Colours of Ali's world

Right from his eight-week premature birth, Ali was special. Hearing impairment, dyslexia and a series of accidents failed to break his spirit. He worked magic with paint and brush, exploring new dimensions of life. He was, by turns, a child, a rebel and a survivor. In Ali’s World, Badal and Swapna Mukhopadhyay provide a loving glimpse of the world of their son who died at 20. Excerpts:


In many ways the story of Ali is close to each of ours, and in many ways it is unique. When I see Ali’s work I am mesmerized. I feel moved by what I see. His paintings engage and enrich me. My reaction to his work is not a result of any sympathy, as when I first saw the book I had no idea of his background, or his tragic and untimely end. It was only when I went through the book for the second time, read the text and the accompanying letter that I felt a sense of loss. I am not an expert on art but I just loved his work. It gets you in the gut and speaks to you, moves you. I think Ali has managed to communicate in his short life more than most of us do in three times the life span. Certainly by the time I was 20 I had not even begun to express myself. His work, and I hesitate to call it that as it comes across more as play to me, seems to celebrate every aspect of his life. My congratulations to Ali, and thank you, Badal and Swapna, for giving us a peek into his world.
— Aamir Khan

In the summer of 1987, we went to Kolkata. In the previous winter, Ali had watched Buju, Swapna, my father and I play contract bridge and his eyes gleamed. So I taught him the basics: four suits, the cards, the point count and the simplest of bids. This time in Kolkata my father would eagerly wait to sit with his two grandsons and me and tolerate all possible blunders. But Ali had trouble counting points while holding the cards in his hand, so he turned his back to us, and spread the cards out to count. But when he turned back again, his guileless face revealed quite a bit about his hand, and I always scolded him. One particular day in one deal, when he turned back, he was beaming and this angered me, I shouted at him and threw my cards down. Tears started streaming down his face, he cried, "But I had thirty-one points!"

Hundreds of times later when we played, I would silently pray ‘ get thirty-one points, get thirty-one points’ — but he never did.

Were we wrong?

We returned to Delhi in early 1985. Ali was six-plus, and still had to wait a while before middle school. So, we went back to Shiv Niketan and Aunty Gauba.

I do not know when we began to make mistakes with Ali, but it might have been from this time. Aunty Gauba asked him to write a page of anything he wanted to. He promptly produced a page of gibberish, which would have earned him congratulatory rubber stamps at Forest Lodge. Aunty Gauba reacted with anger.

She insisted there had to be a minimum of discipline in any individual and we could see her point.

But Ali was not like most other kids. In fact, as it turned out, he was very different. How do parents and teachers recognize this when the kid is only six years old? Were the teachers in Australia, who gave Ali an absolutely free run, better at their job? Should we have let him be a free spirit, running the risk of getting nowhere? We will never know.

Ali finds art

“Seated in Garden”. By Ali
“Seated in Garden”. By Ali

For painting, we first sent Ali to the Delhi University Women’s Association, near our home. Then, there were art classes at his school. It dawned on us that he was pretty skilled with his doodles when he was about ten years old. Springdales School had just appointed a young artist named Kadambari as an assistant librarian. She was very good with the children and she took Ali under her wings.

One day, Swapna discovered a sketch of an African boy’s face in his schoolbag. Could Kadambari have drawn it? ‘Of course not’, said Ali indignantly, ‘Kadambari would have done a much better sketch.’ We thought it was wonderful. Swapna promptly got it framed and that face has adorned our sitting room ever since. We knew then that Ali would have to concentrate on art as a major subject.

When a common friend helped us to fix an appointment with the artist Gopi Gajwani, Ali was apprehensive about the fact that painting was a risky profession. There was no knowing if he had the talent within to excel at it.

‘What if I turn out to be a third-rate artist?’ Ali asked. ‘What if you turn out to be a third-rate historian?’ Gajwani shot back. ‘Think of what you would like to do, and let the future take its own course.’ Ali chose the Delhi College of Arts (DCA).

This was a totally new and unexpected environment for us. Talented boys and girls with no semblance of discipline or order were about, although much later we understood that there was an undercurrent of discipline. But Ali paid no heed. Let out of school and free to do his paintings and pursue his ideas, he was cutting classes and missing assignments unknown to us. He fell for the Bohemian style of DCA, hook, line and sinker and got into God knows what vices. He would come home every day either with shining or gloomy eyes, but always to stay home. And he would play pranks, mostly to tease his mother.

He came home one day with an earring dangling from one ear, and when his mother protested, he yanked it off. It was a clip on!

Ali and his friends

Ever since he was a child, Ali was committed to friends. He had no enemy. He was there for his friends under all conceivable circumstances, with no holds barred. He was virtually bedridden with broken bones when his friend Bhrigu’s father was hospitalised, but he turned a deaf ear to all medical advice. We had to rush him to the hospital, so that he could be with his friend in his time of grief. Tara, another dear friend and senior in school, could freely call him at any hour, to fetch class notes from friends lodged at various hostels on the campus, before her final exams. Ali would happily mount his bike and shoot out into the night if she needed him.

Spotting dyslexia

“Rajasthani Man and Cow”. Etching by Ali. 1997
“Rajasthani Man and Cow”. Etching by Ali. 1997

As a child grows up through middle school to high school, then college, and beyond, he or she spends less time at home every day, and more and more outside. The parents of all kids down the middle of the road accept this. But some parents must be prepared for the exception: not better, not worse, but simply different. It was in middle school at Springdales that problems due to Ali’s premature birth eventually surfaced, first spotted by a sensitive teacher. In class, Ali would sit at the rear and never really pay attention. One day, this lady sent us a note, suggesting that we might want to get his hearing checked. We did, immediately. Ali was found to be at least 30 per cent deficient in the hearing frequencies which people normally speak in. We got him a hearing aid which, after some time, disappeared. He had given it away!

But the more serious problem was detected slightly later. Early one morning, Swapna woke me up, urging me to read an article on dyslexia in the morning paper. Unlike now, dyslexia was a disorder rarely heard about in those days. The doctor who had written it had listed its common symptoms. They were: confusion of ‘b’ and ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘q’; skipping words while reading; inability to perform simple arithmetical calculations and so on. Ali had almost all of them. Swapna’s intuition proved right again.

We reached for the phone. My cousin, who was a medical doctor, advised us to immediately consult Dr Puri at the Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Centre. I recall that Dr Puri sat in a room with a large glass panel on one side, beyond which was another room full of children’s toys and games. Ali had come with us straight from school in his uniform. He put his satchel down and was chatting and playing with some younger kids. We were made to fill up a detailed form that Dr Puri read. When she looked up, she began, ‘Let’s see, there may be a problem.’ Then she saw Ali, and stopped. ‘Is this the boy?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Can’t be!’

She called him in, spoke to him for some time, and sent for an IQ test. Ali got a pretty good score, but in a peculiar manner. There were large blocks that he did 100 per cent right, while others were all wrong. In the end, her prognosis was: nothing seems to be seriously wrong, but we had to be ‘careful’ with this kid. That was easier said than done. What exactly were we supposed to do, or not do?

We hunted up the author of the original article and took an appointment with her. In this lady’s clinic, the condition of the other dyslexic kids scared us. Most were very quiet, withdrawn, staring blankly at nothing. It seemed unbelievable that Ali – bubbly, full of naughtiness, fun and life – could have anything in common with them. But we listened patiently as the doctor explained. Dyslexia is not usually spotted early.

A kid’s inability to study for any length of time, to spell and write correctly, to do simple arithmetic, is taken as lack of attentiveness. But if, God forbid, teachers and parents put pressure on the child, which is common in our country, then dyslexia aggravates. By the time the child reaches his teens, could be close to being autistic.

‘Bless yourselves,’ said the doctor, ‘that you fought with his teachers to let him be. Do exactly as you did, but do not forget to get Ali off mathematics as soon as he is through Class X.’

Excerpted with permission from Ali’s World by Badal and Swapna Mukhopadhyay. Roli. Pages 95