In Memory of a Friend

This article was written
by VSM Saktinath Kar, a 1964 batch alumnus from IIT Kharagpur, for their batch’s
Golden Jubilee Alumni Meet souvenir.

January 4, 1966. After a gruelling pre-training 45 minute interview,
the Head of the Department of Armament Training of the Air Force Technical
Academy (AFTA) told me, “We had an officer from your alma mater, IIT Kharagpur,
who was the best graduate of the four batches of graduates we take every year. I
hope you will keep up the tradition.” With curiosity writ large on my face, I asked,
“May I know his name, Sir?” The bald and bulky HOD, in his deep baritone voice,
replied, “Mohammad Sagheer.” I was pleasantly surprised. Sagheer, shining in
his newfound career, in the Air Force!

My memories swung back to 1962. It was a cold, wintry
morning. A slender fog hung gingerly over the IIT campus. Classes had already
begun in the Dept. of Metallurgical Engg. Prof. Sen was explaining the intricacies
of the Theory of Metallurgical Processes. There was pin-drop silence in the
classroom of eighteen students paying rapt attention. Suddenly, the door opened
partially, and a voice from behind requested, “May I come in, sir?” The professor
didn’t take his eyes off the blackboard. “Come in,” he said.

In trotted Mohd. Sagheer, in his trademark T-shirt and steel
grey trousers, a few Britannia biscuits in hand, apologising profusely for
being late. “Hmm… why the biscuits, young man?” the professor enquired, eyeing
him quizzically over the rim of his spectacles. “Sir, I was late and had to
rush to class. The mess doesn’t provide packed breakfast, and the only takeaway
item is biscuits. I had no choice but to pick them up,” he stated. “Okay, okay.
Settle down quickly,” the professor gruffly waved his hands towards the
benches.

Sagheer parked himself smugly at the rear of the class. Once
comfortable, he set out to complete two of his unfinished tasks. First, the
breakfast. Stealthily, he popped a biscuit into his mouth, munching face
downwards, pretending he was engrossed in note-taking. His only worry was that
he shouldn’t be asked any questions till the biscuit was fully swallowed. Unfortunately,
the professor cracked a hilarious joke to break the monotony. The class laughed
out loud. Sagheer too joined in, unwittingly. With disastrous consequences. The
biscuit sprayed out of his mouth on to the back of the students in front of
him. It was highly embarrassing, to say the least. Unfazed, once the commotion
died down, Sagheer moved on to his next task: to make up for last night’s lost
sleep.

Five minutes before the class was to finish, he was awakened
by a soft pat on his back. It was Prof. Sen. “My son, this isn’t the way
professionals-to-be behave. Your performance in the last term was awful. You’ve
got to pull yourself up. Take more interest. Be positive. I don’t find any
reason why you can’t succeed.” Looking down at his notebook, pen twirling in
his fingers, Sagheer said, “Sir, to be honest, I wanted to be an architect. My father
compelled me to take up metallurgy. I’m not cut out for this.” The Prof. was
amazed, “And you couldn’t reconcile yourself to this reality in all these
years? Are you stupid, plain & simple, or are you made of sterner stuff?”

These words touched a raw nerve deep within Sagheer. He thought
the world was strange. It had its own logic. The choice of an individual, his
likes & dislikes, his heart’s longing, had no place in an indifferent and
soulless world. The individual had to surrender, sacrifice his soul to the
wider scheme of the world around him, unconditionally. But who succeeds when
the soul is lost? Isn’t such a success meaningless, only pyrrhic? He told
himself, “Sagheer isn’t stupid. He is capable of giving back to the world more
than what it wants, albeit at a cost to himself. If society still wants it, so
be it.” To everyone’s surprise, he scored the highest in the next exam. But never
thereafter. He did not betray his soul.

Back at the AFTA, I was apprehensive about Sagheer – whether
he found a profession of his choice or not. Years went by. I never had the
opportunity of meeting him after completing IIT. From what we heard, he was
doing exceedingly well. I was proud to have shared unforgettable moments of camaraderie
with him. And then one day I heard he was no more. An unnatural early end due
to personal problems.

Many questions ran riot through my mind. Sagheer was different.
He wanted to live life on his own terms. Did he? Yes, he did. Life for him was
either black or white. There was no shade of grey in his lexicon. Perhaps he
preferred black. He had not lost out on life, life lost out on him. A teardrop
ran down my cheek.

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