It was 18th May 1976. My sister Najma (Apamoni to me) had just given birth to her second child. It was coming up to my final exams at Liverpool University. The hospital in Fazakerley was about ten miles away. I’d used all my holidays and every weekend, working as a labourer at the building sites of Lockwoods Constructions in Preston, St. Helens and Bootle, to save money for my overseas student fees, and for my keep. There had been little extra time to study during term and there was a lot of catching up to do. The bus ride would have taken too long and been much too expensive. I used to live in cheap digs at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the Liverpool University and pedaled out from Brownlow Hill with my Radio Shack bike radio churning out ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ by Smokie on full blast. Apamoni’s firstborn, Mowli, had been born on the 24th March 1971, the eve of the genocide in Bangladesh. The exams and money woes that accompanied Sofi’s birth were insignificant in comparison.
Singing along to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips and ‘Daddy Cool’ by Boney M as I cycled past Anfield and Goodison Park, I arrived at my sister’s bedside. There was Sofi, with a shockful of black hair and long dark eyebrows, curled up in the cot. No way could I resist holding her tiny hand. Instantly the fingers clasped mine. It’s a grasp I continue to feel.
It was several years later, when my sister was having her third child, and I was in London, doing my PhD, that I had to take Sofi back to Liverpool. There would be no one to look after Sofi while Apamoni was in hospital. Dillas and Jack Shuttleworth adored the kids and were the most caring baby sitters one could imagine. They had looked after Mowli and Sofi when the family were in Liverpool. It was them I was taking Sofi to. We set off from Rahman Bhai’s house in 32 Gilbey Road in Tooting Broadway. We stopped at a shop I knew in Tottenham Court Road where we bought a motorised robot (later named Joey) and went on to Euston Station. Sofi was the star at Euston. Joey scooted round the central square inside the station with the other kids in chase and Sofi had the radio control!
All along the train ride, Sofi sang “Doe, a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun, Me, a name I call myself, Far, a long, long way to run” over and over again. We played and we laughed, but the singing never stopped. Not until we arrived at the Shuttleworth’s. We went to the park and played on the swings. Later, curled up in bed beside me, Sofi put her arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, “Mama, don’t leave me behind”. I needed all my strength, to lie to her, by not saying a word. I think we both knew. It had been a parting train ride. The singing had helped to make it bearable. It was months before I could go back and fetch her. It was a very long way to run.
I had stayed with my sister in Ealing, before returning to Bangladesh. Sofi sent me a letter to Dhaka, where she described how she would open my wardrobe and try to smell my presence amongst the old clothes.
It was difficult to know who was doing what, while I was in Keraniganj Jail, but I knew enough from Rahnuma and Saydia and my fellow prisoners, to know there was a whirlwind outside. It was the jedis, Rahnuma, Saydia, Sara, Khushi, Shireen, Sayeed, Taslima, Meghna, Saki, Lima, Nava in Bangladesh; Sofi, Najma, Mowli, Fariha, Rachel, Lyndall, Saif, Rupert, Mita, Rini, Trisha, David in London; Wasfia, Rabab, Robert, Salma, Beena, Gayatri, Sharon, Vijay, Salmi, Hashi, Sheema, Ruma, Brian in the US; Pedro, Jose-Carlos, Jorge in Latin America; Alan, Julia and their teams down under; Arundhati, NayanTara, Salil, Ina, Raghu, Kunda, Kanak, Rahaab, in South Asia; Reza, Kamal, Topu, Wasif, Tanzim and the entire Drik and Pathshala teams; Arafat, Julio and Tasneem who were everywhere; the Nobel Laureates and the celebrities; the journalist community as a whole and so many other warriors from every place conceivable, who were carrying the torch. I met a young man in New York, who had slept outside the UN building keeping vigil all night. I am still only just discovering who did what. It was Sofi in particular, whom everyone remembered. I was giving an interview to Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper. We chose to meet at the British Museum where Don McCullin was going to walk us through his show. Finding a quiet space to do our recording, he said candidly, “You have ferocious nieces, if ever I was in trouble, that’s the type of niece I’d like to have.”
Well, I do get into trouble, and am glad that’s the sort of nieces I have.
Sometime before my arrest, Sofi had decided to give up her job as an architect to have a go at being a full-time artist. Now she’s turned her art into a tool for activism and jail reform seems to be a theme we both share.
Happy Birthday Sofi. Not a bad day to share with Omar Khayam and Gautam Buddha. I still remember that clasp.
* Mother’s brother