It was an unusual mix. Two priests, a nun, two devout Catholics, and me, a heathen. We cooked and cleaned and shared small tasks, and important for me, I paid a rent of only eight pounds a week. I was never sure on what criteria I had been accepted into the ‘community’ but as I was working my way through university, I was happy to accept. We lived in the Catholic chaplaincy of Liverpool University, just opposite the Students Union Building. Living smack in the middle of campus also meant I had no transport costs.
There was no way my schoolteacher mum and government servant dad, could pay for their son’s overseas education, so I was on my own and money was always tight. I worked weekends, holidays, and evenings to pay for my student fees and my keep.
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.
It was the early hours of the morning when we heard the knock on the door. It had been just over a month since I’d come out on bail. But this was not a scary knock, and it wasn’t a locked door. In the tense days preceding the elections, violence, vote rigging and the plight of my fellow prisoners, were our major concerns, so we were completely unprepared for Mahtab’s words. “Saydia’s mother has just died”, was what he simply said. The weight of that short sentence would have pinned us down, but then we heard the sobbing. Saydia’s uncontrollable, unmeasurable, unrestrainable weeping, muffled as it was through her partly open door, brought home the reality of what we had just heard. Holding her, hugging her tight was all I could do. Words have little meaning at such times.
We were scared of her as children. Though she was our aunt, she was a strict teacher. Mistakes were not spared. The discipline helped, though it wasn?t something we had appreciated then. By the time we had worked it out, Khalamma (aunt) had changed, as had my relationship with her. The strict teacher had become a much loved aunt. A friend. It was no longer a relationship involving censure and discipline. It was loving, warm, tender.
In our old family albums there are photos of Chotokhalamma on a bicycle. She wore modern clothes. In stories that mum and dad would tell me of their growing up, we heard of a woman?s struggle to be educated. She herself would tell me about the realities of tempering her aspirations with the practicalities of being a wife. Of what was expected of her by her in-laws. Of the pain of accepting that higher education abroad was something she could never get.
She did get recognition in the end. The Begum Rokeya award in 2006 being significant amongst them. But hidden amongst the accolades are the harsh realities of growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society. Of the oppressive walls around her, of dreams suppressed. She was exceptional in many ways. Her autobiography was that of the Bangali Muslim woman. The story of this fighter is one that will touch many a soul.
The book was meant to have been published quite some time ago. The time it takes to bring out a book. The many hurdles one has to cross, were things I?d forgotten about. She was not always well. My uncle Chotokhalu left us. The section on him had to be changed. But she stayed patient. Comforting me when I got frustrated. Hiding her sorrow to comfort me in mine. On the last day I met her, when we all knew it was towards the end, we had all gathered. She winked at me and smiled ?Well we needed a get together?. As she held me tight with her feeble fingers, I stole one last kiss and left. Not strong enough to watch her following me with her eyes as I walked away.
Rokeya Mannan (commonly known as Tulu Apa) was born on the 6th January 1925. A leading educationist and social worker in Bangladesh, she was educated in Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata in the late thirties and a witness to the social and political movements of Bengal. After partition she moved to Mymensingh. Throughout her active career, she played a leading role in women?s education and was a key player in the women?s movement in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh and was awarded the Begum Rokeya Padak for her contribution in these fields. She had been married to the well known anatomist, Professor S I G Mannan and had for many years been the Headmistress of Agrani School and College, the reputed school and college for girls set up by her sister, Dr. Quazi Anwara Monsur. Rokeya Mannan passed away at her residence in Banani at around 5:30 am on the 29th March 2012.
Related link: The Last Goodbye Agrani School and College
We invite you to the official UK book launch of ‘My Journey as a Witness’,?a book of images by celebrated photographer?Shahidul Alam.
An extraordinary artist, Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer, activist, and social entrepreneur who uses his art to chronicle the social and artistic struggles.
Lucid and personal, this much-awaited book includes over 100 photographs tracing Alam?s artistic career, activism, and the founding of photography organisations. From early images shot in England to photographs of the last two decades in his native Bangladesh, this is a journey from photojournalism into social justice. Alam?s superb imagery is matched by his perceptive accounts that are at once deeply intimate and bitingly satirical.
Supported by the Bengal Foundation and published by Skira Editore there will be a short film and brief talks by the author, editor and sponsor accompanied by a book signing.
Date and Venue: 5.30 – 7.30pm Monday 10th October 2011
Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill
30 Portman Square,
London, W1H 7BH
Due to limited numbers please RSVP by Thursday 6th October RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org