M. Ashraf: My dear friend and Mentor

Heroes get Remembered but Legends Never Die…Jerome Max Keli’i Holloway

We lost Mohammad Ashraf “Batku”, a dear friend and companion since my early days, when I was a medical student way back in 1967, on the fateful night of 13th October. He did full justice to his family nick name “Batku” given to his grandfather who was a very swift runner like a duck in the lake. Likewise, he also swiftly swam across several hurdles to become a legend while maintaining both his individuality and personality.

Ashraf grew up in a middle-class joint family of 1940s at Amira Kadal close to river Jhelum, being mainly looked after by his uncle working in the Government Education Department. He was a darling child of the family receiving all the attention till his younger brother was born. He went to Islamia School, S P School and also had a brief stint at Biscoe school. He was very intelligent and innovative right from those early days participating in debates and writing skits. He, even at age 10, was politically very conscious and made cartoons when the then PM of J & K Sheikh Abdullah was over thrown and replaced by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. Unlike most students of those times he would never cram or memorize the lessons. He would rather write the crux of it in his own language. His ratings were always very high and he sailed from matriculation to Intermediate (F Sc) and then into the Regional Engineering College (REC) where he was always a meritorious student, but his conscience and the struggle of Kashmiris never went off his mind. He joined a group of young men who were very vocal for their rights of a Plebiscite.  This led to his being sent to jail. The teachers of the REC led by the Principal Dr Moonis Raza went to see him in Jail along with DIG police and commented on his sincerity and honesty with the cause despite an impending threat to his career. He never completed the degree and was under a radar of the Intelligence bureau along with a likeminded friend.

Getting fed up with the life, living under a suspicion, he came down to Delhi in 1967-68. He found one of his school friends pursuing Medicine, Abdul Aziz Hagroo and shared his room in the hostel. It is there I met him first. A very pleasant and quiet person keeping himself busy with his books on varied subjects from translations of Kalhana’s Rajtarangni to books on nature, mountains and glaciers. He took to photography as one of his hobbies and became very friendly to all the Kashmiri students in our college. He then became interested in mountains and treks and also joined a mountaineering institute in India. He made friends with several French and German mountaineers who used to come to Kashmir. Being fascinated by them but not able to communicate was a challenge for him. He thus joined French language classes in Delhi and used to listen to French language cassettes at night. He finally did a Diploma in French and joined the adventures of French mountaineering groups speaking and learning intricacies of skiing from them. He proposed a project for setting up an “Adventure Tourism” wing for its promotion in the state of J&K in 1973. The project was accepted by his perseverance and persistence eventually. He was appointed in charge of it as a Deputy Director followed by Director and finally Director General in 1996 till 2003 when he retired after serving for 3 decades. During this period, he introduced mountaineering, skiing, rafting and mountain biking. The introduction of tourism in the Godly quiet Lama land of Ladakh was also his initiation and it never looked back. Today it is one of the top industries there.

A scrupulously honest person, who always had suggestions to overcome disasters and accidents. Recently when there was a death of a young village boy who fell while plucking walnuts from the tree, he came up with the idea of training people of how to climb trees while putting chest and seat harness and rope up. He wanted to convey to Dept. of horticulture through common friends.

His restless nature continued and he took to writing articles and books on various aspects of life in various parts of the erstwhile state, especially Jammu and Ladakh. His books were all based on his reminiscences amalgamating history, culture and beauty all together. His fearless nature made him write regular columns in Greater Kashmir, the premier daily from the valley under the title “Kashmir First” which he eventually turned into a website. He always selected very relevant topics centred on the state like; “Peace Not War”, “Kashmir a Bleeding Tragedy”, “Nature Isolates the Valley” and ‘Undependable Life line” just to name a few. He stopped writing these columns after the 5th August 2019 abolition of article 370 which pained him like many others. He was thereafter mainly confined to his Jawahar Nagar house built by her mother, who happened to be my patient, a very affectionate lady. He never married and was devoted first to his father who died in 1978 and then besides his official work used to serve his elderly mother till the end. He never gave up  hope till she breathed her last in April this year.

I used to meet him during all my visits to Kashmir during the last few years. Our last outing together was on 9th August this year, when he accompanied me to meet the well-known , Zareef Ahmad Zareef a Kashmiri poet, writer and social activist, best known for his satirical poetry. He has also been working for the preservation of the environment, culture and heritage of Kashmir and shared his thoughts with Ashraf and me.

Unfortunately, Ashraf, became ill with cough and fever a few weeks ago. The scare of COVID kept him indoors and he resisted going out for investigations, his doctor brother Manzoor did his best and eventually persuaded him to get hospitalized. Nature, however, had her own ways and we lost this great personality prematurely.  He lived like a Legend and left like a Legend.

Author, a Cardiologist, is a recipient of Dr B C Roy Award and Padma Shri. Founder Director Gauri Healthy Heart Mission Project