In many ways he has been Zulfi to my Amrita, our characters in the play ‘Tumhari Amrita’ that we played for 21 years. A rare tribute by Shabana Azmi to her life-long friend and co-star Farooque Sheikh who passed away this Saturday in Dubai
The last show of ‘Tumhari Amrita’ was held against the backdrop of the resplendent Taj Mahal in Agra on 14th Dec 2013 to a standing ovation.” This is a fitting finale,” I said, “We have been doing the play for 21 years, I think the curtains should drop on the play”. “No way,” he replied. “We are good to carry on for another 21 years”. Thirteen days later, I get a call at 3 am from his wife Rupa that Farooque had passed away in Dubai due to a massive heart attack.
To speak about Farooque in the past tense seems like a grammatical error, an aberration of language. He was my friend, my colleague, my well-wisher of 44 years. I first set eyes on him in the corridors of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He was the most popular boy in college. We became friends instantly and together formed the Hindi Natya Manch. All the money for the production would come from Farooque’s pocket because the college ran an English theatre group and had no funds left for our efforts.
We inevitably won all the inter-collegiate drama competitions —Farooque for Best Director and Best Actor and I for Best Actress. But over the years the pattern remained the same. I would be anxious and nervous before the curtains came up and he would be cool as a cucumber!
In many ways he has been Zulfi to my Amrita (our characters in the play) the stabilizing factor in my college years. I used to get very nervous before my exams. He has sat up night after night taking my lessons, filling ink in my pens, waiting outside the examination hall till I completed my paper. And yet in all the years I’ve known him he has never said a kind word to me! He has always pulled my leg and made cheeky comments.
Once during college we were walking down the street together when he gave eight annas to an old woman asking for alms. “Bhagwan tum dono ki jodi salamat rakhe!” she said gratefully.
Farooque turned around in horror and retorted, “Lao mere paise wapas agar aisi baddua deni hai toh!” At other times, he would say every cloud has a silver lining like Shabana has Rupa (his girlfriend, later his wife) for a friend!”
And yet when I fell ill he would be the first one to rush me medicine and ask after my well-being. He knew I like mangoes and would always send me dozens of them from his village in Gujarat.
He was extremely well read, articulate , deeply involved in socio-political issues. He would often surprise me with his take on current national and world affairs. His was a moderate sane voice in these trying times.
I have a string of his SMSes stored in my cellphone. The last one was on December 24. I had just returned from my village Mijwan and asked if I should send him some ‘rasaval’ (a porridge made of sugarcane juice and rice) Prompt came his reply, “Neki aur pooch-pooch?” He couldn’t get to eat the ‘rasaval’ because he had left for Dubai for a family vacation and the ‘rasaval’ lost its flavour… My world too has lost its flavor to a great extent, Farooque, dear friend, with your departure….—Courtesy Times of India