My first impression of London was that it really was as foggy and grey as it looked on British television shows. The second was of Chacha at the side entrance of the Ganges restaurant, looming taller than anyone I had ever seen.
I was ten, almost eleven, and my family was visiting England for the summer. It was my first trip there; Abbu (my father) had come in 1963 for study and work, accompanied by Ammi (my mother) and my sister while she was still a baby, and my brother was born in London during the five years they lived there.
Chacha, Abbu’s elder brother, had been in London since the early 1950s. He didn’t seem particularly English to me, but neither did he appear to be anything like my other uncles in Bangladesh, or anyone else in my family for that matter. He was simply Chacha, forever smiling, the tallest man in England.
He owned and ran the Ganges, which was then located in Paddington, and lived upstairs in the building, which was so narrow that only two small rooms would fit on each floor. Rosemary Chachi had died that previous January and, in retrospect, I think Abbu had decided a family trip would be beneficial to Chacha. Chachi’s things were still on the dresser in the room I shared with my mother and sister on the top floor (Abbu and my brother shared a room with Chacha on the second floor).
Chacha stayed in the restaurant most days while my family went to see all the sights – Buckingham Palace, Madame Tussaud’s, Big Ben. Chacha accompanied us to Hyde Park one time where we fed the ducks together and I wrote a poem about it. He taped the poem onto the wall next to his desk at home, where his six cats roamed freely, rubbing against his leg, demanding his attention at all hours of the day. My family ate at the Ganges in the evenings, delicious chicken tikka kebabs every day, made to order by Chacha.
London was his home, there was no dispute about that. He walked around his neighbourhood greeting people left and right, enquiring about their jobs, their welfare. We met some Bangladeshi families my parents had known in the ’60s; like Chacha, they had never left as my parents had, but settled permanently in England. I fantasised about living there too, instead of Kuwait where my family was at that time; it would mean an endless supply of chewing gum packets in the shape of record discs, erasers carved like double decker buses, and all the chicken kebabs I could ever want. My sister and brother seemed more sophisticated in their view of London, favouring bookshops over toy stores, nodding at the sights instead of squealing like I did. My sister was already in college by then, and my brother had just sat for his O-levels. They indulged me in my bubbling excitement and, for once, didn’t dismiss me as the baby of the family.
My brother’s asthma got worse after a few weeks. His usual inhalers didn’t seem to work and soon he couldn’t leave the room. We sat around helplessly for days, watching him wheeze on the bed, unable to eat, unable to talk. Abbu moved him into a nearby hotel in the hope that staying away from Chacha’s cats would help him get better. It didn’t. On 25th July my brother died of asthma in St Mary’s Hospital.
Chacha took us back to the Ganges and we sat in the restaurant long after it had shut, all of us howling uncontrollably, the worst night of my entire life. I kept pinching my arm, telling myself to wake up from the nightmare. When that didn’t work I turned to Chacha. ‘Is is really true?’ He nodded and pulled me close to him.
While my family lay helpless, crying non-stop, for the following week Chacha did everything for us. He bought our tickets to go to Dhaka, he made all the necessary calls to all the necessary people, he carried our meals to us in intervals from the restaurant downstairs, he called over the other Bangladeshi families to keep us company. And when the time came he flew with us to Dhaka, then to Sylhet where we buried my brother. Chacha returned to London when my family returned to Kuwait.
I didn’t realise at the time how significant it was that Chacha accompanied us to Bangladesh that summer. It was only when I was older that I began to piece together his life and came to learn that he had left Bangladesh in 1953, not expecting to return. He did visit, briefly and sporadically, over the decades but not for the benefit of his family. He appeared to be as distanced from the clan as the rest of my extended family seemed to be entwined with it. When he was young differences between him and my grandmother filled the family household with tension. My grandfather, who held great affection for Chacha, was disappointed when Chacha refused to follow through his obligations as the eldest child. He did not try to stop Chacha from leaving home early.
When my father came down with tuberculosis as a teenager, my grandfather sent him to Shillong where the clean mountain air was known to be a cure. When Chacha heard about Abbu’s state of health he moved there to look after him. It was in Shillong that my father recovered under Chacha’s care, and it was in Shillong where Chacha became committed to leftist politics. He soon joined an underground Communist party, then was forced to flee the country when it came under the attention of the then-Pakistani government.
He moved to London where he met Rosemary Chachi, an elegant German lady who was dedicated to the same causes he was. They exchanged their views on everything from the Bangla Language Movement (which they both fiercely supported) to children (which they both decided not to have, so as to concentrate on the ‘children of the world’). Chacha understood that while Rosemary Chachi shared his philosophies, her family did not necessarily as well. Complying with her Catholic family’s wishes, Chacha and Chachi married in a church. (‘It meant half an hour of my time,’ Chacha explained to me, ‘and a lifetime of contentment for them – how could I begrudge them that?’) This selflessness carried over to when Rosemary Chachi died in 1982 and her family requested she be buried in Germany, and he agreed.
If Rosemary Chachi and their causes were two loves of his life, then Bangladesh was his third. Although a continent removed and abroad for several decades, his dedication to the country and Bangali people never wavered and his social work with the Bangladeshi community in London earned him an MBE from the Queen in 1989.
The following year, in 1990, as I was preparing to leave Dhaka for college in the States I received an unexpected letter from Chacha. It was neatly printed off his new computer, and he copied out the clumsy poem I had written for him at Hyde Park. He told me he hoped I was continuing with my poetry, and asked for my birth date so he could punch it into his computer and remember to send me a card.
I wrote back telling him I hadn’t written poetry for years but I was now writing short stories. I sent him a copy of my latest one, along with my birth date.
He didn’t reply. And I didn’t get a birthday card from him that year either. I decided Abbu’s absent-mindedness ran in the family.
On my way to college that summer I telephoned Chacha from Heathrow during a stopover. I told him that Abbu and Ammi wanted him to visit Bangladesh. His response was, ‘If your other uncle’s education project gets off the ground, then I will come. But I can’t go all that way for emotional, family reasons.’ Bluntness, I realised, also ran in the family.
Seeing as Chacha wouldn’t come to us, I decided to go to him. Twice a year for four years until 1994, each time I stopped in London on my travel between Dhaka and Boston, I called him and arranged to see him. He either cancelled our meetings at the last moment or never showed up.
I knew that my connection as his niece was not enough of a reason for him to drop his work or even alter his schedule to fit me in. While my other relatives silently disapproved of Chacha’s shockingly little attachment to The Family, I understood that he placed more emphasis on personal ties grown out of shared interaction rather than the more rigid sense of the word, as upheld by generations before him, one of the notions he had left home to escape.
Similarly, my other relatives had little understanding, or even tolerance, of Chacha’s rejection of material wealth. Money meant absolutely nothing to him, except as a currency to help people. When my grandfather, on a trip to Islamabad in the ’70s, heard about Chacha’s successful restaurant business in London he came away saying, ‘My son was not born to run a restaurant.’ That the restaurant in question was a haven for exiled and travelling journalists and revolutionaries convening to discuss Bangladesh’s future was beside the point. This was clearly, in the eyes of my family, not grand or prestigious enough for a man like Chacha who was at one time expected to be the leader of an independent Bangladesh.
It became increasingly important to me that I got to know Chacha. He was like Abbu, I felt, only more radical in his outlook and practices. If Abbu was my mentor then Chacha would be my kindred spirit. Our fifty-year age gap was negligible. As time went on my mission of getting to know him took on a priority.
I went to visit my sister in Boston in the summer of 1996 before I was going to teach in Italy. I called Chacha from the States and told him I was going to be in London for two weeks and, I added forcefully, I would stay with him. ‘That’s impossible,’ came his reply. Sensing I was on the verge of breaking down on the other end of the phone line, he added, ‘I’ll make arrangements for your accommodations and we can see each other every day instead.’
I called him from Gatwick Airport and we met a Victoria Station. Even though it had been fourteen years since we had last met I recognised him immediately. His hair was white and uncut, he still had his unforgettable smile fixed on his face, and he was still the tallest man I knew in England. We hugged each other for a whole minute then we both started talking immediately. In the taxi ride to the East End where he had moved since he had sold the Ganges in Paddington, he spoke to me about Rosemary Chachi. ‘The love that we had shared is enough to keep me going for the rest of my life.’ He smiled dreamily out the window as tears sprung in my eyes.
He took me to St. Mary’s Centre on Myrdle Street where he was working. We had lunch then I promptly fell asleep under a desk for the rest of the afternoon. He greeted me with a cup of tea when I awoke and said I should ring my parents to let them know I’d arrived safely. I was giddy when I called Abbu; I was finally with Chacha! Abbu asked me to call them again in a few days’ time. Chacha overheard and snatched the phone. ‘Nupu is an adult who is more than capable of taking care of herself for two weeks in London without having you worrying about her.’
Abbu spluttered back, ‘We’re not worrying about her!’ Then added, ‘It’s perfectly normal for parents to want to speak to their children.’
‘Then you will speak to her when she goes to Italy two weeks later,’ Chacha said firmly. He hung up the phone and looked at me in disbelief over my parents’ outrageous demands. (I scurried to a payphone later that evening and assured Abbu that I would call them again in a few days.)
Chacha wasted no time and spent the rest of my first day showing me the various organisations he was involved in, the numerous offices where he worked, and introducing me to people he knew. It was all a blur, given the sheer volume of new faces and places, but a goose-bump ridden blur, exciting, uncontainable. I was eager to learn everything about him and, to my surprise, he was just as eager to learn everything about me. Unlike many older people who were quick to give me their views and dismiss mine, Chacha paid close attention to what I said, probing more into my replies. We soon realised that we shared a great deal in common – both agnostics, both believers in humanism, both determined to save the world – and by the end of that evening we began finishing each other’s sentences.
I stayed with his friends in Stamford Hill, and took the bus and tube each morning to Whitechapel to spend my days with Chacha. For all my lifelong stubborn desires to play by my own rules I found in Chacha the one person to whom I would defer my opinions. He, notoriously quick tempered and impatient with everyone, never told me off or cut me short. In him I saw an extraordinary man who lived by his principles, in me he saw the ideal bridge between the East and West (or so he said). It was an unexpected and extremely delightful connection we made with each other.
I spoke to him in Benglish – Bangla and English. He spoke to me in Benglishti – Bangla, English and Sylheti. His train of thought ran ahead of his speech sometimes, but I managed to keep up with the leap in conversation from why Tower Hamlets needed a stronger education board to the ethics that made him eventually resign from the Communist Party. From him I learned a great deal about my paternal family, golden snippets of information I had never heard from Abbu who was for the most part reticent about his childhood. Chacha also saw me as the link to the rest of our family, frequently enquiring about various relatives he hadn’t seen in many years. ‘How is your young Phuppu?’
‘She’s doing quite well, I think she’s recovered completely from her operation.’
‘Not her health,’ Chacha said, ‘I meant: is she still as conservative as she used to be?’
He told me how the attractive siblings in his family, both the men and women, were assured of bright futures based on their looks, so the less attractive ones – and he counted himself as one – had to prove themselves through careers. ‘And you are like me,’ he said, ‘which is why you feel this need to create your own goals.’ (Ammi, when I told her this, overlooked his backhanded compliment to me, and said that Chacha had in fact always been considered to be the best looking member of the family.)
‘The only reason you and your sister, and your mother as well, are as liberal as you are,’ Chacha told me, ‘is because of your father.’ Abbu, he said, had given me the most important education in the world: a sense of personal responsibility. Chacha asked me about my upbringing, the aftermath of my brother’s death, my years battling with crippling eczema, and said, ‘Do you feel bitter or do you feel you can survive anything?’
He asked me about my ambitions to be a writer and filmmaker and said, ‘All the lessons I have learnt from my life will end when I die, but you will share your lessons with the world through your books and films, and they will live forever.’ (He later telephoned my parents after I left London and warned them that they had better support me in my career plans, otherwise they would have to answer to him. My parents – who had spent endless years encouraging me – made a show of how they would certainly do so.)
Every evening, when I left his office, Chacha accompanied me to the tube station. Deep in conversation, he would follow me onto the train then, seeing neither of us wanted to end our talk, he would switch with me onto the connecting train. Only when I was virtually at the doorstep of where I was staying, would he say, ‘Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Over those two weeks Chacha took me with him to various meetings, exhibitions and openings. I watched as people ran across crowded rooms to greet him, to give him their news, to tell him proudly what they had done since he had last seen them. The most distinguishable attribute I noticed he had was the unfaltering equality with which he saw everyone. In a culture where hierarchy is as enforced as family ties, his attitude was a remarkable exception. People around him noted this. Nobody came to him with the grovelling that usually accompanies the request of favours, any more than anyone ever thought to address down to him.
In quieter moments he shared with me his views on love and relationships. ‘When you are infatuated you care only for your own happiness; when you are in love you want the other person to be happy as well.’ Another time he quoted George Bernard Shaw: ‘A good relationship is one where your troubles are halved and your happiness is doubled.’ He also told me I would know when I’d meet the right man because ‘you will be compatible in all regards – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically.’
He spoke to me a great deal about Rosemary Chachi; in fact, the only time I ever saw him get tears in his eyes was when he told me how the two of them had shared everything. ‘We decided to go into publishing together, we decided to open a restaurant together, we decided to set up voluntary organisations together,’ he said. ‘We never for a moment felt we wouldn’t succeed because we had each other’s love and support.’
Chacha and I talked frequently of how we should write down our thoughts; we planned to choose ten topics, such as ‘mother’ and ‘motivation’, and write our reflections separately, then combine them into a book for ourselves. This never transpired, partly because he had more practical things to do such as write a letter to the President of Bangladesh, urging him to take notice of the Bangladeshis living in Tower Hamlets. Ideas, grand schemes and projects came as naturally to him as melodies come to a musician. Chacha’s ceaseless drive to better the conditions and lives of people around him and, indeed, the world, was the single most memorable aspect of our time together. There was no cause not worth fighting for, no problem not worth solving. ‘You can do anything you want to,’ he told me repeatedly.
‘How much can I do alone?’
‘Never underestimate the power of one person,’ he said. ‘One turns into two, then you’re no longer alone. Two turn into seven and it becomes a group. Then seven turn into seventy and it becomes a movement. You can do anything you want to.’
Since those magical two weeks Chacha and I kept in touch regularly. We wrote letters while I was in Italy, then spoke once a month on the phone when I returned to Dhaka. Over those two years his resolution to not visit Bangladesh for ‘emotional, family reasons’ softened, and he made plans to come for an extended period. His original itinerary was put on hold when he had two teeth extracted and, due to the incompetence of his dentist, he lost three pints of blood. (His response, of course, was still unfailingly cheerful: ‘It was a good lesson for me – I was beginning to put too much faith in the white race!’) Then I got a job on a film in Delhi, and he told me to let him know when I’d return from India so he could make his travel arrangements accordingly.
By the time I was back in Dhaka there had been another setback in his plans. Unbeknown to us, his doctor had warned him against air travel due to his high blood pressure. Chacha told my parents that he had too much work and that he would postpone his trip to when it would be more convenient. Worried it would be another long stretch of time until I saw him again, I flew to London in April 1998.
Chacha was now spending his days at SSBA (Spitalfields Small Business Association) and his evenings at Al-Mamur Travel Agency. In the afternoons, he reluctantly admitted to me, he took a short nap. The afternoon nap, a fixture in every Bangali’s daily schedule, had never appealed to him before; he always had too much to do, too many places to be at, too many projects to initiate. I noticed a slight shuffle in his step and his hand reaching for the banister when he walked up the stairs. When I tried to mention something he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. ‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘When are you going to move to London?’
I showed him the manuscript of my novel and, within minutes, he started calling his friends. He introduced me to Caroline Adams who had written Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers. He took me to Eastside Bookstore so we could note which publishers specialised in Asian titles. He took me round to meet all sorts of people who were vaguely associated with literature and demanded they help me. ‘You will get published,’ he told me again and again, because he could see my faith was crumbling as months passed.
When I was running low on money I decided to spend the rest of the summer in Brighton where rent was cheaper. I saw Chacha intermittently and spoke regularly on the phone. He told me in passing one day that his eyesight was getting distorted, ‘The way your eyes need adjusting to a new pair of glasses.’ Days later, he casually mentioned a pain in his right hip. When I urged him to see a doctor he laughed and said he would wait a while longer because he was sure it wasn’t anything serious. It was typical of a man who spent his life helping others and neglecting himself. Accepting his capacity to ride out all calamities I decided he would emerge from all ailments triumphant. I made plans to return to Dhaka in the first week of August.
Three days before my expected departure I got a call from my cousin in London telling me Chacha had had a stroke. I jumped onto a train and rushed over to the hospital. He saw me from a distance and his eyes moved in acknowledgement. I clasped his left hand and wept.
He had suffered a stroke from a clot in the left side of his brain, paralysing the right side of his body. His skin looked sallow and sagged on the right. The energy he had his whole life was now depleted. He lay flat on his back, surrounded by tubes, drips and beeping machines. I wept the whole day. He raised his left hand and wiped the tears from my face.
I postponed my flight for a week and spent every other day with him at the hospital until visiting hours ended. Not because I was his next of kin, not because he had looked after my family when we had needed him most, but because he was one of the most precious people to me in the world.
As word spread that he was in hospital people streamed in at all hours of the day. They brought him flowers, they cried, they comforted him, they gave him strength. As he progressed over the next week they began to bring him updates of local events and news, keeping his finger on the community pulse. They sat by his side and told him he was going to be fine.
The nurses were perplexed that Chacha had such a large family – Bangali visitors who referred to him as ‘Bhai’ told the staff he was their ‘brother’; those who called him ‘Dada’ claimed he was their ‘grandfather’. The English nurses were unable to comprehend the Bangali notion of relations within the community. To Chacha’s friends they did feel they were members of his family. I heard stories at his bedside from people he had influenced: men and women he had convinced to stay in school, to stay off the streets, to find their hearts in careers that supported their families and helped others. He was an integral part of what they did, believed in, who they were. He had shaped the lives of thousands of people. He had listened to a million voices and had responded to all of them.
I returned to London in November the same year, after Abbu heard that Chacha, following a period of recovery, was lapsing into depression. Abbu, whose own health was weakening, gave me a ticket to England and asked me to look after Chacha. My parents installed e-mail in their house so I could give them regular feedback on Chacha’s progress.
Chacha had been transferred to Mile End Hospital by then and was sitting in his wheelchair when I arrived. We looked at each other for a spilt second before I rushed over to him. He wrapped his left arm around me and burst into his infectious grin. He spoke a few words in Bangla, demonstrated how he could raise his right leg, and showed off his ability to expertly manoeuvre himself around in his wheelchair. He was clearly determined to conquer the effects of his stroke.
I took on the role of Professional Niece: I met with the medical staff at Mile End on a regular basis; I liaised with the Social Services and oversaw his tangled financial affairs; I looked at nursing homes for when he’d leave the hospital. Over the next few months Chacha survived a serious setback in his state of health, a violent reaction to wrong medication administered by the doctor, a throat infection, fluid in his lungs, weak kidneys and liver, an irregular heartbeat and hospital food. Even at his weakest moments, though, he had a smile for the family visiting a patient across the room, a nod for the nurses who came in and out, a raised hand for his visitors.
As he regained his strength he returned to speaking his few words in Bangla. He was once more able to manoeuvre himself around in his wheelchair, flip through books, and feed himself using his left hand. Watching him in his slower state I began to notice things I hadn’t before: his need for visual and spatial harmony. He never simply sat at a table, he spent endless minutes making sure his wheelchair was exactly perpendicular to the table’s edge. Whenever the nurses plopped down his meal in front of him, he immediately arranged everything so the fork was straight, the plate in the centre of the table, the spout of his glass facing him. After he wiped his mouth or blew his nose, he carefully folded his tissue before putting it away in a discreet corner. The better he became the more attention he paid to the smallest details. Then, in March, he was well enough to leave the hospital and move into Westgate House, a nursing home in Newham.
Now when I see Chacha, he still tries to talk. However, unlike before, he doesn’t get frustrated when I can’t understand, but laughs instead. His face still lights up when he sees familiar faces enter the room. He still carefully moves the food tray so it’s aligned with his bed. The manager at the nursing home is convinced there is still more physical recovery possible. His spirit is already well and truly back. This agnostic looks up and says, ‘Thank you.’
This essay first appeared in Dedicated to Tassaduq Ahmed (LinkBangla, London/Dhaka, 2000).
Tassaduq Ahmed MBE, born 2 April 1923; died 8 December 2001.