By Aslam Ahamed
On the 5th of October 2020 it was my turn to receive the most dreaded phone call that a child could ever receive and that being the devastating news of the passing of a parent. Almost a month on I have been waiting to get over his passing and move on but I realized very quickly that one never ever gets over the loss of their parent but rather painfully learns to live with it and get on with life. A place that I hope that I too will get too at some point. Not being able to physically be present by his side and bid a final farewell to him made matters unimaginably worse. I take consolation from the fact that he passed away so peacefully and as per what many of our friends and family told me, he looked to be in absolute peace.
Even though he is gone his illustrious life, his legacy, unbridled enthusiasm and zest for success and his incredible influence and energy is inextricably linked to mine and today I am remembering my dad and the great memories that we shared.
Coming from a humble background and having had his early education in a little known school my dad through sheer hard work and an incredible will to succeed stormed through the ranks against staggering odds accumulating many academic qualifications along the way including being the recipient of the British Government Scholarship to do his Masters at the prestigious University of Edinburg which at that time was offered to just one top student a year in all of Sri Lanka. He then went on to quickly climb up the ladder in his field of education where he started off as a teacher and then went on to become a Principal and finally The Director of Education in Sri Lanka before starting his near three decade long career with the United Nations en-route to becoming one of the most preeminent Educationists produced by Sri Lanka.
I was the youngest of his three children and for as long as I could remember I was in absolute awe of my father and his incredible journey. Even though my father had his education at a relatively unrenowned school he was adamant to ensure that his two sons studied in Sri Lanka’s most prestigious school; Royal College. As a young boy I remember spending hours listening to him speak to me about the many struggles he faced through his life including opposition in his own home to his interest to pursue higher education as getting a job was favoured more than his burning desire to continue to study. He would tell me how he locked himself in the bathroom at times in his home just to study for his exams while working as a teacher. His incredible will to succeed and achieve the unthinkable when all around him doubted him was something that had a profound impact on me and I became addicted to emulating the same in my own life, as I grew older. I remember even as a 8 year old I used to spend hours in his study room / library at our home going through his various UN files, hundreds of books from his vast collection from all genres and even the encyclopedia and collected information to talk to him about. I remember once he was on a UN Mission in Multan, Pakistan and we used to write letters to him, which he would correct and send back to us. I used that opportunity to write to him with as many fancy words as I could and he absolutely loved it.
My dad was my ultimate hero. I wanted to talk like him, walk like him, be successful like him & travel the world like him. I remember we were once on a flight from Lagos to Amsterdam and my sister and mom were sitting together and my dad and I were sitting together behind them. I leaned over to my dad and said, “One day I want to earn loads of money and travel around the world in style.” My father’s response as always was quick and profound when he said to me, “what would be better for you is to study real hard and get a top job with an international organization that will pay for you to travel the world like me”. Fast forward 15 years and his profound words became a reality as I started my career as an Investment Banker at UBS in Switzerland. Even my interest in the world of finance and investments was inspired by my father as he took me along as a young boy to participate in the Seylan Bank IPO and from that second forward I was fascinated with the world of investments and the rest was history. My dad was by far the best public speaker I have ever had the pleasure of listening to and whenever he spoke he always captivated his audience. I still remember a thundering speech he delivered as the President of the India-Sri Lanka friendship society when he hosted the then HC of India to Sri Lanka, Mr. Gopalakrishna Gandhi who was the grandson of the great Mahatma Gandhi. In attendance that evening was the crème de la crème of Colombo and my dad received a standing ovation at the end of his speech, which I joined in and watched with a great deal of pride and admiration. Public speaking was another one of the many things that my father took a great deal of interest in coaching me. I remember as a young boy the first ever speech contest I took part in was at my school on the occasion of the birthday of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (sal) PBUH. My father coached and prepared me for this contest and I came home winning the first prize and that was the first of many speech contests that I would go on to win thanks to the coaching of the greatest public speaker I had ever seen; my dad. I remember I was in Colombo for the summer holidays after my second year at University in the US and coincidentally it was at that time that my father was elected as the President of the Rotary Club of Colombo South and I attended his installation as well. During his installation the secretary of his Rotary Club quietly came up to me and asked me whether I would like to be the guest speaker at an event the following week and I agreed immediately. My father upon learning of this development had mixed feelings, as he was not quite sure how it would go even though he knew he had coached me to be a good public speaker. I got up on that stage and showed everyone present there that I was indeed the chip of the old block. At the end of my speech I opened the floor for questions as well and had a field day. When he returned home after the event it made me immensely happy to hear him tell my mom that I had brought the roof down with a great speech and that he felt like he was listening to himself. This pleased me tremendously as getting compliments from my father was like expecting rain to fall in the Middle East but when it came it was always a great feeling.
Among the many things we shared in common was our love for cricket. The remarkable stories he told me about how he went on to become the captain of the first eleven cricket team of his school greatly inspired me to play cricket for Royal College. My father took great interest in my progress as a junior cricketer at Royal College. He was my biggest fan but also my harshest critic. He took a greater interest in playing the role of the latter as he felt that would drive me to improve my game. I remember some great memories from my cricket playing days with my father from which I not only became a better cricketer but definitely a better person overall. While playing for the Royal College Under-15 Team I was also taking private coaching sessions at the NCC indoor nets and in walked my dad, as I was getting ready to go through a rigorous net session under the watchful eyes of my coach Mr. Saman Amarasinghe. At the end of the session as I was getting rid of my gear I could see my dad speak to my coach and what ensued was a quite drive home. When we came home, he went straight to my mom and instructed her to not give me breakfast unless I run on the beach every morning for an hour because my coach had told my dad that while I was an asset with the bat in the top order, I was a liability on the field as I was overweight and needed to lose weight quickly. I thought my dad was joking but clearly he wasn’t and long story short I lost a great deal of weight in the following weeks and made sure that I earned my breakfast. That right there was my dad. He was a master of tough love but today as I look back I can’t thank him enough for that as it drove me to be better and better at whatever it was that I was doing. My dad never missed out on coming to see me play whenever he was in town. When an international team toured Sri Lanka, like a religious ritual my dad and I never missed out on going to watch a game and that was our father / son thing. One of the most memorable experiences I had with my dad when it came to cricket came when he was based on a UN Mission in Nigeria. He was based in a city called Ibadan and there they had a highly competitive cricket tournament between the various exapt communities and whenever I visited my parents in Nigeria for school holidays I had the pleasure of playing for the Sri Lankan team in Ibadan with my dad. Batting together with him was a memorable experience. Over and above cricket, my father was an excellent Tennis player and once again my interest and eagerness to play Tennis came from him as well. We have had some fantastic games and I still remember how when I got bigger and stronger and relied on a power hitting game he used to beat me effortlessly with sheer finesse and placement at the Otters Tennis court on a regular basis.
In addition to the above, the key reason as to why I developed a deep interest in reading to English literature to Shakespeare, to philosophy to world history to just about everything came from my father and his enormous influence on me. It was he who introduced me to the most profound poem ever written which is “IF” by Rudyard Kipling which hangs in my office room even today. My father is the one who taught me through his own remarkable life story that ‘impossible’ was just an opinion. I want to end with one of my dad’s favourite quotes, which came from one of Finland’s former President’s Urho Kekkonen who said, “When nature removes a great man, people explore the horizon for a successor. But none comes and none will, for his class is extinguish for all time.” Those words are incredibly relevant when it comes to my dad. Words can never adequately explain as to how much I miss him. He has inspired thousands of young minds but none more so than mine and I am forever grateful and indebted to him for that. May almighty Allah grant my loving father the highest place in jannah, Ameen!