The Iranian Living Room

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Iranian Living Room
If you leaf through our family album
the first ten years of my life
were spent in black and white
and predominantly in our living room
yet my memories of those years
are full of colour.
Hamid Ziarati, Iranian writer
Iranian Living Room?is the first of a series of editorial projects self-published by Fabrica. Continue reading “The Iranian Living Room”

Chotomami: The last kiss

I would kiss her on the lips and she would perk up and say ?Ah, a real kiss?. Chotomami (little aunt) had always been special. Luise Morawetz-Rafique (1.1.1929 – 9.7.2013) was the only white person in our family, and we were naturally curious. My mama (mother?s brother) had many foreign friends, and I would occasionally be taken to the Dhaka Club, an old colonial club that I now avoid on principle. As a child, going to the swimming pool, having marshmallows and seeing naked white men changing in front of us, were all things that led to endless conversations amongst the rest of the kids. Chotomama and mami had two daughters Laila and Laeka and a son Akbar. We were all close in age, but Akbar and I, boys, mischievous and with boundless energy, were the closest of pals. We were also constantly fighting. The two girls were the heartthrobs of all the older boys, and I by being a close cousin and thus a stepping stone, got special treatment from the boys. They were fun days.

Chotomami and mama, in Rajarbagh. Dhaka
Chotomami and mama, in Rajarbagh. Dhaka

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I Singe The Body Electric

In a house of slamming doors and broken dreams, there are no kisses. Only the confidence of silent curtains.

By MEENA KANDASAMY

In that strange coastal town-city where it rains every morning, I partake of pain as if it is prayer. Married to a violent man who treats me with nothing but distrust and suspicion, my skin has seen enough hurt to tell its own story.
In the early days, his words win me back: I don?t have anything if I don?t have you. In this honeymoon period, every quarrel follows a predictable pattern: we make up, we make love, we move on. It becomes a bargain, a barter system. For the sake of survival, I surrender my space.

?With sad-woman eyes and soulful smiles?
Continue reading “I Singe The Body Electric”

I am going to Die on Monday at 6 15 pm

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When Marc Weide’s mother who was 65 was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she chose euthanasia. Here, we publish his shockingly frank diary of her final days

Monday February 11 2008

5.30pm: Dad is bent over the toilet bowl with a brush in his hand and a scowl on his face. I walk up to him. “Shall I give you a hand?” Dad begins to snicker, abandoning any attempt to make sense of the situation. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our backs to Mom, who paces around the patio with a newly fitted catheter in her hand.
The catheter has been put in by her nurse, Marianne to enable her doctor, who will be with us in half an hour, to give Mom a lethal injection. But instead of having a moment of peace with us, as Marianne suggested, Mom demands that we clean the toilets. Both upstairs and downstairs.
My brother, Maarten, is sitting on the edge of the bathtub, staring out of the bathroom window.
“Imagine,” he mutters. “Her last hour, spent like this.”
This is the Netherlands, where voluntary euthanasia is permitted, as well as physician-assisted suicide. This is the day my mother has chosen to die, and the toilets need to be spotless.

Three months earlier

I’m on a writer’s retreat in the UK, where I have been living for the past three years. I’m working on my novel when my mobile phone rings. The display shows it’s Maarten, calling from the Netherlands. Mom’s test results have come back.
“It’s secondary cancer in her lungs.” He pauses. “They think she’s got two to six months left.”
Continue reading “I am going to Die on Monday at 6 15 pm”

Jane Nona

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I had the wonderful privilege of spending one week next to Jane Nona?s bed at the Peradeniya Teaching hospital in Kandy. 75 year old Jane Nona?s statistics could well have been 15, 15, 15. The smallest 75 year old woman I must have ever seen. She had married when she was just 15. Very proudly she tells me about how she gave birth to six strapping baby boys and one girl, all in her own home. A midwife had come and cleaned her up and held burning coals on which medicinal herbs were thrown in, her only means of sanitization. ??He was tall, fair and very kind to me? she says about her husband who had died 15 years ago. ?I knew nothing when I married him, I was only a child. He knew so much more? That had been sufficient for her. She didn?t have any complaints about him, her life, her children, her economic status or her even her reason for coming to a hospital for the very first time in her life. Her grandchildren had forced her to have a check-up. She suspected something was wrong but had no idea what it was. ?I am ready to die but my grandchildren want me to stretch it some more? she says. I looked at her file. She had a prolapsed womb. A small repair was scheduled. She had never before needed to see a doctor and never stayed in a hospital even once in her 75 years. What a blessed life, I thought. I was a veritable live-in compared to her.
She was daunted by the procedures, the examinations, the numerous scans, blood tests, especially because the doctors were mostly male. ?I have no idea what they are telling me child, what on earth is a isscan? Can you come with me when he does it?? I check with doctor and he smilingly says ok. She was schoked he could see right inside her womb. ?If my husband was around and he knew I was doing all this he will jump in the well and die? she embarrassingly declared. We went through most of the tests together. This supposedly more educated and informed 41year old from the city, was learning so much more about life from Jane Nona than any other lessons she must have learned.
Continue reading “Jane Nona”

Witness

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6th July 2005
?This man lying here, brought me to this world. He educated me, clothed and fed?me, stood by my own bed in hospitals, stood in the gap for me at school, prayed?for me unceasingly, blessed me, guided me and counseled me and gave me?strength to take the next step. Yet, I watch him lying here, and there is nothing I?can do to stop him from dying??These were my thoughts on a chilly morning in the last room on the left wing of?Lakeside Medical Centre in Kandy five years ago. I felt helpless and useless.
Here I was seated and watching his life ebb away and I could do nothing.?What use was I? Or anything else in this world, if it can?t save the life of a man?such as him ? my father. ?God, are you really there?? I asked a blank wall.?It was also Terryll?s birthday, so I had plans to go back to Colombo that day and?return the next day, to uselessly stand by him. Yet I wanted to be there, in my?desperation to share whatever he was going through. To let him know I was?there, because I believed that even in his comatose state, he heard our voices.

For only a week before, I had spent the whole day with him near his bedside and?sang all the old Tamil songs we used to sing as children. And I saw a smile and?a tear run down his cheek. So he heard me. And that tiny factor was comforting.?What was I trying to do? Ease my conscience? For all the time I did not spend?with him? For the trouble I put him through as a teenager? For the anxiety I gave?him as an adult? I didn?t know. Perhaps he knew. We bonded that day like never?before. Even in his state, we connected. Like we always did. My father and I.

I stood up to leave, my eyes never leaving the respirator and his one hand on?his belly moving up and down which was the only sign of life. And suddenly the?movement stopped. Just like that. I knew the end was here. I handed my baby?(Zoe was then nearly 2 years) to the nurse and although we were asked to leave?the room, I wanted to stay by his side. To make sure they did everything right.

Suddenly everything was clear to me. This was the end. It was time to let go.?This man lying here will no longer be my strength. I had to be his. I cradled his?head in my hands, I whispered ?Dada I love you. We all love you. Go in peace.??The medics turned him face up. He grimaced with his eyes closed. I put his?hands together, straightened his legs and once again held his head up so the?blood would flow out and not block his throat. I didn?t cry. I wanted him released.

His pulse had already stopped. The doctor asked if they could use the electric?shocks on him as a routine procedure. I told them to leave him alone. His face?relaxed, he looked so peaceful. I put my head down on his chest. There was?nothing. My everything was suddenly nothing. I still didn?t cry. I helped the nurses?take out the tubes and clean him up.

He looked so peaceful, in a long time. Yet through the 7 months since diagnosis,?he never once complained. Not even when they stuck needles in his stomach?to release the fluids. He would smile and thank the nurses and compliment on a?good job done. I turned around and held the doctor?s hands and thanked for the?efforts, I held the nurses hands one by one and thanked them too. That is what?he would have done. Blessed them and thanked them profusely. The pathologist?covered his face with his arm and sobbed against the wall. Dada had coaxed him?several years ago to pursue his studies and make a man of himself. There were?nurses in the room he had recommended for jobs.

I filled out the death certificate calmly. Everything was so clear and programmed.?Name of deceased: Walter Jonathan Sinniah. Time of death: 1.45pm. Cause of?death: General System Failure due to multifocal carcinoma of the liver. Parent?s?name: Peter Murugesu Sinniah and Mary Sinniah. Place of Birth: Deniyaya.?Place of burial: General Cemetery, Mahiyawa. Witness of death: Jeevani?Fernando. Relationship to deceased: Daughter. I couldn?t write anymore.?I wanted to remain a witness to his life rather than his death. I had witnessed 35?years of it that day. And even now, it is his extraordinary life that challenges me?on a daily basis. Not his death.

Jeevani Fernando

A Class Above

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Jeevani Fernando


We sat nervously huddled on the wooden bench of the Haputale Railway Station at 8pm last night, clutching our precious collections from the trip – kithul jaggery from Badulla and jars of orange marmalade, guava jelly and Nelli syrup from Adhisham for the two grandmothers.? Partly shivering in the cold, partly wondering how we were ever going to make the 10-12 hour journey back home by getting in to a train from a midway station with no previous booking.? We had taken a break on the way back to Colombo to visit the beautiful monastry Adhisham and didn’t realise the train will be full by the time it comes to Haputale.
“I love all kinds of people mummy, but I just can’t travel 3rd class on the train” said Mishka. We had just that morning taken 3rd class tickets from Badulla to Haputale and it was quite an experience when, after having paid for 4 seats, we were down to one, when Samaritan love overtook us and we gave seats to mothers with babies and grandmothers, also with babies in the hope of getting a sympathetic seat in an already overcrowded train. Mishka was miffed that people could assume we would feel sorry.?Little realising we were going to need that same sympathy soon.
I said let’s pray. Zoe said let’s throw some people out. Kyle said ‘don’t worry mummy, something will work out’.?15 more minutes to go for the train to arrive. I looked at my 3 fellows and thought I must do something. They had been such good troopers, climbing up and down mountains, trekking nearly 2kms in Indian sandals (bad preparation by the mother) to see and touch the Dunhinda falls, that majestically fell 190ft down creating a mystical cloud of spray and awe.?They had eaten noodles for breakfast and fried rice with no meat as it was the Buddhist festival where no meat was cooked.? They had slept in a mud cabin in the woods and no neighbouring lights, with absolutely no fear at all.?They had been thrilled at every little thing, the train rides through tunnels and around the mountains, the fiery short-eats and even the ghastly toilet in the train where they could see the tracks while doing their ‘little jobs’.
So I plucked my courage and told my three, ‘let mummy go talk to the station master’. The man at the counter had refused to even issue 3rd class tickets to us as he wasn’t sure if there would be room even to stand ‘all other seats FULL madam’ he had said a while ago.? So I by-passed him and walked into the station master’s office.? I made polite introductions in English and he asked what I was doing in Haputale and what had I seen, etc, etc. Then he asked me the wrong question ‘Are you Tamil or Sinhala?’ ‘Oh no!’ says Mishka, because she knows the tirade her mother goes into when that question is asked.? So I let him have it – about how this country got into this state because of questions like that.?And I thought, there goes any chances of getting seats.? Yet,?he didn’t seem peeved. He was in fact making very good conversation.? It ended with his promise ‘I will somehow get you seats but first get yourself on the train with 3rd class tickets’.?I saw Mishka’s face fall.
The train came. It was a mad rush. We managed to scramble into 3rd class. It was packed. It smelled of alcohol and it had no room even on the floor.? I was dismayed but was determined to take it.?I had just managed to put the bags up on the rack when the station master, uniform, cap and all, came running to our compartment and hurried us to take our bags and get off the train. The children groaned. We got off.? He signaled to a man in uniform where the reserved seats were and held up 4 fingers.? We were like refugees now running to the front of the train with bags and jackets and Ivndian slippers flapping under our feet. Passengers poked their heads out to see what was going on with the station master who was also running along with us. The engine driver was getting impatient.? A quick exchange between the two men and we were bundled into 2nd class reserved compartments.? Reclining chairs and all. All I could do was jump back down and shake hands with the station master and thank him profusely.? And as the train pulled away, he shouted ‘I don’t know why I did this but certainly not because you are a Tamil!’
I fell back on my seat laughing. Apparently some others had to be re-arranged to another compartment to fit us in there.? The children were giving hi-five’s to each other. Mishka had found a new hero – a tall, smart station master in Haputale. She was all starry-eyed. I was speechless.? The kindness people show others, in any dimension, makes such a difference to an individual, a family.? Never should one shy from going that extra mile, lending a hand or seeing to the comfort of another, to a strange mother with three children who believed in miracles.? The children will never forget this experience and also the belief that people in their country are helpful, kind and generous no matter what ethnicity they belong to.
And as the knight in shining armour blew the whistle, and Zoe cuddled up to me on the seat, happy she didn?t have to throw anyone out the window, I looked forward to the future of my children.

Being a mother

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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

Family secrets, state secrets

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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

The Last Goodbye

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-chul-bandhche-low.jpg Amma by her garden

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.

harmonium.jpg Singing along with Amma


Mera Sunder Sapna, the song Amma loved to sing

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.

azimpur-school-low.jpg Amma teaching in the tent

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.

khaled-bhai-low.jpg Khaled Bhai

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.

amma-rahnuma-5867.jpg Amma and Rahnuma by Khaled Bhai’s grave

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.

fariha-in-south-shields-6229.jpg Fariha
amma-sofia.jpg Amma at Sofia’s wedding
amma-mowli.jpg Amma and Mowli
amma-david.jpg Amma and Sofia’s husband David

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-rahnuma-o-amma-0384-low.jpg Apamoni, Rahnuma and Amma

amma-dulabhai-3207.jpgAmma and Dulabhai

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.

abba-and-amma-with-laptop-1.jpg Amma and Abba

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?.

Dhanmondi, Dhaka

14th June 2007.