The Last Goodbye

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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.

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122 Responses to The Last Goodbye

  1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez used to say this for those who had passed away during out lifetimes. “Do not cry because they have gone, be happy because they were here.” Never before has this quote been better used.

    You know the rest.

    En Paz,
    Carlos Cazalis

  2. Nazzina says:

    Dear Shahidul bhai

    I’m very sorry to learn about your irreplacable loss. She had been a remarkable lady. Through your beautiful story, I now learned so much more about her. May Almighty bless her and she rests in peace.

    I know my condolence is coming rather late, June’s away, she usually updates me how you’re doing. It’s been sometime since I last you, I hope you’re doing well.

    Take care

    Nazzina

  3. shahidul says:

    Dearest Shahidul,

    Just to send my best wishes to you, your sister and your family. It is wonderful to read your mother’s life story again, having heard it from her, and also having enjoyed her company not only at DRIK but also in the airport on our return back to UK after Chobi Mela 3. I only met her when she was older, but I thought your mother was rather remarkable – no doubt obstinate and determined, but those are often good qualities (especially in patriarchal cultures). I can see her now, entertaining me to tea in her bedroom – all that you had left her of her house as everywhere else was (is?) full of young photographers, exhibitions and enthusiasts.

    Oddly, your email got caught as bulk mail, which I check from time-to-time, but had not done so for a couple of weeks. Hence, of course, my email a couple of days ago re. the Dublin conference. I wasn”t being insensitive, I simply didn’t know. Perhaps you have had to withdraw; or perhaps you are going on with everything as usual….would that be what your mother would have done?

    Anyhow, this is really to wish you and Rahnuma well. Perhaps Rahnuma would email me to let me know how you all are – assuming that you are as busy as usual.

    My very best wishes to you both.

    Liz

    Elizabeth Wells

  4. shahidul says:

    bhaiya — eta tor best lekha. kichhui bolar nai, except that I know how you
    feel. bhalo thakish, onek ador nish. ruma.

  5. shahidul says:

    i read the touching piece the day it was published. your mother was a mother
    and a teacher the nation is proud of. last time i saw her was in bangabhavan
    the day you accompanied her and met the hon’ble president. may allah keep
    her in peace in eternity and strengthened you to endure the grief.
    momen

  6. shahidul says:

    Dear Shahidul,

    Really sorry to hear (via Arpan just a few days ago) that your mother passed away this month. You had an incredibly progressive and determined woman for a mother who I had the honor to meet a few times. The obituary you wrote about her was very touching and I realized that she will always be with you, to quote the poet TS Eliot:

    ” ……… when I look ahead up the white road
    There is always another one walking beside you……”

    I thought upon my own mother who approaches her 80th year – every day a little more frail – I am in Dhaka mid December to see her, lets try to catch up.

    Shantih,

    Bhashon

  7. iqbal says:

    ses bar 3bochor age Italy jawar age dadur sathe kotha bolte perechilam.3bochor por ese dadur mukhta ontoto dekhte perecilam.aj taro sujok nai.aj dadur baranday gie khub kosto lagcilo.
    aj vison mone porce 95 saler dike hortaler din ami falan mirpur theke hete Dhanmondi asi.pore dadu amader Anaros r bual mach-er torkari die vat khaycilo.ahh.. ki moja ajo mukhe lege ache se sadh.
    khub mone porce………….

  8. Saqueb Mansoor says:

    Deeply touched by the rich tribute to your mother which she rightfully deserves. Stired a few memories of my own

  9. shahidul says:

    Dearest Zahed,

    It made me very sad to read your news. I had so much respect for your mother, one would wish that such a person would live for ever, providing her strength and example to the world at large. I am sure that much in you comes from her strength and vision, in that way you are like a living homage to her as well.

    I will share your blog with some of the friends you made in Mexico. I am sure they will want to read it.

    Your pictures are in the form of written words.

    Please let me know if you received this, I have indeed written to you several times.

    Love
    Pedro

    Pedro Meyer

  10. shahidul says:

    Dear Shahidul,
    Pedro forwarded to me your email about your mother… you made me weep
    the tenderness the love the understanding who your mother was the realism.
    It made me sad. The reality we all address in our lives of constant loss and time
    passing and change and yet while embracing change the theory the struggle with
    all these things in life.. Your humanity is what shines always Shahidul, I send you
    a very warm hug and love at this huge moment in your own life… I always know
    you and your banyon tree are out there and some how your poetry always touches
    and feeds the soul… there are not enough Shahidul’s in our world.

    kisses
    trisha

    Trisha Ziff

  11. shahidul says:

    Dear Shahidul,
    My deepest sympathy. I’m really sorry to hear about
    your mother’s death. She does seem to be a remarkable
    woman and I’m sure you all will keep her alive in your
    memories and all that she taught you to do.Take time
    out to grieve for her passing.Write back when you are
    able.
    Regards
    Manisha

  12. Eva Mackey says:

    Shahidul,
    I have been too busy to read your wonderful news e-mails. But Rahnuma told me about your mother, and sent me your moving piece about her. Oh Zahed, it must be very difficult — and deeply sad. I am so sorry and we are sending you love and big HUGS from Canada. I still have both my parents, and cannot imagine how hard it must be. Mary still struggles with her mother’s death. Sigh.

    We moved to Ottawa a few weeks ago. Do you ever come here? When will we see you? We’ll be in Ithaca NY Jan to May.
    Sending LOVE and commiserations and kisses like the little tiny white “forget me nots” that grow by our dock on our tiny clean fresh lake (with many happy turtles and fish and loons).
    Love
    Eva (and Mary)

  13. Yasmeen Ariff says:

    Dear Shahidul,

    Being a recent recipient of ShaidulNews, I was browsing through the Drik site and was marvelling at the drive, energy and vision behind Drik.

    Reading this beautiful tender tribute to your mother, it made perfect sense. There is no doubt that her spirit lives on.

    My deepest sympathies on your loss.

    Yasmeen

    You probably do not remember me – we met, rather briefly in Colombo a GKP meeting last year.

  14. Jamash says:

    My deepest condolences to you and to your family, The tribute you wrote to your mother brought tears to my eyes, She is an inspiring personality who has changed countless lives for better people like her live for ever as all those who she touched and inspired will follow her footprints to keep her alive in their hearts for ever.

  15. Sally Stein says:

    Dear Shahidul.
    Thanks for many things: for visiting us in LA, sharing your ideas and images (not to mention the exquisitely vibrant textile as house present–I love looking at it while it temporarily rests against the back of a chair until I decide on its more permanent place), inviting us to visit DRIK, and directing us to this tribute to your late mother. I do hope to visit and now regret that I won’t be able to meet such an extraordinary elder woman, but I feel sure that her spirit is in the foundations of DRIK as well as you and these words and images help me better understand some of the sources of your inspiration & energy & vision. With best wishes & love until we meet again, Sally (Stein)

  16. liton says:

    thanks you side my house ad azimpur lalbage i live italy

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  18. Fariha says:

    Shahidul,
    It was by mere accident that i came onto this page but after looking at the beautiful photography i felt compelled to read the story that captioned these memories.

    I cannot explain to you how deeply touched and moved i am – beyond words. I found myself mourning for a women i have never met, and that my friend, is very special indeed.

    From someone of Bengali decent, born and brought up in the West i find that the more i grow older the more i want to learn about my past, and my family’s past. Although you are not my family (i don’t think?) I have felt a deep connection to your story.

    You are a very gifted writer. I encourage you to continue this.
    May Amma rest in heaven and i pray that Allah protects her, your beloved Abba and Khaled Bhai.

    Peace be with you.

  19. sopan says:

    I am an x-agrani girl and I miss her sooo much..

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