Kemal Shoaib, 1936-2020

Alia Shoaib pays tribute to the rare man who was her grandfather

Kemal Shoaib, 1936-2020
Kemal Shoaib was a true Renaissance man. He was a successful banker, a scientist and a sportsman. He excelled at everything he turned his hand to, whether his professional achievements or his many hobbies such as table tennis, golf and bridge, for which he often represented Pakistan internationally at the highest levels.

He was an extraordinary person, who had galaxies in his mind and an infinite capacity to love. Although he was a highly accomplished man who inspired awe and respect from all he encountered, to me, he was simply my Aboo, my grandfather and hero.

Aboo was born in Jaunpur, India in 1936 to Iffat Ara and Muhammad Shoaib. His father was a civil servant who later became Finance Minister of Pakistan and then World Bank adviser.

The Shoaibs were a disciplined and intellectual family who shared Aboo’s signature quiet brilliance. He was fifth among six siblings, and his eldest sister, Nafis Sadik, went on to head the United Nations Population Fund. Dinner table conversations about politics and history were the norm, as were their recreational family bridge games.

Kemal Shoaib with the author (left)

Like many of his generation, Aboo came to Pakistan during the Partition. Tensions were rising in Delhi, where his father was posted, and violent riots led to many Muslims camping out in the Pakistani embassy overnight. The next day they boarded a train to Mumbai with all their worldly possessions, then traveled by boat to Karachi.

Aboo was a scientist at heart. He studied chemical engineering, first at Imperial College, London, and then Catholic University, Washington. From there, he went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also had a Masters degree in Islamic history from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

His intelligence didn’t make him overly bookish. He also had a great love of life and a desire to experience all the world had to offer. The summer before graduating, his father bought him a return ticket from Washington to Karachi. Aboo negotiated with Pan American to convert it to a round-the-world ticket, and visited 12 countries in six weeks.

President Ayub Khan with the couple at their wedding

After graduating he moved to Lahore, where his first job was designing a chemicals factory for Wyeth Laboratories.

In 1965 he married my grandmother, Tanoo, daughter of Salma and Syed Hashim Raza, an eminent bureaucrat who was the first administrator of Karachi and then Governor of East Pakistan.

Ami and Aboo’s pairing was a case of yin and yang. Aboo was cerebral and stoic, Ami sociable and emotional. Although on the surface very different people, their relationship was perfectly symbiotic, and characterised by deep love, strong values and mutual respect.

For such a blissful marriage, they had an awfully inauspicious start. They married in Rawalpindi in September 1965. The air was balmy, the mood festive, but hundreds of miles away, war with India was brewing. Because Aboo’s father was Finance Minister, the whole cabinet, including then-president Ayub Khan, was at the wedding when they received news that war had begun. The following night the newly married couple hastily retreated into freshly dug bunkers.

A childhood photo of the author with Kemal Shoaib

Despite the initial melodrama, Ami and Aboo went on to build a very happy life. They had three children, Salman (my father), Faizan and Samia, and five grandchildren. Their home was always full of family, food and joy— whether over Sunday roasts in London or the Wednesday lunches in Karachi.

Aboo was a loving father and devoted husband. At a banquet in London Ami and Aboo once met Princess Diana. She turned to Aboo and, impressed by him, asked, “Where have you been hiding?” Without missing a beat, he smiled and responded, “Always two steps behind my wife.”

They lived in London where Aboo was a banker with BCCI, and Los Angeles, where he was chairman of Independence Bank. In 1990 they returned to Karachi, where Aboo served as chairman of International Industries, International Steels and Century Paper. He also worked with MindSports, an initiative to encourage children to play games like chess and backgammon.

Aboo had a lifelong appetite for learning and an encyclopedic knowledge of a range of topics. He voraciously read books about religion and Eastern history and scientific papers about astrophysics. He always said he dreamed of visiting space. I recently found papers in his study on which he had been writing equations and notes about quantum gravity.

At the wedding - Tanoo and Kemal Shoaib

His talents extended beyond the intellectual realm. As a young man he was Pakistan’s champion of table tennis. He later became Pakistan bridge champion and often captained the country’s bridge team. Just last year, aged 83, he won the UAE National Day bridge tournament with his dear friend Khurshid Hadi. He loved golf, and won many tournaments despite having only taken up the sport in his mid-50s.
At a banquet in London Ami and Aboo once met Princess Diana. She turned to Aboo and, impressed by him, asked, “Where have you been hiding?” Without missing a beat, he smiled and responded, “Always two steps behind my wife.”

Despite his brilliance, and all of his successes, he was modest to a fault. He moved through life with quiet dignity and grace and gave incredible strength to those around him.

From the moment I was born in 1995, Aboo and I were inseparable. Every evening he would come over and carry me around the garden, talking to me about the moon and the stars. My happiest memories are our visits to the Boat Club and the golf course, and sitting in Aboo’s lap while he played bridge, breathless with excitement that I had been allowed into his inner sanctum.

Every afternoon he would nap on the sofa, and I would crawl on top of him and lie with my head on his chest. At the dinner table he would patiently answer my inane questions about the world, at night he would tell me bedtime stories of Greek mythology.

Tanoo and Kemal Shoaib with the author (left)

Aboo always had an extraordinary ability to make me feel not only loved, but valued. He would ask my opinion on matters and listen seriously to my answers, which he continued to do my whole life. He was my biggest supporter in everything I did, and would often call or email to ask my views on various subjects.

It’s hard to put into words just how precious Aboo was to me. I will miss him deeply and constantly for the rest of my life. I miss our nightly games of rummy and scrabble and backgammon. I miss talking about politics and the past and the universe. Movie nights and mornings, drinking tea and doing the crossword. I miss his quick wit and magnetic smile. I miss hearing him say “how’s my girl?”

In the days since he passed, the outpouring of love for him has been incredible. Even more amazing are the many stories people have shared of how Aboo inspired and helped them over the years, quietly and without fanfare, often without his family’s knowledge.

Aboo truly made his mark on this world. It was a privilege to know him, and an even greater privilege to have been loved by him.