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- Obaid Siddiqi and his larger family

Obaid Siddiqi, one of the most outstanding scientists of modern India, died in a freak accident in Bangalore on July 26. While he was out on a walk on July 21, a moped being driven by a young person of the neighbourhood rammed into him, and caused severe brain damage from which he could not recover.

He leaves behind his wife, Asiya Siddiqi, who is herself a very distinguished historian, and four gifted children: Yumna, whose area is English literature, Kaleem, who is a scientist, Diba, a promising photographer, and Imran, also a scientist whose work on seed-cloning has the potential to revolutionize agriculture in developing countries and questions the rush to Bt for raising yields.

But I want to talk not about the family that Obaid and Asiya raised but about the family of siblings and their spouses that surrounded Obaid, the larger family, as it were, to which he belonged. It was such a remarkable family, it so captured within itself all that is salutary in the development of modern India, that its individual members are worth recalling.

There were two sons, including Obaid, and five daughters, born to his parents. The youngest daughter, Imrana, married to the well-known social activist, Anubrata (Dunu) Roy, was a paediatrician at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who turned to academic work in the social sciences and became one of the founders of the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. This centre, of which Binayak Sen was once a faculty member, remains to this day an unparalleled institution in India.

She was for decades our neighbour on the JNU campus. She was not just a close friend but one who epitomized what friendship should be, and it is through her that I came to know the remarkable Siddiqi family. Being a doctor in residence, in the early years of JNU when the campus had meagre medical facilities, she was the informal physician for every household, cheerfully available day and night; and she saw my family, especially my two children, through numerous medical emergencies. Because of her unbounded generosity, we called her “the Florence Nightingale of the JNU campus”; but that was unfair to her, since she was also a highly skilled medical practitioner, unlike Florence, and combined her expertise with a radical social philosophy.

One of her older sisters, Maimoona, was married to Ali Ashraf, a founder of the communist party in Bihar, and the first to translate the Communist Manifesto into Urdu. (Maulana Azad had earlier translated and published only some extracts in his newspaper.) Maimoona was herself a communist activist, and, together with her husband, worked at the party headquarters in Bombay bringing out its Urdu newspaper, and lived in the famous party commune set up by its general secretary, P.C. Joshi. In later years, she taught Urdu first at the Patna College and subsequently at the Aligarh Muslim University.

Ali Ashraf’s friend, Ziaul Hasan, also a very early member of the communist party in Bihar, married another of the Siddiqi sisters, Tahira, and also lived for long at the Bombay party commune while working for the party’s Urdu newspaper. B.T. Ranadive, then in ‘disgrace’ following the collapse of his 1948 line, was at the same commune and comrades were somewhat circumspect about socializing with him; but the Hasans struck up a deep friendship with him. Ziaul Hasan was then sent to Srinagar to work with Sheikh Abdullah, when the latter sought the help of the communists for carrying out land reforms in the state. Jammu and Kashmir, as is well-known, was the first state in India, even before Kerala and West Bengal, to implement radical land redistribution. He and his family lived with Imrana on the JNU campus for some years when he was working as a journalist on the staff of the Patriot newspaper, and my discussions with him on several evenings, when he would be reminiscing about the commune or berating me for my sectarian understanding, are a treasured memory.

Yet another of the sisters, Sayera, a highly distinguished economist who taught at the Aligarh Muslim University, was the first person, after the nationalist writers of the colonial period, to make an estimate, and a meticulous one at that, of the magnitude of “the drain of surplus” from India to Britain. A life-long communist, she married a fellow student against whom she had once taken disciplinary action as the All India Students Federation leader on the AMU campus. This fellow student, belonging to the AISF, was Irfan Habib, the famous historian and pre-eminent Marxist intellectual of the country.

The last sister, Shaista, was attached to the medical college at AMU and built from scratch its department of obstetrics and gynaecology. The other brother, Aslam, also belonged to the AMU faculty, to the department of engineering. He was asked to set up the university’s computer centre; he did so and served as its director for some time.

Obaid Siddiqi belonged to this family. All the traits that characterized the family, the generosity, the brilliance, the gentleness, the self-effacing commitment to work, the contempt for careerism, and the disdain for fame and status, were concentrated, as it were, in him. And he also shared the family’s social commitment and passion for effecting a revolutionary transformation in the country. Irfan Saheb once remarked to me that Obaid Siddiqi must have been the only Fellow of the Royal Society in its entire history who had spent time in jail for communist activities. That was during the “BTR period”, following the party’s Calcutta congress, when Obaid was an activist of the AISF at the AMU.

His passions included Urdu poetry (he was chancellor of the Urdu University at Hyderabad), Persian, and above all, music. He learned to play the sarod from Annapoorna Devi, and played it beautifully. He was meticulous about doing riyaz everyday, and later took lessons from the Dagar brothers who became his good friends.

I met Obaid Siddiqi occasionally on the JNU campus when he stayed overnight at Imrana’s place, having come for some meeting from Mumbai where he was then located at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. But I got to know him better when he came to deliver the Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning of JNU. The topic was “Do animals think?” and Obaid Siddiqi gave, in very simple language to a packed and overflowing audience, an account of his internationally acclaimed research into the neurology of the Drosophila fly. His answer to the provocative question of the title of the lecture was that while “thinking” was too ambitious a term to describe what animals did, several very elementary forms of it, suggesting a more developed consciousness beyond mere instinct, appeared to characterize them. The discussion that followed the lecture carried over into dinner and long afterwards into the night.

I met him a little more frequently when we both served on the research council of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies of the CSIR. But I got a chance for closer interaction at the convocation of the Kalyani University in 2003. By then he had moved to Bangalore where the TIFR was setting up an off-shoot for research on biology; he had been asked to head it and had already gathered around him a brilliant group of young researchers. Kalyani University was conferring an honorary doctorate on him, and on Sunil Gangopadhyay and Ganesh Pyne; and I had been asked to deliver the convocation address. We were lodged together at the same guest house for the event.

His acceptance speech was brief but extraordinarily illuminating. It was based on research work done at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, and highlighted the fact that the Indian population, barring small numbers inhabiting remote regions, was remarkably racially mixed, and hence far less diverse than commonly supposed. His interest in the area had possibly been stimulated by his radicalism, which approved a scientific finding that undermined any racial segregation of the population; but he referred only to the scientific finding itself.

Obaid Siddiqi was a compelling speaker, without flourishes, but with a solid command over facts and a meticulousness of reasoning that did not allow one’s attention to stray. His using the brief Kalyani speech to present what he thought was interesting rather than his own research is indicative of an attitude that values scientific advance over personal achievement, and sees knowledge as interconnected. He shared this perception of interconnectedness of knowledge with his friend, another great scientist from the subcontinent, Abdus Salam; it lifted him above the normal run of scientists into an outstanding intellectual. His death is a huge loss to the country.