A portrait of my father
Some people don’t believe in heroes but they haven’t met my Father.
Every time I think of this extraordinarily simple man, my heart fills with pride. He was unlike anyone else; very different from everyone in his family and time. It was difficult to understand him most times; he was an enigma in his way. From my childhood, I have been trying to find the key to his mysteries, and till date, he remains a closed book. He was a self-made man, always engrossed in his professional life, trying to make the world a better place for us. He was none other than my father, folklorist and author, Dr Ashraf Siddiqui.
Growing up, my family was unlike many. When most people assumed books were only for education or leisure, things were a little different at our house. Books were a part of our daily life, spread all over our house and hearts. My father was always too occupied with his writings and work to pay attention to household chores. It was my mother who managed everything at home on behalf of her husband while juggling her career as a teacher alongside. There would be occurrences where he would forget the names of his beloved daughters because of his absent-mindedness towards his personal life. He lived a conscious and disciplined life, all while setting an example to be respectful towards everyone in his family. We noticed that he was unable to pay attention to us at home, but never missed a chance to help anyone in need of his assistance. Both my parents always taught us to be independent and to try to improve ourselves constantly. I learned to become my competition and never settle for less. My father believed that we would not go astray or misuse our independence, which boosted our self-esteem time and time again. He was like an oak tree, a symbol of peace and confirmation, who made us feel protected under his shield.
Dr Ashraf Siddiqui was a versatile genius. He was greatly admired for his contribution to preserving the oral Bengali folk culture by cataloging the tales and riddles in the written form. During his PhD at Indiana University on folklore, there was an event where students from all over the world had to represent their country through their writing. He was all alone with no one beside him for help, but he was determined not to fail. So he stayed up all night writing and successfully introduced the folk tales of Bengal to the global audience through his writing Bhombol Dass: The Uncle of Lion, which later became one of his most acclaimed works. Few of his qualities constantly make me want to be more like him. His approach to life as an educationist would be number one.
From a very young age, he was a fan of Rabindranath Tagore. He would send short poems and letters to his role model all the time. Little did he know, his gesture would be acknowledged by the great poet, who sent him a letter himself in response to one of my father’s poems. The letter was addressed to my father, with his name and blessings from his idol. It still baffles me to think my father received a token of appreciation from someone as great as Rabindranath Tagore. He must have been so inspired by the incident that he decided to join Santinektan, in West Bengal, for higher education. His life in Santiniketan made him a changed man. He would always say education is best acquired if it is around nature. The idea of learning inside four walls seemed absurd to him since he got used to learning under the blue sky and lush trees of that environment. The connection he made between education and several aspects of life made him an exceptional teacher. Students from all fields loved his teachings and often attended his classes even if they did not belong to that major. His thoughtfulness was another trait I had grown to admire as a child. Our life as kids was always full of adventure and laughter. Every year, we would go to our village during Durga Puja, and that was considered a huge event, not only by us but plenty of villagers as well. My father would rent a huge boat and take us all out to the river and visit puja ceremonies of different places. Most of the women in our village would look forward to this as this was a getaway from them after the busy days at home. It was a unique experience for us all- we would observe the clay idols mesmerized by their beauty, take pictures, have all sorts of sweets, and enjoy our time to the fullest.
My father made sure for us to be unbiased and to be accepting of all cultures and religions. He cared for everyone equally and wanted us to grow up the same way. He never failed to help anyone in need. There were a few more incidents that resonate his thoughtful nature. One such story I heard was from my elder sister, Dr Tasneem Siddiqui. At the death of our national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, my father rushed to the hospital with my sister to check up on the situation. Upon reaching, he found out that they were planning on burying him in Bangla Academy. He immediately disapproved, saying the beloved poet would not be able to rest peacefully amidst the hustle and bustle in Bangla Academy. He then suggested the grave should be placed in Dhaka University beside the mosque, knowing the poet would appreciate that. He got so busy making arrangements for the grave that he completely forgot about my sister and left to ensure everything went right during the burial. As I mentioned before, my siblings and I had a very fun childhood. One of my fondest memories from that time was going to Lalon Akhra with him- a night filled with folk songs, shows and all forms of cultural entertainment. My father, along with Professor Mansuruddin spent the night discussing ways to take this to a higher platform. I noticed how he thrived to bring every character and story to life. His show Hiramon, in BTV, a national channel, was where most of his characters were brought to life.
Whenever we went to our grandmother’s house in Tangail, the journey there would be full of stories by my father. We had a few landmarks along the path, and each time we passed by those places, he would let us in on facts and stories attached to them. It was never a boring journey with him around. He was an amazing storyteller, and folklore remains within us because of him. Every time I hear the term “Boi Mela” the first person who comes to my mind is my father. I remember I was in grade nine and my father was the director-general of Bangla Academy at that time. Often, I would pick him up from his workplace on my way back home, since my school ended at 1:30 pm and by 2:00 pm he would too. Sometimes he would be so occupied with his experiments and meetings he would completely forget that his little daughter was there, waiting to take him home. Other staff members would pitifully look at me and bring me light snacks, knowing I was starving after a tiring day at school. They would go to my father to remind him he needs to wrap up. Back then, the only thing he could think of was how to make Bangla language and culture gain more recognition. Since 1972, during the celebration of 21st February, Chittaranjan Saha, the famous publisher of Puthighor and Muktadhara publishers, used to sell his bangal publications in Bangla Academy premises. When my father became the director-general of Bangla Academy he took the initiative to arrange a month long book fair to replicate the ones that took place at Santiniketan. He then sat with the publishers and created what we now call the Ekushey Boi Mela. The love my father had for our language then transcended in the form of this event. They brought out the culture of our country through this fair. Potters and other folk artists from all over Bangladesh came to Dhaka with their artwork and stayed in Bangla Academy during the time of the fair to showcase their skills. My father’s active role in this affair is undeniable. Thanks to the activism of Bangla Academy, and that book fair has come to this glorious position today. If it had not been for Dr Ashraf Siddiqui, people from all over the country would not have such an amazing event that brings everyone together to cherish our beautiful language.
It delights me to call myself the daughter of such a patriot who played a significant role in highlighting the importance of our mother language to the country and even the world. The more I think of my father, the more I realize how lucky I was to have had such an incredible human being in my life. He taught us to be spontaneous, adventurous, and never to forget our roots. If I could, I would talk about him all the time- to anyone and everyone. I want the world to know what an amazing person he was and how he left an imprint on the lives of every single person he associated with. I am a proud daughter to have been blessed with the best father.