She would put on a burkha every morning so that choto chacha, my dad’s younger brother, could drop her off at her parents. He would take her to her college instead. That was how Quazi Anwara Monsur graduated. Dadi didn’t want her daughter-in-law to be getting an education, but Amma had the full support of Abba, my father. Her in-laws probably knew what was going on, but as long as Dadi’s authority was not directly challenged, Amma was quietly allowed to complete her studies.
Amma had made a mark upon her arrival from Kolkata to her in-laws in Faridpur. Word had gotten round that Monsur’s wife knew how to shoot a gun. She had many other skills too, and being a school teacher was also able to support the family. When Phupuabba (my father’s brother-in-law) died, the orphans were split up. Bhaijan and Rubi Bu came to live with us. Only my sister had been born then, and overnight a one child family became a three child family. They were difficult times. The family had come over to flee the riots in Kolkata and my father’s low paid government salary was simply not enough. Particularly as Abba and Amma insisted that all the children should have a good education. Amma’s teaching job, plus the extra income she made from marking exam papers wasn’t enough to keep the family going. She would buy wool from the market and knit sweaters to sell for extra income. Later Khaled Bhai was born and no other children were planned. In Amma’s words, I was an “accident.” Dadi, who had always been against her daughters-in-law going to work, saw the value of what Amma was doing and later it was Amma she used as an example to encourage her other daughters-in-law to get jobs.
Once they moved to Dhaka, Amma wanted to setup a school in Azimpur colony. No one was supportive, but that never stopped her. Buying a tent from Rafique Bhai for ten taka, she pitched it in the middle of Azimpur playground and set up Azimpur Kindergarten. Later, in its new name of Agrani Balika Biddalaya, the school and the college went on to become one of the finest educational institutions for girls in the country.
New classrooms grew alongside the tent. There was a large classroom “The Pavilion” which even had brick walls. When a storm in sixties blew away the bamboo classrooms, Amma sat crying in the mud floor that remained. A guardian saw her from the veranda of their house and came over to comfort her. “Do you think it is only your school” he had said. “It belongs to all of us, and we’ll rebuild it.” They did. The guardians and the teachers and the children had organized cultural shows and other fund raisers. This time they were determined there were to be no more bamboo walls. Each classroom had a tin roof but the walls were made of bricks.
Many years later, Amma felt she needed qualifications in psychology to run her school better. She managed to get herself a scholarship to go to Indiana University, and eventually got herself a PhD in child psychology. That was the nature of the woman. Less than five feet tall, once this diminutive woman had decided on something, there was little that could stop her. This did not always make it easy on her children. Her standards were high, and those who failed to meet them, or like my brother Khaled, who felt there were other things to life, felt the brunt of her wrath. The dedicated teacher was not always the compassionate mother. Her public contributions won her the Rokeya Padak, a state award, but with the death of her son Amma paid a terrible price. The night before he took his life Khaled Bhai told me, “I am making things easier for you.” I had not understood the implications then. I was 14, he had just turned 21. It was a price we all paid.
His death had mellowed Amma, and I got away with much that my brother would have been chastised for. Having lost one son, she became hugely protective of the other. After the 1971 war, Amma and I went over to Kolkata to smuggle my sister and her family out of the country. It was my first taste of India and Amma and I used the opportunity well. Kolkata was the cultural capital of India and we would see three films a day, and the occasional play. On our return to a free but unsettled Bangladesh, we found things were dangerous, and there were no set rules. Once, when I needed to negotiate with some hijackers who had stolen our car, this tiny woman insisted she would stay with me and be my bodyguard.
Her protectiveness had its own problems, and as an adult, when I rejected her choice of a homely bride and found a partner of my own, she did all in her power to break up our love. Rahnuma and I stuck together despite it. Though Amma later relented, our relationship had been severely tested, and came precariously close to breaking point. Amma was strong and feisty, and didn’t take being challenged too lightly. Plucky, headstrong, and hugely energetic, she nurtured whatever she loved with a passion. Till she was 80, she would go to college everyday, ensuring that it ran smoothly.
I had gone to UCLA for the Regents Lecture. It was in LA that I got Rahnuma’s message that Amma had been taken to hospital. Apamoni, the ever dutiful daughter, now a retired doctor in London, had rushed to Dhaka to nurse her. She told me that things were stable, and I needn’t hurry back. I went on to Florence where I was conducting a seminar. Rahnuma’s second message said Amma was slipping. It was a very long flight back. My nieces Mowli and Sofia got a last minute Emirates flight and we met up in Dubai. An hour’s delay at the airport, the delay at the luggage belt on reaching home and the rush hour traffic became unbearable as we wondered whether we would see her alive. Amma wasn’t going to give up that easily. She wanted us around, and her face glowed as she saw the three of us. Fariha, my youngest niece, arrived the next day.
My nieces got out the family album, and through the pain, she peered through the photographs. As she looked at a picture of me, Fariha asked “Who are you looking at?” The face broke into a smile. Frail, but distinctly a smile. It is wonderful how the tiniest of movements transforms a face. She whispered my nickname “Zahed”. Later as she strained to lift her hand to stroke me, Fariha joked, “Grandma, pull his beard.” Another smile and a whisper, “Beard?” Later when she stroked me again, Fariha repeated her joke. Another impish smile and the word “Pull?” Those were the last three words she ever spoke.
Apamoni had toiled ceaselessly to take care of her. Rahnuma had run ragged with errands, her grandaughters stayed up all night giving her water, changing her clothes, checking the oxygen pressure, coaxing her to eat and put on the nebuliser. Hameeda and Zohra both knew Amma well. They bathed her, combed her hair and nursed her, trying to interpret every gesture. Delower, whom Amma saw as a son, was omnipresent and kept the ship from sinking. Dulabhai, my brother-in-law, also a retired doctor, kept vigil from afar. But it was me that she longed for. This was not the time to dwell on patriarchal politics. I was losing a person who loved me beyond reason. With all my traveling, I had always wondered where I might be, when the time came. I needn’t have worried. Amma waited till I returned.
After many rainy days, with Chittagong in a deluge, the sun shone through this morning. Amma didn’t like 13. Saturdays were bad. Thursday was the best day of the week. At 8 this morning, Thursday, the 14th June, carefully sidestepping a 13 and a Saturday, with the sun glistening on her favourite champa tree, Amma chose to say goodbye.
She was 83. In those last few days, I saw my mother in a way I hadn’t before. I knew the softness of her skin, every little mark on her face, the shape of her tiny feet, the wrinkles on her fingers. As I carried her to the wheelchair, or moved her up the bed, I felt her weight against my body. I knew how it felt to be lovingly stroked by a hand that had barely the strength to move.
Her janaja was at the Takwa Masjid in Dhanmondi. My colleagues at Drik and Pathshala, our Out of Focus children did all that was needed. They would have borne my grief if they could. Many years ago, I had stood in the same mosque during Abba’s janaja, on an Eid day. We then went to her school. As the long line of students, teachers and well wishers from all over Azimpur walked past to take one last look at their beloved Boro Apa (big sister), I walked across to the classroom where I had studied. Through my tears, the benches and tables looked tiny now. Sitting on the bench and looking up at the blackboard I could hear Boro Apa’s footsteps on the corridor.
The grave in the New Azimpur Graveyard, had been bought in 1970, when Khaled Bhai had died. We had then bought three plots, for Amma, Abba and Khaled Bhai. The plot in the centre had been empty. I lowered Amma into the grave. She herself had bought the shroud and had it washed with Aab e Zam Zam, the holy water from Mecca, in preparation for this moment. The white shroud glistened against the dark clay. Our relatives and friends, Ammas students spanning sixty odd years, my own students and Amma’s numerous admirers were there. They carried the wooden Khatia, lit the incense, scattered rose water. They shared our loss.
I remembered the finality of the knot at the ends that I myself had tied. Neat rows of bamboo stakes were placed diagonally across the grave, shielding her body from the earth that was going to cover her. Bamboo mats were folded over the stakes that sealed her in. Then we all took turns to cover her with earth. After the munajat (prayers), as I walked away, I imagined my mother in between her husband and her elder son, reunited in death. I could hear them calling out to me ever so lovingly. “Zahed”.
14th June 2007.
There were serious gaps in dispatch I which need to be filled in. Such as Sabeen, like an apple savvy Ma Kali hovering over me to make sure that I called Evelien immediately to call off Dar Es Salaam. Skype on the hotel wifi was a bit of a joke, but Evelien’s voice did echo through the ether. Tongue out, sabre ready, Sabeen was poised to strike and I wasted no time in sending of a plaintive plea to Evelien to forgive me my sins. Her response was immediate. “We would rather you live”. The death tolls were knolling! Any attempt by Nalaka and I to move towards the issues we had sneaked out of the meeting room to discuss were totally swept aside by the hordes of people gathering round. The hotel lobby had become a control centre. Doctors, travel agents, airline desks, World Press were all being hotwired. Transatlantic messages flowed in interspersed with local flavour. Manori came over with her own private collection of angiogram videos. Suvendu wanted scans of my report for his dad in the US. Mowli, my niece called from London, Rahnuma was on chat. Chulie came in with a long face and a detailed survey of cardiologists in Colombo. Nalaka and I did manage to get a few words across, but Manju was there with her FK problems. While budget lines were being fixed and participants finalized for 2007, I signed the FK papers. It felt more like signing a last will.
The Palm Strip lounge in Colombo had little to do with palms. Stuck in a corner next to the self service canteen, it was an easy lounge to miss. Having made my way back all the way from the gate, past all the other lounges, I settled into Palm Strip hoping against hope for a wifi connection. I was lucky to find a power outlet. There was one terminal with Internet but a six year old girl and her mum had set up residence around it, and it was only my ‘gate is closing’ timing that allowed me contact with the keyboard. I sent off my fond farewells in time to rush back to the gate.
The woman in the Dubai counter stopped to take stock of my passport. She was slow anyway, but a six layer passport with no empty pages was not something she dealt with everyday and time seemed to stand still in the Dubai Emirates counter. My Dhaka-Dubai-London-Biarritz-London-Dubai-Colombo-Dubai route was perhaps not the most straightforward one, but all I wanted was to change the remaining Dubai-Dar Es Salaam-Dubai-Colombo-Dubai-Dhaka segment to Dubai-Dhaka. That seemed simple enough. A small conference gathered around my ticket and my passport. A break of sequence was apparently mortal sin in the airline industry, but there was a way, apparently. If I were to buy a new Dubai-Dhaka ticket, retaining the existing ones and use them later, exactly in their original sequence, then apparently I could avoid losing money on them altogether. Reorganising meetings around that altered schedule to utilize such air travel calisthenics might have proved difficult, but they were only trying to help. Through security, past the Ferraris on sale to counter twenty I went, only to be told that I was totally in the wrong place. It was Skywards at gate 8 that I wanted. The attendants at the lucky Chinese numbered gate were helpful too. All I had to do was to go back to where I came from where the commercial desk would issue me a new ticket. By now the security people were getting suspicious of this bearded guy who had gone backwards and forwards through their gate four times in one hour. They didn’t realize our future destiny was also entwined. The commercial desk rebooked the flight, but surprise surprise, I had to go back to the original counter to get the ticket issued! The woman with time on her hands was dealing with passengers at her own pace, and spotting the first class counter empty, I chasséd across to the woman there. She smiled and with a sidelong glance at my wad of passports, quietly went through the pile of stapled tickets. “Why have you done all this?” she asked. As I went through the entire history, she sighed and took me back to the commercial counter. But this encounter was different. She managed to cancel the Dubai-Dar Es Salaam flight, and issued me a Dubai-Dhaka ticket, without revoking the sectors in between. While the new tickets were being issued, she asked me where I was from. Zareen Ahmed had two kids and lived with her family in Sharjah. Her parents lived in Gulshan in Dhaka. I now had a friend in Dubai airport. I did have to go back to her counter, but in the end, armed with my new ticket, I was ready to face my security friends for yet another trip past the metal detector.
Despatch III to follow.
Press Release: For Immediate Release
Dateline: 19th June 2006
5:00 PM Pentagon
President George W Bush in an unprecedented and open discussion with
journalists, announced the appointment of Rahnuma Ahmed as the new PR
chief for the Pentagon.
“Given her marvelous track record and her ability to manufacture stories
out of thin air, we feel Prof. Ahmed will be the perfect vehicle for the
‘information’ we need to convey to the world, where the US is
misunderstood. With her wonderful ability to bring to life stories that
would be untenable in most media and public scrutiny, she has
demonstrated her ability to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the part of
the world that still does not recognize our values.”
Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice cooed over the new appointment.
“This is the best thing that has happened at the Pentagon for a long
time” she said, adding “With Ahmed on the team, we would never have lost
Vietnam.” Later Senator Russ Feingold was on CSPAN confirming the
Contrary to the aggressive propaganda campaign by Rahnuma Ahmed, I would
like to state that I am alive and well and in no signs of being
imminently embalmed, buried or cremated. The greatest difficulty I
currently face is to resist the excellent profiteroles in Dubai Lounge.
The trip has not been uneventful. Having used up Nalaka’s monthly pay by
phoning the UK and sampling all the variations of ‘your custom is
valuable to us… all operators are busy now…and other endearments, I
was informed that taking the Dhaka flight instead of the Dar Es Salaam
flight from Dubai, would involve all my intermediary tickets becoming
void. Being the kind considerate individual that he was, the UK person,
suggested that I try convincing the airport staff that they should
understand my plight. The implication was that short of feigning death,
there was no real chance that I would be allowed to deviate from the
holy emirates scriptures. Rahnuma’s campaign was kicking in however, and
distraught calls from Mowli in London, and chat messages from Rahnuma in
Dhaka punctuated our attempts at international aerial understanding.
Having been told in previous days how our gender balance was necessary
for the empowerment of the gentle sex, I came across the combined
husbandry of the entire female team in the meeting. Chulie and Brishti
joined in for good measure. I was not to walk, blink or whisper (they
did permit breathing) for the rest of eternity. And if I was ever in
doubt of the outcome of the slightest deviation of this generous and
permissive freedom that I had been offered, then my life would certainly
not have been worth living.
Packing provided the first taste of the excitement to come. Sabeen and
Chulie in their Biarritz berets and bandanas, Indian waistcoats, Nepali
hats, and “Edit Naked” T shirts. Chuli twirled in her waistcoat, saying
“I’m too fat”. Suvendu called at regular intervals to add sound effect,
and Sabeen picked up my repaired suitcase, to ensure there would be no
hitch in this perfectly planned repatriation. The Dhanmondi jailers
awaited in glee. Supreeta had brought in my medicine, and Mazhar had
waited in the corridor to ensure that I didn’t slip past without it, but
the medical records and the medicine had been packed away in our
The drama continued at Colombo airport. As predicted, the initial head
shaking (which can mean no or yes or impossible depending upon the needs
of the moment), the rolling of the eyes, the gathering of the clan and
the excited chatter as we all waited for the outcome of this monumentous
decision, eventually led to me being asked to join another queue. This
was obviously the queue for multiple offenders and special scrutiny
awaited all in the line. Consequently the advantage of my first ever
arrival at an airport within the stipulated time, rapidly disappeared
and the ‘final call’ at the gate approached ever more rapidly.
Eventually I was given a booking, and my luggage boarded with the
explicit instructions that I sort things out in Dubai.
Dubai airport 08:15 17th June 2006
Part II to follow: