of an old cultural
institution in Bangalore that had been operationally sagging and seemed
to have been taken over by culturally conservative and ‘exclusivist’
thinking, quite contrary to its founding charter. He was keen, as were
key people on the other side, to take this ahead. This was another of
the many roles that Shuja might have played and influenced so
He lamented, on so many occasions, the loss of the liberal voice and
contraction of the liberal space (within social communities and in
public) and had proposed that we get involved with an online news portal
that would step beyond the conventional boundaries of
left-progressive-liberal and right-conservative and appeal to the young
and non-ideologically biased without highlighting the old, hackneyed
fault lines between the two. We were to connect with a senior journalist
friend to sit down and discuss this, but that remains another unfinished
There was just too much going on, between us, albeit unstructured, and
at the level of conversation. There were enough south Bangalore coffees
and idlies to share, enough arguments to have, common joys to celebrate,
doubts to dispel, and things to do, to fill another lifetime. And there
remains that one great unrequited wish of mine -to travel the back roads
– something I truly love and enjoy - with Shuja. This is something we
never, ever managed to do in our times together. I had a theory about
why this never happened, but that shall remain now, undiscussed.
I often called Shuja the true ‘Basavangudi Brahmin’ for his cultural
affinity to the place – and deep comfort with it – far greater than my
own. He would not have wished to live anywhere else, even if Basavangudi
made it difficult for him to find a home to rent, because he was Muslim.
Perhaps had he lived longer and influenced more people, such sad
prejudice might have found itself on an ever weakening footing.
I have no one now to call on each time I am in his vicinity, to discuss
what is bothering me, or him, to discuss the world, to discuss my
uncommon interests, to plot the future, or just laugh with.
We had a custom handshake between us, that developed many decades ago
and we unfailingly used every time we parted. I give him a big one now.
So long, mate.