Son of a poor tailor is Democratic candidate in Texas elections
An Indian-American is standing in American state-level elections. No big deal, it's happened before. The elections are in Texas. Not much of a big deal either. Texas has politicians from immigrant families.
Now consider this: The Indian-American is Masarrat Ali, a biotechnologist-entrepreneur and a first-generation immigrant, son of a tailor from the village of Jhansi, UP, the eldest of nine siblings, all who got their first schooling in a run-down establishment that used to be part of Rani of Jhanshi's kotwali. When you add to this the fact that Ali is the first Indian-American and the first Muslim to get a party ticket in Texan elections, then his case becomes special.
Masarrat Ali is the Democratic candidate for District No. 122 (in San Antonio) for the Texan House of Representatives (the lower house). San Antonio is no backwater—the second largest city in Texas and the seventh largest in the US. Ali's rival for the Democratic ticket for District No. 122 was Art A. Hall. But on January 15, Hall dropped out and endorsed Ali's candidature. The elections are in November and Ali has a tough job. District 122 in San Antonio, Texas has been held by Republicans for 18 years. Texas is a Republican-leaning state and Ali is a newcomer to politics. But, as Ali says, "If Obama could happen, why not Massarat? His (Obama's) victory has given hope to all minorities."
Win or lose, though, Ali's is already a remarkable story.
It started in Jhansi, in the Bundelkhand region of UP, then as now, a place development has passed by. Ali was born to a tailor, Haji Maqbool Ali. Ali Senior says he used to stitch suits for "commissioners, collectors and ministers". But the money wasn't enough for his large family of nine children, of whom Masarrat was the eldest. They lived in a narrow lane crowded with old houses. The neighbourhood is called Gandhigarh Tapra. "It was a typical mohalla with little sense of education. It was full of eighth-class fails. The highest qualification there was high-school-fail," Masarrat said.
The lane is still the same. But Ali's house has changed — a well-constructed, three-storey building, marble floors, modular kitchen and modern furniture. "The house got renovated just a couple of months back," said Ali's mother Rasheedan Ali.
The school Masarrat attended—the Urdu-medium Wakf Board-run Islamia primary school —is just a stone's throw from his house. "During my days, it had no chairs, no electricity, no bathrooms and just two-three teachers who never cared," Ali recollects.
Today, it's almost the same — a decrepit building whose plaster is peeling off and whose wall has 'I love you' scribbled on it at many places and posters of local politicians pasted on it. The school is on a single floor and the building that houses it was a kotwali during the time of Rani Laxmi Bai, according to Ali's younger brother Zaheer , a local businessman. "When Masarrat was a kid, there was no power supply for homes in Jhansi," the father recalled. "He would study with a lantern. Though he loved studying, he had no career ambition. When you are busy just trying to survive, there's little time to think about lofty things such as ambition," Ali recollects.
But the father—who also attended the Islamia school and didn't study further —made sure that his children at least aspired to get an education that would make them fit for white-collar jobs. So, he didn't let them mingle with other children in the neighbourhood; they had enough siblings to play with at home. "Without his efforts, I would have been lost in the galis of Jhansi today," says Masarrat. But the father takes no credit. "Sab Allah Miyan ka diya hua hai. It's god's gift," he said.
Ali's education progressed from the Islamia school to the Hindi-medium Government Intermediate College and then Aligarh Muslim University. Everything Masarrat did after graduation, Masters in Biochemistry from Aligarh in 1977, PhD from the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, in 1981, post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Paris, France (where he was research assistant professor till 1984), the Louisiana State Medical University in New Orleans and Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, (together, he spent 10 years there) was on scholarship.
The tailor's eldest son set the example for his younger sons — one is an MBA, the other is an IT professional and a couple others are graduates and running local businesses in Jhansi such as a pharmaceutical distributorship and a ladies' clothes store. His daughters are either high-schoolers or intermediate-pass, which according to Ali, is "a great achievement" as women in his family had previously never attended school.
Masarrat Ali traded academics for entrepreneurship after he moved to his current residence, San Antonio, in 1993. That year, while he was doing his research on breast cancer at the University of Texas Health Science Center, his thesis supervisor, also an Indian, told him that research published only in papers or journals was "meaninglss". That prompted Ali to do a "crazy" thing. He quit his comfortable job as an assistant professor, and started the Alpha Diagnostics International (ADI). ADI sells biotechnology laboratory equipment. Ali says it's a success. ADI has a centre in San Antonio and one in Shanghai. How much is he worth? Ali won't get into specifics.
And how did politics happen? Always a Democrat voter, in 2004, Ali was among those who founded the Texas Muslim Democrat Caucus, a body that, Ali says, voices Muslim political concerns within the Democrat party and also works to get Texan Muslims to register as voters. Masarrat is currently the Caucus's vice-president. His ambition is to convert the caucus into a national affair and it has now been rechristened as American Muslim Democrat Caucus. San Antonio has 30,000 Muslims and Texas, about 5 lakhs.
Convincing Muslims in Texas to be politically active is tough, Ali says. Muslims from India are more willing, he says. Those from the Middle-East are the most reluctant. Two years ago, Ali was elected Precinct Chair for District 122, which required grassroots working like getting in touch with the voters and organizing them. The candidacy followed from that. Ali's father, who visits his son in Texas every year, doesn't have any particular views about his son's political goals. But Ali Senior says, he "likes the Americans he met". "My beard, my kurta-pajama, my topi don't seem to be a problem when I am there," he says.