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Fathers and Sons

Fathers and sons

Subject: Thinking of you
Sent: 02/13 3:21 AM
Received: 02/13 5:09 AM
To: Pedro Meyer,

Dear Pedro,

I have not written to you for a long time now. Things have been difficult here, and now with the elections only three days away, it is difficult to know what the next few days will bring. It is fairly certain there will be violence, but to what extent and with how many casualties, one can only guess.

I have been remembering you for very different reasons. For three days now my father has been ill. He has always been poorly, and with diabetes, gout, arthritis, and a failing heart, adding to his childhood bone marrow defects, he feels he has done well to keep going without any major mishaps. Yesterday, he had a blackout and slipped in the bathroom and fell, cutting himself on the head in the process. He was sweating when I found him, and as I changed his clothes and mopped his body with a towel, I found a new relationship developing between myself and this man who had fathered me. He was frail, and his skin hung loose, and he was slightly uneasy with this new role that we found each other in, but he did not resist, not because he was as weak as he was, but because he was brave enough to venture into this unknown territory at this late an age. A territory, I had never braved. I tried to gently mop the sweat from his body, feeling him lean on me, letting me feel his weight.

I had played with him as a child, but since then, we had had little scope for physical contact. I remember once, when I was twenty one, and about to leave for several years, that he stiffly held out his hand to shake mine. I went up to him, and his hug was so warm. Later, from a thousand miles away, I wrote to him to say that I loved him. It was the first time I had done so, but we had broken the ice. We wrote often since then, each time renewing and expressing our knowledge that we loved each other, but there had still been little to follow up on that hug. When I left for a visit, or returned, we would hug, a soft gentle hug, knowing, trusting, but still holding back ever so slightly.

He is sleeping now, in the hospital bed, and in the strange environment of the ward with the sound of sick and dying men all around me, I can hear him breathe. Even in his sleep, he knows I am here, and that is reassuring for both of us. I can feel his soft wet skin, the weight of is limp body. The almost imperceptible way in which he leaned against me as I held him. We have spoken very little in the hours when he has been awake, and much of what we’ve said has been functional, spoken while I have been feeding him, making sure the mosquitoes don’t bite.

Tomorrow I will be back in the streets, facing the inevitable police bullets and the teargas, in the heat of the battle perhaps I will forget this hospital bed, the squiggly lines on the oscilloscope, the gentle breathing, but I know he will await me. And tomorrow night, like tonight, I will sit by his bed, half awake, while he sleeps, happy in the knowledge that I have touched more than a bare patch of skin.

I remember you now, for the thoughts that ran confused in my mind as I watched “I photograph to remember” in a quiet corner of the gallery in Arles. I have my camera with me, but have taken no pictures, not yet. Perhaps I’ll wait for the skin to dry.

In loving memory,……..,

Shahidul Alam


Subject: My father
Sent: 02/20 11:30 AM

Received: 02/20 12:35 PM
From: Shahidul Alam,
To: pedro meyer,

Dear Pedro,
The text is a bit formal. It will take me a while to write to people individually. I hope you will understand.


Professor Kazi Abul Monsur, a microbiologist of international repute, passed away on the 20th February 1996 at Suhrawardy Hospital of a heart attack. A brilliant scientist, Professor Monsur was a gold medallist from Calcutta Medical College, and was later awarded the “Pride of Performance” by the President of Pakistan. He developed the world’s best known culture media for cholera, known as “Monsur’s Media”.

He was the founder of the School of Tropical Medicine, and also the initiator of the first IV fluid plant in Bangladesh. His work brought international recognition and he served as the director of the Public Health Institute. Professor Monsur started his teaching career in Dhaka Medical College where he was professor of Bacteriology and Pathology, which was followed by many years of international work. He retired from Government service as Director of Health Services. Dr Monsur has left behind his wife, Dr Anwara Monsur, founder and principal of Agrani Balika Bidyalaya, daughter Dr Najma Karim, son Dr Shahidul Alam, grandchildren, and many well wishers. Dr Monsur was a director of Drik Picture Library Ltd.

February 20, 1996 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments


It was the first rain of the year, the end of winter. I hadn’t noticed the weather till then. The previous week had been one of turmoil and discovery. I had spent hours watching my father’s face, looking at the lines in his hands, the fingernails. The shape of his toes. Never before had I noticed the little cleft at the tip of his nose, which I too had. His eyebrows were thick, bush and soft. The doctors had told us it would need a miracle but we clung on. Abba had been very clear about how he wanted to leave. There were to be no heroics. No expensive treatments, no trips abroad, above all, he had not wanted to live a life where he could not be fully active. On the second day in the hospital, the doctor suggested that I ask my sister who was a doctor in the UK, to come over. The implications were obvious. She might never see him again. There was a national strike in the country, in protest against a one-sided election. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, arranged for an ambulance to get my sister from the airport to the hospital. She wept and he smiled as they met.

Those few hours were lovely, despite his condition. We talked of politics, his flowers, of his grandkids. He was furious with the government for staging a mock election, and wanted to know what was going on in the streets. Then the breathing got heavy and they put on the oxygen mask. Late at night, the doctor asked if we agreed with putting him on the ventilator machine. There was a risk attached, but she felt it was our only realistic chance. It needed a move to another building. He was for the first time unsure of what was going to happen. I held him tight in the ambulance. Making sure he know I was constantly there. In the surgical ward, they were going to pump him with morphine so he wouldn’t resist as they pushed the tubes down his throat. Between gasps I saw his eyes scanning the room, looking for a familiar face. I called out gently, and the eyes rested as they met mine.

He was in pain, as he had been in since childhood. He was going to bear up. The hard part would be ours. As the ventilator pumped, I strained to find meaning in every little blimp on the screen. The oxygen saturation was low. The blood pressure was erratic. The kidneys were not producing enough urine. At three in the morning, I asked the doctor is I should call the rest of the family, she didn’t look up, but simply nodded. Abba had been a legend in his lifetime, and the doctor, though too junior to have studied under him, knew who they were losing. My mother, sister her daughter who had earlier come over for a visit and stayed on, and Rahnuma, all came. They had been lucky. The streets were bare except for the military. No one ventured out unless they had to. They stumbled on to a baby taxi, and all five squeezed themselves in. It had been difficult for my mother to discuss my father’s wishes regarding treatment. We called the doctors, and my uncle Mannan, another doctor. He and Abba had been the closest of friends since they met some sixty years ago. My mother was amazingly strong. She reminded us that he hadn’t wanted heroics, that above all we must ensure that he died with dignity.

She never wanted the man she had been married to for fifty two years, to live a life other than he had wanted for himself. My mother know what this would make her look like, and the assumptions people would draw, but she was clear about what she wanted, and stuck to it. My sister and I supported her, the rest opposed, and many were appalled. That when things slowly began to change. Though my dad continued to be on a life support machine, his blood pressure stabilised, the blood saturation went up. Twice when I called, he briefly opened his eyes. Those were the last time he opened them. Later, when I called again, the eyes remained closed. I will never know if he really saw me when he opened his eyes. The doctors felt he could sustain it and began peritonial dialysis. It was risky, as there would be great pressure on the heart but there was little else the doctors could do.

For one and a half days, the blood pressure remained steady. In the early hours of the morning I sat by his bedside. I noticed that he would suck if water touched his lips. The eyes no longer opened when I called, but occasionally, when the morphine would wear out, the blood pressure reading on the monitor would go up when I called. It was as it deep inside he knew we were out there calling. The doctors said that he was “light”, almost ready to wake up. When I pushed against his feet, he pushed back. I began to dream again, and plan the many things that we would do that had been missed, the many things that had not been said, the questions that hadn’t been asked. I felt bouyant again. There was only one concern, his kidneys were not functioning.

As I left in the morning, thoughts were swirling around in my head. I almost didn’t notice the people who had stopped my rickshaw. The came and started attacking me with a knife. I tried warding off some of the blows and they ran off with my computers and my camera. As I returned from the hospital nursing the stiches in my hands and legs, my cousin came and told me that urine had collected in the bag. His kidneys were working! The hopes and the dreams came surging back.

The next day we kept monitoring the machines. I spoke again with my sister and mother. Surely we were not considering “pulling the plug” as my uncle had once said with hurt on his face. No we were not. He was going to come round. We were going to get our father back. It was the day before my sister was to go back to London. Abba had an epileptic fit. I had felt that the doctors had been a bit rough while trying to get a catheter through, and that the stress may have caused it, it was one of  many thoughts that ran through my mind. At any rate, we felt it was a minor setback. But other complications set in. The blood pressure became erratic again, and at the end of the dialysis, the kidneys were no longer producing urine. Abba’s blood saturation dropped. The doctors pointed out a missed ventricular beat that was showing up on the oscillator. Upto six a minute was OK he said. I counted eleven, then eight, then twelve. Except for one doctor, a kindly man, who kept on giving us hope, the others wanted us to know what the situation was, and we were bitterly disappointed.

My sister delayed her trip to the airport as long as she could, but as she kissed my sleeping father goodbye, she too must have known that she would never see him again. The next day was a downhill slide. In the late hours of the afternoon, I stroked his hair, so soft and silvery, the skin so smooth. I saw his chest moving up and down with every pumping motion of the ventilator, and even though we all knew it was the machines that were keeping him alive he didn’t look ill or sickly, even with all  the tubes stuck to him, and the ghastly pipe inserted in his throat. I noticed the silvery stubble that had grown in his normally clean shaven face, and as I held his hands in mine, it did feel as if he knew I was holding them. Then I noticed the bluing of the fingertips. I took each finger tip and rubbed it to make the blood flow again. For the first time I felt that he was cold, and in pain. I looked at the lines in his palm. In all these years I had never studied his features closely. The wrinkles in his skin, the folds of his hands, the shape of his feet. The soft skin of his belly. How often we had played on it as children. Towards evening, the blood pressure had gone way down.

Always in the past, he had responded to drugs and it had picked up again. This time it refused. The oxygen saturation was steadily dropping. Once or twice he momentarily stopped breathing, and  I held mine, but then he started breathing again. I borrowed the stethoscope, and heard a faint beat, and then a soft watery thud, and then another beat, so faint. And then the breathing stopped, but the heart beat was still there, just a little blip. And then that too faded away. There was still a wave in the monitor. “Residual electrical impulse” the doctor explained to me. It was eight o’ clock. My uncle explained it to my mother. She quietly drew the sheet over his face.

My colleagues used to tease me about my bellowing laughter that I shared with my dad. Through my tears I remembered that easy laughter, that slow gait, the wistful look in his eyes. The needs of the moment brought me back. We needed an ambulance, his body (how heavy and limp that word sounded) needed to be taken home. He had to be bathed, funeral arrangements had to be made. I remember bathing him. The warm water we used to remove the small bits of clotted blood that had formed where so many syringes had penetrated. I remember lifting him so we could wash his back. I remember the firm flesh underneath the soft skin. How he would strain to lift himself in bed, willing those ageing muscles on. I remembered how we used to climb on his shoulders and slide down his belly. We washed him and then sprinkled rose water. The mollah put crystals of alum on his skin. They sparkled in the light of the bare bulb in the garage wehre we were bathing him. The dark shurma that he painted his eyelids with made them even more beautiful, and the beard was glistening white. We covered him with a clean white shroud, and lightly fastened the knot at the top of his head. I kissed his wet hair before tying the knot. Then we lifted him on to the blue khatia that had been brought in from the mosque, and carried him to the sitting room.

We would sit here in this room every night. Watching the news as we had dinner. He himself had built this house thirty years ago. The incense wafted through the air. People were filing past to see him for the last time.  My mother prayed. That night, when all the guests had gone, Rahnuma and I spread a blanket close to the khatia, and we lay on the floor next to him, as I had done on all the previous nights in the hospital. This night, I could sleep. There was nothing I had to watch out for. No doctor to call, no medicines to feed. Tonight he wouldn’t be restless. When we woke in the morning, here was a soft light in the garden. The garden was his pride. He would slowly stroll through, checking each plant, measuring the fruits to make sure they were growing…

February 20, 1996 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment