ShahidulNews

(Moved to http://www.shahidulnews.com)

Being a mother

by rahnuma ahmed

‘One thing led to another. It was not planned, nothing of that sort. It’s a long story, but first let me tell you what I think about motherhood.’ We were chatting, Mohua Mohammod (pseudonym) and I. Mohua, in her early thirties, is a PhD student in the USA, currently in Dhaka for a short period of fieldwork.

‘When I speak of biological motherhood, I don’t want to minimise pregnancy, or the exhaustion of bearing children, of giving birth. After all, women can die during labour. I guess, I speak from a position of, let’s put it this way, the politics of blood-relatedness, of family ties, things that are taken as given, that are seen in isolation from the politics of class and gender. Or, race and ethnicity. I am not saying that there’s anything wrong with having children of one’s own. What I am saying is that the social fabric is woven from these very relations. Whether you give birth, or you adopt, you cannot isolate these things from social inequalities. On the contrary, social relations – of power and inequality – are often reproduced through these everyday events. If you look at the new technologies of reproduction, like, say a test-tube baby, these technologies often reinforce notions of purity and pollution, cultural ideas of “good” blood and “bad” blood.

‘Now, if you bring up the issue of adoption, someone or the other is likely to say dudher shad ghole mete na. I think this mindless repetition of “milk” and “whey” distracts our attention from the politics of the issue. Motherhood is social. For me, it is something collective, but of course, you know better than I do that we have moved away from our earlier histories, that in this age of individualism Bengali parents keep saying, “my son”, “my daughter”, both in real life, and in TV ads. Gone are the days of “tomar bhaijee”, “tomar bhabi”, but of course, this is not true of the subalterns, the majority of the people. It is increasingly so, for those who matter.    

‘Actually, what I find most depressing is the lack of debate about these things, both in the women’s movement, and in left circles. Leftists seem to think that nothing further needs to be said about marriage, family, and sexuality after Engels wrote his Origins.’    

She gifted me a little daughter.    

Mohua began talking about how she became a mother. We were busy with Jouno Nipiron Protirodh Moncho (Platform to Resist Sexual Oppression) in 1999, she said.    

The inmates of Tanbajar brothel were evicted earlier that year, and we had invited them to speak in our discussion series. I met Lipi apa (pseudonym) that day. We talked, and I gave her my phone number. One night, it was eight-ish, she suddenly rang. The DB police, she said, had beaten her up. She was in Dhanmondi road 2. It was not far from where we lived, and I went to see her, along with a friend. We sat and drank tea at a tea stall, we chatted about police brutalities. I fell into the habit of dropping by to see how she was while returning home from office.    

I met Tania through her. Maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, Tania was also very small in build. She was seven months pregnant. Soon after, Lipi apa suddenly rang me. Tania was nearly dying, a caesarean had to be performed, could I come to Dhaka Medical? I rushed over with a friend, Lipi apa told me that she had signed the forms, that she felt saving the mother’s life was more important than the child’s. Mohua suddenly paused and asked me, Did I ever tell you that Lipi apa’s father was a muktijoddha? I nodded my head.    

Mohua went on, I was standing in the corridor, Lipi apa had gone off somewhere, the nurse came out of the OT, she stuck the baby in my outstretched arms. My heart almost stopped beating.    

Tania had to get back to work to feed herself, and so, a few days later, we all accompanied her to the Mother Teresa mission in old Dhaka. She gave her baby up for adoption. He was healthy, very beautiful. The nuns were confident, they would have no problems in finding him a home, they said. Lipi apa and I returned from old Dhaka in the same rickshaw. We could not stop ourselves, the tears kept flowing.    

I went off to Europe several months later, for a three month-long diploma programme. I returned to find her pregnant. I asked her, hey, what’s this, what’s happening? She said, apa, you cried such a lot, this baby is for you.    

And that’s how Anarkoli entered my life.        

Raising Anarkoli    

Lipi apa and I would raise Anarkoli together, that was the plan. We fought over what we wanted her to be, whether she would be sent to a madrassah, or a school. The next year I went abroad to do my Masters, and Lipi apa started coming more frequently to our house. In my absence, the quarrels took place between her and my mother, often enough over Anarkoli, and how best to raise her. But more often, over Lipi apa herself. My mother repeatedly tried to domesticate her. In her eyes, Lipi apa was very wild.    

Mohua went on, actually, I had never sat and thought that I would enter into such a relationship. It just happened.    

We decided that Anarkoli would live with Lipi apa, but that she belonged to both of us, we were both her mother. I named her. When I lived in Dhaka I had a good salary, and I supported them. When I went abroad, I sent money from my stipend, but once there was a gap of 7-8 months because of a rift with the friend who acted as a go-between. My mother helped out then, but it was not the same. I felt very guilty.    

Of course, it is difficult, very difficult. We belong to very different classes, our lives are very different. I have my studies. I lead a very disciplined life. But Lipi apa has lived on the streets, ‘one arm tucked beneath my head, the other, covering my eyes’. After Anarkoli was born, she moved into a rented room, moved from a life on the streets to a home-centred life, saddled with a daughter. This has made her angry, she tells me often, I gave up my life of freedom for you. Mohua smiles ruefully and says, two women parenting a child is not easy. When I lived in Dhaka and was supporting them, I became a father. And now that I am here, I am like a husband, one who has returned for holidays, who sends money from abroad.    

Now that I am back, even though it’s for a short period, Anarkoli is my daughter more than ever. She is eight years old now, she was born on December 14, 2000. Mohua suddenly pauses and says, we gave Tania’s son away on March 6. I never forget that day. She slowly returns to the present, Anarkoli tells me that her mother is thinking of getting married. The landlady has told her, ‘your mother is doing itish-pitish, she is being flirty with that Nuruddin fella.’ And Lipi apa herself has told me, ‘I have raised Anarkoli for the last seven years, the next seven are yours.’ I don’t blame her, she has a life too. I have told Anarkoli, I will put you into a boarding school, I will finish my doctorate and return after three years, and then we will live together.    

Anarkoli still calls me khala, but our relationship is so different now. When I return home, she opens the door and sticks to me like a shadow. She covers my face with kisses. I tease her, who do you love more, me or your mother? She has discovered this game, she counts from one to ten one, two, three, four, and whoever is the last to be pointed at, is her most loved. She has now learnt to begin counting so that I end up being number ten!        

My family history    

Your idea of family is different from that of others, I say gently. Well, there was always tension at home between the desire for a nuclear family, and those not related to us by blood. I grew up listening to how my grandfather, my father’s father had raised a boy as his own, how this foundling son was the only one who was left a share of his estate. You see, my grandfather was worried that he might not receive anything after his death. Not only that, he married his daughter to this tokano boy. When the family property was divided after his death, there was some ill feeling because this son benefited more than the others, he got his own share, and also benefited through his wife who had inherited as a daughter. I grew up listening to these stories, also, our house was always full of people. Our own extended family plus the extended families of those who worked for us. They would visit, stay over. How does your mother feel about Lipi apa, I ask? I can’t think of any other middle class mother who would accept her presence as casually as she does. Yes, my mother is an amazing woman. She is not without faults, but she is tremendously compassionate.    

And your friends? Mohua laughs, ‘You haven’t married yet?’ That’s what everyone says. It’s the same in the US. My American women friends talk of their boyfriends, their crises, and I can’t help but tell them, ‘your lives seem so prescribed.’ Similar to many lives here. It doesn’t attract me.    

‘But do you talk to them about your life? About your daughter? About shared mothering?’ I ask. No, not really. I guess I feel silenced by their accounts of the normal lives that they lead.    

I ask playfully, What if you meet someone, fall in love, want to get married? What will happen to Anarkoli?    

Well, Mohua laughs and says, for me to fall in love, I think he would not only have to be intelligent and committed, he would have to be a practising kind of guy, not someone who talks big. I would expect him to have several Anarkolis of his own! So, no problem. 

First published in New Age on 23rd June 2008

June 23, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Family secrets, state secrets

Rahnuma Ahmed

History is never more compelling than when it gives us insights into oneself and the ways in which one’s own experience is constituted.

Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to Dipesh Chakrabarty

I do not see my life as separate from history. In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. Nor is my life divided from the lives of others.

Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones

‘We hated it if anyone asked us about her’

‘MANY widowed mothers were forced to re-marry, some for reasons of social security,’ these were Amena’s opening words when I went to interview her. Amena Khatun works as a conservator and archivist for the Liberation War Museum. She was speaking of their family life after 1971.

Things did not always transpire as intended, she added. Her mother’s second marriage had been short-lived.

My father? He is Shahid Abdul Kader, he had a furniture business, it was new. But by then the war had started, and his friends and workmen had left to fight for liberation. I was a few months old, my other brother, the one younger to me, was not yet born. My elder brother was two and a half years old. I think my father was planning to go away, to join the struggle, but it happened before he could make arrangements for us. They took him away. We lived in Mymensingh, our area was full of Biharis, I think they could sense what was happening, and they targeted my father. Actually, it was a Bengali woman, a razakar, who came and called him. She came and said, so-and-so wants to talk to you. My father stepped out and found a group of Bihari men and women waiting for him. It was May 28, 1971.

My grandmother, it was her, my nanu who raised us. Her struggle was much greater. My mother? Oh, she was very young, only seventeen or eighteen, she hardly understood anything. She was forced to re-marry, this was later, in 1977 or 1978. She had no other choice.

For us kids it was a new experience, we had not seen a man before. My mama was five years older to me, he and my older brother, they were the only men in the house. My uncles came later but nanu didn’t like them, she was worried that they would take us away, put us to work on the farm, that we would have to give up our studies. My younger chacha had wanted to marry my mother but she didn’t agree to the proposal. She said, he was like a brother.

And in the middle of all this, here was this new man, we could tell that he was intimate with her. When he appeared, she was a different mother. Sometimes I think, did we deserve this? If my father had lived, life would have been very different.

By the time my mother gave birth to a daughter, that phase [her married life] was over. That little sister of ours was the most exciting thing that could have happened in our lives, she lit up our home, all our dreams centred around her. We couldn’t think of anything else. We didn’t want to.

But whenever we went to the village, people would say, she was born of your mother’s second marriage, wasn’t she? We hated the sound of those words. Of course, what they said was true, for them it was not unusual. They were just curious, they would keep asking us and I don’t blame them. But I hated it, bhaiya didn’t like it either. My sister? She was too young to understand. But how can you stop people talking, and so we stopped going to the village. We wouldn’t go, hardly ever.

Much later, right before my sister took her matric exams, we were forced to tell her. In a sense, she found out for herself. You see, her friends kept asking her, ‘But if you were born in 1971, how can you be this young?’

I guess we needed to grow older to come to terms with the truth.

‘A dirty nigger’. Racial prejudice and humiliation in the British Indian army
‘As a child, I remember hearing only idyllic stories of my father’s life in the British Indian army,’ writes novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.

But towards the end of his life, before he died in 1998, my father told me a very different story. During the siege of Imphal, he had turned away from the main battle to confront a South African officer who called him a ‘dirty nigger’. After this, other stories poured out, stories of deep-seated racism within the army, very different to the idyllic picture that Amitav had grown up with. He writes, why did my father (and, in some sense, all our fathers) avoid telling us these stories? Speaking of such things must have been difficult, he muses, especially because they were at odds with their vision of themselves as ‘high-caste, bhadra patriarchs’. He adds, what may seem to be mere instances of racism were not so, they represented the system itself. Western liberal thought, whether that of JS Mill, or Bentham, or any other nineteenth century British writer, is built on racism, writes Amitav.

His question is: if we reproduce these silences of history, are we denying or abetting in structures of exclusion and oppression?

Post-independence armies of South Asia

Did racism survive the departure of the white colonisers in 1947? Are post-independence armies of South Asia non-racial and hence, non-racist? Is it meaningful to talk of race and racial differences in our cultures?

East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) scholars spoke of ethnic differences in racial terms. They said, Pakistan’s military commanders perpetuated the recruitment policies of their colonial masters. ‘Martial races’ – meaning Punjabis and Pathans – were over-represented in the national armed forces, whereas the majority Bengali population, and smaller minorities like the Baluchis and Sindhis, were largely excluded. Indian historians maintain, imperial institutions like the army and the civil service allowed particular forms of racist practices, because of their proximity to the ruling race. They also say, racism survived independence. The north-eastern provinces, known as the seven sisters, have been subjected to decades of racist oppression by successive Indian governments.

Is ethnic discrimination in Bangladesh racist? Educated paharis, who have suffered militarily, tell me that ‘ethnic discrimination’ as a term does not do justice to the horror of their experiences. I was speaking to a young woman whose father was hung upside down for days, and later died a broken man. And to a young pahari man who was detained for several weeks, and was severely traumatised because of what he was made to witness.

Family secrets can be state secrets. Our mothers and fathers need to tell us stories. We need to discover ways of talking about silenced histories. And about the silenced present.

First published in New Age 26th May 2008

May 27, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 2 Comments