I remember he used to say Ali in the same way and with the same conviction as Mohammed Ali did, with an emphasis on the the Li. Like a chant. Rauf Ali.
I met Rauf out in India. The first time I knew him was when I was very small. My father used to be friends with him when we lived out there. They would go to Palm Beach Resort together for a cup of “special tea”, i.e. beer poured out of a teapot. I used to muck about on the beach or by the pool table whilst they would banter away underneath the palm trees in the unlit darkness of remote Southern India.
I met up with Rauf again when I was out in India with my girlfriend in ’08 – I was in my early twenties then, so I guess he allowed me to banter with him too. I even remember him saying to me that my banter was good but I wasn’t as outlandish as my father. The first thing you notice about him is his height. For an Indian he was very tall. Probably about 6’2 or 6’3.
He was always outlandish. I decided to look through some of the correspondence I have had with him. The last email I received from him was when he sent me an article about how coconut oil had helped a gay man cure his anal fissure – which could be a great marketing campaign. Rauf owned a large plot of land with coconut groves and white beach on the remote tropical Nicobar Islands, and instead of selling it to a hotel (despite generous offers he refused out of principle) he was in the process of setting up factories to create organic coconut oil for export. He tried to get me involved in the importing the coconut oil to the UK so I did some research from our end whilst Rauf looked at opportunities from his end.
By trade, Dr Rauf Ali was a biologist. But he was also a writer – and a very good one.
His advocacy group which he used for Government grants was called The Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy & Learning (FERAL). He told me started with the word FERAL and worked backwards. Wouldn’t the assessors take objection to such a name? They wouldn’t dare.
I think that’s a quality I admired about him. An audacity combined with quick wit and harmless smile. We once went to the poshest restaurant in Pondicherry for cocktails. He told me to dress smart but he turned up with shorts and a T-shirt used for gardening. I asked him if was would be allowed in. “They wouldn’t dare question me.’
He used to love telling people to ‘fuck off’. But it was so inoffensive. He had one story where someone mistook him for being Arab so he told them to fuck off and then five minutes later someone mistook him for being Indian so he told them to fuck off too. Technically they were both right – Rauf told me he was the rightful heir the Yemeni crown.
We were once a fancy hotel and we ordered some drinks. After two minutes, the waiter came back to us to tell us he had forgotten the order. The waiter was given the order, and he walked off. Then Rauf remembered that he needed to tell the waiter something so he called him back. Rauf leaned forward and told him to ‘fuck off’.
‘Isn’t he going to spit in our our drinks now?’ I asked.
‘He wouldn’t dare.’
Rauf was an eccentric. I have no doubt he also wound people up but, you know, he was true to himself and if people didn’t like him, that’s fine. He wasn’t going to try to please people. He was a man of beautiful contradictions. On the one hand he lived in a spiritual community and was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo but on the other hand he drove round on a thumping big Enfield Bullet 500 and drank whiskey like a Glaswegian. I asked him why he still lived in the spiritual community of Auroville. I remember his exact words after he had thought about it: ‘Because it was more fun’. He was a man who wanted the essence of life.
One of my favourite memories was sitting outside his bungalow with him and a few of his friends. His bungalow was very open plan and quite modern looking. Behind, was a small pool. In front, there was a clearing where he kept his motorbike and a wooden table for when guests came. Surrounding us was pure jungle. It was pitch black and the jungle was black apart from the tips of the leaves and flowers lit up by low garden lights. There were no neighbours so he put on some music. We listened to Sting’s cover of “Fields of Gold”. There was something spontaneously perfect about the moment. My girlfriend and I both felt a very deep sense of peace, happiness and tranquility. Later on he gave me a CD with his favourite music. Yesterday we found it by chance.
I have wanted to go back many times. It is strange that this memory will now forever be a memory because I will now never relive it. It has prompted my father and I to realise that time goes quickly. Too quickly sometimes.
Rauf, you were an original and a one of a kind and we will miss you. Your originality and your work has also inspired many of us. I hope you have found a place of peace, happiness and tranquility.
Rauf and I sitting outside the Davys Wine Vaults in Embankment, on a summer’s day in London.