Mirza Ali Behrouze Ispahani, chairman of the Ispahani Group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the country, died as quietly as he lived. He went to sleep while recovering from a leg surgery, and then made his condition altogether irrelevant because he never bothered to wake up and walk again. Behrouze bhai to his countless friends and admirers, one of the country's wealthiest men died the most mischievous death. He changed gear in his restful sleep and sped off to eternal rest.
To say that Behrouze Ispahani lived quietly isn't to say that he was a quiet man. He enjoyed the company of his friends, engaged in small talk, discussed politics and cracked his share of jokes. You could tell when he was at his best. He would hold the palms of his hands together like a sheet of hot towel and rub his face up and down in quick succession. A tiny smirk then flowered across his face as if the genie of the lamp produced by that rubbing appeared to do the bidding of his friends.
But he was quiet in terms of the wealth he and his family possessed, hating with passion the idea that it must ever be flaunted. If you didn't know about him already, you couldn't guess who he was from the model of the car he rode or the clothes he wore or anything else for that matter. He preferred to sit in the front seat of his car, next to the driver. I don't remember him carrying a wallet, always keeping his cash in a money clip in his pocket. Back in 2002 or 2003, he told me he didn't have a credit card while he was paying for the lunch we had at Purbani Hotel.
Behrouze bhai was a rich man without the trappings of affluence. He took to his privileges like duck to water. He rubbed shoulders with the high and the mighty, but longed for the company of his “ordinary” friends. Most of his close friends, he once confided, didn't have a lot of money. He did business with the businessmen and socialised with the “social” men, he said. He liked to keep it that way for the same reason the boardroom wasn't the bedroom, he explained.
He was a walking encyclopedia of the social life in Dhaka, rattling out information at the slightest provocation. He was very blunt in his assessment of issues and individuals, and never pulled any punches when sharing views with his friends. He was also a kind hearted man. To the best of my knowledge, he never turned down anybody who asked for his help.
In 2006, I had recommended a “costumed” intellectual to him, because the man said he needed some money to finish writing his book. When the book was never finished years later, Behrouze bhai with his genie-smile shrugged off the whole thing. But I remember what he had said after rubbing his face, “Yaar, how could he sell his dignity for this paltry sum of money?”
This was an abiding dilemma for Behrouze Ispahani. Personally and through the schools, Islamiya Eye Hospital and other charities supported by his family, he had touched many lives. Yet, he forever struggled with human inadequacies. In Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator, begins his story by recalling the words of his father, "Whenever you feel like criticising anyone . . . just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." Underlying Behrouze Ispahani's compassion for and patience with others was a deep-rooted sense of gratitude drawn from the bedrock of privileged upbringing. He believed it was his responsibility to give back to the world that gave so much to him.
The scion of one of the wealthiest families of this country understood his place in life. He has done many things for which he deserves credit, but foremost amongst them was the equanimity with which he handled his relationship with the world. This is something awfully remiss in so many others from his class!
If not in intellect or power, Behrouze Ispahani was ahead of his time in terms of how a man makes money but not the other way around. He disliked flashy and conceited folks around him, those who were “legends” in their own minds. He was an affront to them in flesh and blood, his humility laden voice, congenial manner, and beaming smile challenging them with a missionary zeal that this life was too short for such pompous nonsense.
Behrouze bhai's life is a metric to measure the great tensions of our time. It tells those who are obsessed with money and material pursuits that they are wasting their time. An intelligent mind must not spend so much of his energy collecting what he has to leave behind.
The writer is Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.