Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling

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BISWAJIT’S PUBLIC MURDER
By rahnuma ahmed

Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.— bdnews24
Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.— bdnews24

I

ALTHOUGH Bengali culture would have us believe otherwise, motherhood is not something — regarded by some as an instinct, by others, as a virtue — that is timeless and unchanging. It is social and historical.

Personal interpretations matter, so do family histories, forged through conflicts and contestations, occurring within the social boundaries of class, religious, ethnic and race-d belongings.

Persons who have authority, often men, often institutional, take it upon themselves to distinguish between “good” and “bad” mothers. Suraiya Begum, researcher, writer, and a close friend, was told off by one of the leading child specialists to whom she’d taken her youngest daughter, visibly ill. “How can you expect to have a healthy child if you are away at office?” Suraiya, understandably shocked and deeply upset, did not quit her job however. She returned to her convictions with a bit of time, and moral support from us women friends — a working mother is a good role model for her daughters, her earning is an important contribution to the household income, it ensures a better future for her daughters.

She was right. They are both doctors now; I am sure their mother’s struggle has taught them that their scientific profession should not be practised in isolation from social realities. Was it not Virginia Woolf who had said, “Science it would seem is not sexless; she is a man, a father and infected too.”

Defying institutional authority is often part of a woman’s struggle to be a good mother.

II

Women’s struggles to be good mothers have been marked with brutality and violence as well, the history of African slavery in the United States is replete with heartwrenching tales. Mothers transported on slave ships from Africa are known to have thrown their children overboard so that the children should not be condemned to live lives of un-freedom. In her novel Beloved (1987), Nobel Literature Laureate (1993) Toni Morrison, inspired by the story of an African-American slave, writes of Sethe’s escape from her master but when he finds her and attempts to reclaim her and her three children, she grabs them, and runs to the tool shed. She succeeds in killing only her eldest born, two year-old Beloved, by running a hacksaw along her neck. When asked by her lover Paul D. why, Sethe replies, I was “trying to put my babies where they would be safe.”

Killing one’s own child in order to protect her — such is the gruesome history of motherhood under slavery.

III

In the words of Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The quote is from Michael Jackson’s study, The Politics of Storytelling. Violence, Transgression and Intersubjectivity (2002) which draws on the work of German American political theorist Hannah Arendt. According to Arendt, writes Jackson, “storytelling is never simply a matter of creating either personal or social meanings, but an aspect of ‘the subjective in-between’ in which a multiplicity of private and public interests are always problematically in play.” The private and public realms are laden with power relations, they imply “a politics of experience.” Arendt speaks of the public realm in two senses, says Jackson, as a space of appearance where individual experiences are re-fashioned selectively to make them intelligible to others, and, as a space of shared interests where a plurality of people work to create a world of belonging. The private realm in contrast, signals “the end of the common world,” since privacy suggests confinement to one’s own singular experience; but two senses are involved here which should not be conflated, one implies the domestic, the other, that which is hidden, reserved, clandestine, a realm where thoughts, intentions and desires are masked because they are not compatible with the public realm.

Drawing on, as well as revising Arendt’s views (primarily focused on the political relationship between the public and private realms), Jackson views storytelling as a strategy for transforming private meanings into public ones and vice versa; secondly, as being an existential act, to give us the sense that although we may not determine the course taken by our lives, we have a hand in giving it meaning. We do not live passively, but actively rework events, both in dialogue with others, and in our own imagination. The truth or falsity of stories told cannot be measured “against some outside reality”, they are not “simply an imitation of events as they actually occurred” for, the order of things may be changed.

Stories told are accompanied by many others that are not; these “remain in the shadows, censored or suppressed.” Stories of those who are marginalised — class, gender, race, ethinicity — tend to be privatised, as they are denied “public recognition.”

IV

“The maternal body was sacred to Sethe. She could not imagine that any human being would not have a sense of awe and wonder directed to the body of a woman who was carrying new life, about to bring new life into existence,” thus writes Sandra Mayfield in a psychological reading of motherhood in the Beloved (Journal of Scientific Psychology, January 2012).

What is referred to as the umbilical cord in English is narir taan in Bangla, the word “taan” implying pull, tug, the strings, the attachment, the bond of the mother to her child, one which never slackens, not after birth, particularly, not with her male child. It is a bond that calls for sacrifice and suffering at the expense of personal deprivation, a quintessential element of motherhood, a social value, a lived ideal in most Bengali women’s lives.

Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, the home minister, was imprisoned during the military-installed caretaker government’s rule (2007-2008) on charges of corruption, which were thrown out of court later after Sheikh Hasina’s elected government took power. In his autobiographical Notes from a Prison. Bangladesh (2009), he relates two incidences about his mother, which speak of her great love and dreams for her children so that they may “climb the ladder of life” (p. 250). Alamgir had returned to his village home to prepare intensely for his matriculation exams in 1956, she took good care of him, he writes, made sure that his meals were served on time and he was left undisturbed while studying. He noticed one day after she had returned from bathing in the pond that her sari was wet, that she had not changed into a dry one. In reply to his question she replied, “Oh, it is alright. It is hot today and the sari will dry soon” (p. 249). It made him realise that she didn’t have another sari to wear, that the expenses of educating her children meant she had only a single sari.

Another instance, three years later, when he was a student of Dhaka University. During the vacations, his brothers, sisters and cousins had gone to their village home. His mother had cooked an evening meal of rice, chicken and fish, after the meal was over, she was left behind to eat (as is the custom) and to clean up the dishes. Alamgir, who had lingered behind, suddenly noticed his mother’s reluctance to eat in his presence. Suspicious, he removed the lid and discovered that the fish pot was “empty”, that the chicken pot had no meat, only “a little [bit of] gravy” (p. 250).

He was angry for she had served everything, had not kept “even a small piece” for herself, to which she responded smilingly with “all the affection in the world” “It’s alright. I am not hungry. And don’t tell the others” (p. 250).

V

Young Biswajit Das, only 23 years-old, was beaten and hacked to death in old Dhaka on December 9, by Bangladesh Chatra League activists, students of Jagannath University.

Emdadul Haque, who has been identified from photographs and video footage as having been one of the attackers, was recently arrested. His mother Zohra Begum, who heard of her son’s arrest from neighbours who’d watched it on TV, spoke of how she suffered for Biswajit’s mother because she had “lost her son” (bdnews24.com, December 25, 2012)

She had cried when she heard of her son’s arrest, but added, I’m unhappy because she lost her child due to my son. He keeps bad company in Dhaka. He has committed a crime. Do what is best. Punish him if you want to.

VI

I wonder what Alamgir’s mother would have told him if she had been alive. Would she too, like Emdadul’s mother, have shared in the suffering of Biswajit’s mother? Would she have reproved him? Admonished him?

For, the home minister had called on activists of the ruling party’s associate bodies, the Juba League and the Chhatra League, on November 10 to “resist” opposition activists. Left politicians and political analysts have called for his arrest, they have reasoned, if Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, acting secretary general of the BNP, could be arrested because of arson attacks during hartal, for which he is to blame, says the government, since it was a BNP hartal, Alamgir too, should be arrested, because his call had clearly inspired Chatra League activists to act. To kill.

But I am more interested in how indidividual women interpret what being a good mother means. On whether they defy institutional authority, on whether personal ethics prevail over family interests.

I wonder, would Alamgir’s mother, described by her son as “the portrait of honest effort and honour of motherhood” (p. 250), have been as courageous as Emdadul’s mother?

Published in New Age, Monday, December 31, 2012

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