Man with a Mission (Written on the demise of Altaf Mahmood Chaudhry)
He was a dreamer; overtly ambitious. Yet not for himself – but for many projects of education and welfare. He was a man with a mission. Visionary to the core, imaginative to the hilt. Many of his ideas seemed fantasy. They looked incredible and far-fetched to those around him. But not to him! He could speak for hours on his plans; the cadences of his voice matching his emotions; sincerity writ large on his face; tearful eyes suggestive of a trembling heart. Yet admiration he seldom received because of his surreal schemes. People listening to him would even smile at their bizarre nature – but this could never deter him. He had an iron-will and an unstinted self-belief.
At times, he would write long letters to his friends and colleagues and would read these out to them in meets and moots. Every word he wrote reflected his deep commitment to a worthy cause. His sentiments were as pure as fresh air. He had a heart of gold. And yet he was a human being and had his weaknesses. And who doesn’t? May God forgive all his blemishes and have mercy on this noble soul.
He was the simplest of human beings. He lived to serve others. While he was extremely frugal in his personal needs, he spent generously on others. In fact, he went as far as to procure huge loans to help people and finance welfare projects. And then he would procure more loans to pay back previous loans. He ate the simplest of foods yet for his friends he threw yummy banquets to make them come together and synergize. He never built a house for himself. All his life he preferred to live in a rented house. In one of his last conversations, he said that he would prefer to have a personal house in heaven and live in a rented one here!
His well-wishers would be shocked at his way of planning. His planning was that no planning is needed. One can argue with the type of trust he had in God and the hopes he would pin on his creator. “Mind boggling” is a word that falls short to depict his approach. Yet perhaps none can argue about his genuine disposition.
For causes dear to him, he would fearlessly jump in the dark. His fervent soul and restless spirit knew no bounds. He would begin with minimum resources – many a time, below minimum and would launch projects single-handedly much to the amazement and dismay of his friends. And then if a project succeeded and they joined hands with him, he would welcome them with an open heart forgetting all their harsh criticism. And if a project did not succeed in the eyes of people, he would continue to smile back at his critics, as if saying: “Don’t worry … I will tread this path alone … and still wait for the day when you all will join me.”
One such project that he embarked upon was single-handedly financing Al-Mawrid (www.al-mawrid.org). Originally established in 1983, this institute had stopped functioning in 1987 because of administrative and financial reasons. In 1990, he stepped forward and said that he would take responsibility of all its affairs if his life-long friend, guide and mentor, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, would supervise its academic side. The call seemed too daring and involved high risks. Yet it was so earnest and full of assurance that it somehow convinced his guide to take this bold step … and Al-Mawrid became functional once again.
Once he told us that he divided his income into three parts: one part for Al-Mawrid, one for his business and one for his house. However, those who know him closely knew that these were not three equal parts. The lion’s share always went to Al-Mawrid. He did not have a very flourishing business, and was never a rich person; yes, he was rich at heart. God was kind to this project. The initial years were tough and testing, yet miraculously Al-Mawrid survived its incubation period. There were hindrances and hiccups – enough to discourage a normal person. Yet they never wavered the unstinted resolve of this mighty servant of God. In thirty years, this sapling planted by him has now grown into a tree under whose vast shade many new saplings have emerged. It has produced some committed individuals and worthy researchers who are now determined to humbly spread the light of religion to the best of their ability.
In 1990, some months before the revival of Al-Mawrid, Altaf sb initiated another project, again financing it single-handedly: a monthly Islamic journal called “Renaissance” (www.monthly-renaissance.com). He took up the position of its managing editor. I was entrusted the responsibility of its editor. It was my first assignment just after graduating as an electrical engineer. Our common mentor, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, became its academic patron. With no less a commitment he later made to Al-Mawrid, this lone-ranger began financing this project through his pocket. Days turned into months and months into years, his support never stopped. He would always ask me to concentrate on writing and editing the journal and forget about the rest. He himself made arrangements to have the journal printed every month and used his office staff to have it packed and posted.
Altaf sb was among the founders of the Mus‘ab Public School (www.musab.edu.pk), a school set up in 1993 as a harbinger to a new system of education. It was named after Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr, a famous companion of the Prophet (sws) whose pioneering efforts took Islam to Madinah. The school envisages producing good human beings who are adept in religious knowledge and social skills. Altaf sb spent hours and hours with his colleagues and board members in planning for the school and in providing support from his resources which were fast dwindling. From a non-entity, the school has now arisen to unprecedented heights. There was a time when people would find it difficult to even pronounce its name. Today many feel proud to get their children admitted to it.
His last major project was his life-long dream of grooming needy yet talented children. Defying all odds once again, he started it without any major external support. He was once again relying on his restless spirit to power the project. Altaf Mahmood Foundation (Altaf Mahmood Foundation) was set up by him in 2014 when he had completed six decades of his life. Later on, some philanthropists did join hands but could not sustain their support. And how could these ups and downs shake the resolve of Altaf sb? His closest friends and relatives tried to convince him to shut down this project and wait until sufficient finances could be raised. He refused to budge and continued to borrow to finance the project. In a spate of travels and travails, he selected more than three dozen children for this Foundation. Many of these children had lost one or both parents. When someone dubbed his foundation as an orphanage, he retorted that he was a father to each of these children. No one should dare call it an orphanage! And the children loved him as their father. They would hug and embrace him. And he would respond in the most affectionate way. Cuddling and kissing them as a mother does. Like a shepherd he looked after his flock. Not only their academic needs were taken care of, these children would be regularly coached to play sports and undergo physical training. Personal attention was paid to their nourishment. Milk and meat were specially bought to feed them in their growing age. Accommodation was free and customized to their needs. Teachers and caretakers were hired and trained for their jobs. Just a few days before he was hospitalized, he had gone shopping for the children for Eid. Eyes shed tears today with the realization that these children have once again become orphans. In fact, they have lost both a father and a mother!
Over two decades ago, he lost his young son to a tragic accident. He bore this sorrow with stoicism. But it broke his heart and plunged him forever into deep grief. This was the first and perhaps the greatest personal tragedies that he encountered in life. If anything this incident propelled him even more to focus on his mission. He became even more devoted than before. It became for him a panacea for his pain.
We can continue to mourn the death of Altaf Mahmood Chaudhry. Eulogies can be written and elegies can be composed for this eerie servant of God, but perhaps none may fully capture his all traits and idiosyncrasies. Last night when we buried him, his face in the coffin was titled upwards from the chin. It was pointing towards the sky. It reminded me of his whole life: he always looked towards the sky for help. Human support mattered just a wee bit.
Goodbye, dear friend and brother! You have gone but your memories never will. Au revoir!