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Zafar Chaudhry          (From the Friday Times - Januar 1, 2010
remembers the great Dr Abdus Salam and his love for the country that disowned him

 
 
 
 

Young Abdus Salam

 
 
 

Dr Abdus Salam (right) with Riazuddin, during the international summer college held in Nathiagali, Pakistan, in 1976

 
 
 

Prof Abdus Salam (center) with Khalid Hasan (right) and Altaf Gauhar, London, 1979

 
 
 

Dr Abdus Salam while receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics

 
 
 

A portrait of Dr Abdus Salam

 
 
 

While receiving the Nobel Prize, Dr Abdus Salam wore the dress of the land he belonged to and loved with all his heart: achkan, shalwar, turban, and shoes normally worn by the village folk from where he hailed

 
 
 
 

Dr Salam had tried to persuade the rich Muslim countries to set aside a small percentage of their gross national income for the advancement of scientific knowledge that would primarily benefit their own populations. Several promises were made with great fanfare but hardly anyone bothered to honour them. No wonder the Muslim world lags so far behind in science and technology

 

Igot to know Abdus Salam when we were students in Government College, Lahore, in the early 1940s. We both lived in the New Hostel; he was a year senior to me in class but, of course, aeons ahead in intellectual prowess. I remember he liked good food (Aloo Gosht being his favourite) and consumed it heartily. We often chided him about his hunger for food keeping full pace with his hunger for looks, but he never minded our impudence. He had instructed his servant to put a lock on the door of his cubicle so that boys did not disturb him while he studied. The only relaxation he permitted himself was a game of chess in the Common Room with Khushia, the elderly keeper of this facility that housed several indoor games.

I caught up with Salam again in London in 1946 when he had been enrolled in Cambridge. He had already become a known figure for having created new records in Matriculation and BA in the Punjab University. In those days, Salam paid very little attention to his dress and his appearance was usually quite disheveled. He most eagerly visited the well-known museums and art galleries of London and sometimes dragged me along.

I happened to meet Salam in Government College in the early 1950s where I think he was then the Head of Department of Mathematics. He told me that he was not making the best use of his time and was thinking of going back to Cambridge for further study. He said that he wasted a lot of time answering all kinds of objections raised by the university about some advance increments that had been sanctioned for him. Also, he had been made in charge of the college football team even through he knew nothing of the sport. He seemed quite determined to free himself of the stifling environment of his job and dearly wanted to study further. 

I happened to visit Cambridge in 1956 as a guest of Mr Ian Stephens who had been the editor of The Statesman in India; he had visited the Pakistan Air force a few years earlier and I had flown him in a dual seater fighter aircraft at Peshawar. He was now a don at Cambridge. He asked me if I knew a young man by the name of Salam from Pakistan who had made quite a mark at Cambridge and was thought of very highly by his teachers. I said I knew him well and that we were good friends. He also told me that I was to attend a formal dinner that evening where I would be sitting next to Ian Forster, the author of A Passage to India. However, I needed to wear a dinner jacket and a bow tie for this formal occasion, which I was obviously not carrying with me. As Salam had about the same physique as I did, I visited him and borrowed his clothes for the evening function. He told me that he had received an offer of a chair at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, which he was planning to accept. And, thus, at only 30 years of age, Salam became the youngest ever to occupy this prestigious position at a leading centre of learning in Britain.

Salam moved to London to take up this assignment in 1956 and acquired a modest house at 8 Campion Road, London, SW18, a house he continued to live in till the very end and where some members of his family live to this day. His room had a large bed and book racks all around, and served as his study as well as his living room. Books of all kinds would be spread on one side of the bed and the room would look well and truly lived-in. This is where he worked and received friends and most visitors. One would be sure of getting a good cup of tea here, his favourite brand being Twining’s Earl Grey, to which he introduced me with great relish. He also had a very keen ear for music, both Eastern and Western, and had a vast collection of tapes and cassettes, as well as a large number of Urdu, Persian and English books of poetry.

Mr Hayat Ahmad Khan (the founder of the All-Pakistan Music Conference) told me that once he flew from London to Lahore on the same PIA flight as Dr Salam. Mr Hayat Ahmad Khan introduced himself to Dr Salam and told him of his devotion to music. He found Dr Salam quite knowledgeable in this field and enjoyed exchanging views about great classical singers. Dr Salam wanted to become a member of the All Pakistan Music Conference and insisted on paying the membership dues. Mr Hayat Ahmed Khan had the currency note given by Dr Salam framed and hung in his office as a keepsake of the Nobel laureate.

In the early 1960s, my wife and younger son had to visit England for a rather complicated surgical treatment of the boy’s spine for which facilities did not then exist in Pakistan. While awaiting surgery, they had to stay in London for about two weeks. I rang up Dr Salam from Pakistan to ask if it would be possible for them to stay with him for the duration. His immediate response was, “You don’t even have to ask; they would be most welcome.” This indeed was most kind of him and it saved us a lot of bother and expense.

Once, in the early 1970s, my younger brother and I happened to visit Dr Salam in London fairly early in the morning. We found him pacing up and down in front of his house in an agitated state. He told us that he had to get to the college to deliver a lecture but his car had refused to budge as the starter did not respond at all. I said if the reason was a depleted battery, perhaps the car could be started with a push. He appeared quite surprised that the engine could be started by pushing the car. I sat at the wheel while Dr Salam and my brother pushed the car and the engine started as soon as I engaged the gear by releasing the clutch. Dr Salam was overjoyed that he would not only reach the college on time but that he had learnt something new about car engines. This incident shows that a great mind that is able to advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge does not always pay attention to such mundane tricks involving low level technology that are commonplace for the rank and file.

Dr Salam was very keen that an international institute of higher science be established in Pakistan. Unfortunately, petty and jealous minds who sat in authority did not approve of this project, with the result that such an institution was instead set up at Trieste with the full help of the Italian government. Dr Salam was the founder of the Institute and its first head and, after his demise, it has been named after him. Many Pakistanis have studied at this institution and some have gained wide recognition as a result.

Apart from the Nobel Prize, Dr Salam received scores of honours and awards from several countries, some of which carried substantial monetary privileges. It speaks volumes for the generosity of this man that he did not keep a single penny of these huge sums for himself, instead setting up trusts to help and encourage promising students who would otherwise not be able to pursue advanced studies in science for lack of financial resources, especially those from Pakistan. This sacrifice becomes all the more precious when one considers that he belonged to the lower middle class in rural Pakistan and could well use extra money for his own and his family’s needs. But what did some of our petty rulers think of this selfless genius who brought such great laurels to his country? Some twenty years ago, the then Chief Minister of the Punjab addressed the annual convocation ceremony at Government College, Lahore. In his formal address, he read out the names of a large number of eminent people produced by this seat of learning, taking full care to omit any mention of Salam, the only Pakistani and Government College alumnus to have won world acclaim in science!

Dr Salam had tried to persuade the rich Muslim countries to set aside a small percentage of their gross national income for the advancement of scientific knowledge that would primarily benefit their own populations. Several promises were made with great fanfare but hardly anyone bothered to honour them. No wonder the Muslim world lags so far behind in science and technology.

I met Dr Salam during one of his visits to Lahore in the summer of 1982. He was on his way to Delhi for a conference by a flight leaving in the early afternoon. When ready to leave for the airport, he wore a heavy raincoat despite the blistering heat. Jokingly, I asked him if it was snowing in Delhi for which he had made such elaborate preparation. He burst out laughing and said, “This is a faithful old coat and I prefer to wear it lest I should lose it along with my luggage, as sometimes happens in air travel.” What a simple man despite his spectacular achievements in the rarefied realm of science!

As is well-known, in his late 60s, Dr Salam was afflicted with a debilitating nervous disorder which made him chair bound and it became difficult for him to speak clearly. I met him in London as he sat in a wheel chair and, holding my hand, with tears spilling from his eyes, he started to talk about our college days in Lahore. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand, and I responded as best as I could. It was so sad to see a person who had held his audiences spellbound with his masterly oratory on a variety of scientific and philosophical subjects, reduced to a physical state where he even found it difficult to speak. A true Pakistani, he had wished to be buried in Pakistan, the ungrateful country that had virtually turned its back on him, but whose green passport he clung to for dear life despite offers of citizenship and huge grants by a host of other countries. How aptly has Ghalib said:

It should also be recalled that while receiving the Nobel Prize, Dr Abdus Salam wore the dress of the land he belonged to and loved with all his heart: achkan, shalwar, turban, and shoes normally worn by the village folk from where he hailed.

Zafar Chaudhry is a retired air marshal and lives in Lahore