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Faheem Hussain - Lal Salam

by Rinku Dutta

, 6 October 2009

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To the profound sorrow of his world-wide circle of friends and family, Faheem Hussain breathed his last in Trieste, a seaside port-city in north-eastern Italy, on September 29. He succumbed to prostrate cancer. He was 67.

Faheem’s journey had begun on July 23, 1942, at Yavatmal (earlier spelled as Yeotmal), in the Indian state of Maharashtra, an aspect of his composite identity that he would later often assert: a Hyderabadi Dakhani. At the time of the Partition his family moved to Pakistan, and he enrolled for under-graduate studies at FC College, Lahore. He pursued higher education in England, finishing with a doctorate in physics from Imperial College, London, having worked in the group lead by the illustrious Abdus Salam. For post-doctorate work he went to the University of Chicago, Illinois. Academic training successfully completed, he returned to Pakistan in 1968. He devoted the prime years of his life (26-47) as an inspiring and energetic faculty member at the department of physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, while simultaneously engaging in political activism, committed to class struggle against oppressive systems in the country.

The Zia years saw major disruptions in his professional and personal lives, culminating with Faheem leaving Pakistan in 1989. For a while he functioned as a visiting professor at the Johannes-Gutenberg University, in Mainz, Germany. The years 1990 to 2004- his mature years (48-62)- he contributed as a Senior Staff Scientist at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy.

After retiring from ICTP, Faheem returned, once again, to Pakistan, as a ’foreign faculty’ at the National Center for Physics, Islamabad, and later accepted an influential position at the School of Sciences and Engineering, LUMS, Lahore. My association with Faheem was during these post-retirement years, when he was actively re-engaged with science education in Pakistan.

When I think of Faheem, I think red: he was partial to the red part of the spectrum- to shades of flaming orange ranging to brilliant carmine. They resonated well with his vibrant personality- ever-curious, exploring, analyzing, thrilling in the joy of sparring with nature. His was one of the keenest minds that I’ve had the fortune of seeing in action. He had the gift of cutting the clutter around any issue, and rephrasing the problem in clearer terms. I marveled at how he would often succeed in ’reducing’ a complex problem, and present it in terms of a ’previously solved’, and therefore easier-to-attack, question. This applied to a broad variety of questions, not necessarily limited to physics, or to his area of specialization- theoretical elementary particle physics.

Although very much a social animal, reveling in choice company, and sophisticated in his culinary tastes, Faheem displayed a preference for spending his leisure hours interacting with young faculty and senior students at LUMS. His dream was to found a theoretical physics group (specifically, a group pursuing research in string theory). He sought out 3 talented mathematical physicists- Asad Naqvi, Tasneem Zehra Husain, and Amer Iqbal- for this purpose. With Faheem’s unexpected early demise, it hones on this trio, and others inspired by Faheem, those who have owned his dream, to work towards realizing it.

The most endearing features in Faheem were his twinkling eyes and infectious smile. Like most of us, he had his share of burdens to lift, but he never seemed worn-down by his cares. His zest for life remained unabated, even when he was battling cancer: On April 7, he had sent an update on his health: "I had the first of my new round of chemo on the 25th of March. The next one is on 15 April. This will be repeated for a total of 8 times, so will finish sometime in August. The side effects this time are not so bad. In the meantime I am enjoying the lovely spring weather here. Have been gardening for the last three days. Have planted a lot of flowers and vegetables."

Speaking of gardening, Faheem was one of those rare individuals in whose presence one could dare to blossom- to rise above petty, trivial matters, and live for trans-personal causes. For Faheem trans-personal causes were not confined to the pursuit of science, but also extended towards the building of community- an egalitarian and just society; societies. He regularly contributed opinion pieces on political issues to The cause he had lately expressed most sensitivity towards was that of Palestine. He was a staunch anti-imperialist, and vociferously protested against the new wave of savage neo-liberalism and the religion of the free market.

Almost till the very end, Faheem kept up his activism of opinion-building, and protesting against class injustices via email messages. On September 16, just over a month before his death, Faheem had written to Dr. Abdullah Sadiq, expressing his views on an article that Abdullah had shared with him. In his characteristic forthright style Faheem had remarked:

"While I agree with some of the analysis in the article, I disagree strongly with the second paragraph. While discussing what is going on in Swat and the Frontier in general let us not idealise Pashtun society. The author says: ’The Pakhtun society does not suffer from the same disease of class and feudalism as in other parts of the country or to that extent at least.’ This statement is absolutely untrue. I don’t know much about Swat but about the rest of the settled area I can tell you that feudalism is as strong there as in other parts of the country. As I know very well the people who were involved in the Hashtnagar peasant movement in the 60s I can tell you that the Khans there were as cruel as any of the feudals of Sindh or the Punjab. They kept, and still keep, private armies. The way that they violently opposed the peasant struggle is known to many people."

His political philosophy is succinctly expressed in the signature quote of an email message that he had sent on Dec 25, 2008, wishing us a happy new year:
"If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the
class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided
between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and
 exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing
anything"---Fidel Castro in "My Life" with Ignacio Ramonet.

Although, I grew up in West Bengal, and spent 7 years in Kolkata, the
principal communist bastion in India, I have no sympathy for the communists, principally because I have suffered from the havoc that they have wrought on the education system in the state. Therefore, Faheem and I rarely saw eye-to-eye when it came to politics. Nevertheless, I admired his compassion for the unprivileged and the oppressed. I was particularly impressed by his willingness to not just speak up for just causes, but, also, to extend a helping hand, wherever possible.

Some years ago Dr. Sarmad Abbasi had organised a panel discussion at LUMS on the topic “What’s keeping back science in Pakistan?”. Faheem was one of the invited speakers. The flyers of the panel discussion had a descriptive phrase for each panelist: Faheem’s was- ’Unreconstructed Marxist’. Over the next several years that I had come to know Faheem, I had paid scant attention to this epithet that he had chosen to describe himself. Reviewing his life, I can now see more clearly the fuel that powered his engine: more than a passion for
science, he was driven by profound compassion for the downtrodden and the deprived. Although not a communist, I would like to say in a final gesture of respect to a fallen humanist comrade "Faheem Hussain, Lal Salam (Red Salute)!"