‘Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.’ — Confucius
It’s my mother’s birthday today. Though she is entirely baffled by the importance given to this day, I have made it a point to spend it with her for the past decade or so, especially since my father died. This year, I’m unable to due to work, though my thoughts are very much with her.
She was born in a village in Jessore, the fifth of eight children. Her father was a headmaster of several schools in what now falls in India, and her mother was a homemaker. Her elder brother, Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, grew up to be an Oxford-educated famed and respected man of letters; her second brother a banker. She and her sisters – as was common of her time – more or less became housewives.
My mother – whose images I frequently use at the head of my blog posts – may appear serene and elegant. From all accounts, she was mischievous and constantly played pranks on her family. Sure-footed from growing up around nature, she could climb, row and play with great agility. Her sisters tell me of when she would take them out to the middle of the river, then purposely rock the boat, amusing herself by their alarm. Close to all her siblings, they spent their days after school running around in fields, chasing cows, and playing with kites.
She went to college in Rajshahi, where her elder brother was teaching. She had no shortage of marriage proposals. My father, wiser than most, approached her differently once he too proposed marriage. He wrote her long letters, explaining his ambition to move from being a professor of statistics to something called an actuary, for which he would need to study in London. He wrote to her of the life he envisioned for them, and his belief of letting people be who they are (this – in a society where parents decide what their children ought to be and that is that – was unorthodox to say the least).
She accepted my father’s marriage proposal and they began their life together when she was 20. My elder sister was born and they followed my father to London after he went ahead to set up a place for them to stay. Her flight started in Dhaka and made stops in Karachi, Beirut and Frankfurt before finally landing in London. My mother – on her first trip abroad and trying to be smart and stylish, travelled wearing brand new heels while trying to carry my then-two-year-old sister – claims it was the longest journey of her life.
My mother tells charming stories of their early years in this strange new place. They moved frequently, mostly staying near other Bengalis, first in rooms where they shared kitchen facilities with coin-operated gas stoves. Money-strapped students also living in the quarters would dart in as soon as my mother would finish cooking, to see if there was any credit left from her shilling for them to boil their rice. My parents soon moved to their own flat and then to a small house on the outskirts of the city. One of the places they lived in was Highbury. As one often does with parents’ stories of their younger days, I didn’t retain this information, and it was some 40 years later, that I too ended up living in Highbury, right near the very same park where my mother would take my sister daily for walks.
My mother would take the tube around the city for her errands until she decided to learn driving. My father had a battered £60 second-hand car that he used while he was completing his studies and working part-time. After ten lessons, the instructor told her she could practise on her own before applying for her licence. Driving next to my father one day, she crashed their car headlong into a tree. It cost £25 to get repaired and there ended my mother’s dreams of driving.
My brother was born in London. By this time, my father had become an actuary, and they spent a few more years in London before heading to Karachi in the late 1960s, and then back home to Dhaka. Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan coincided almost entirely with my mother’s third pregnancy. During these nine months, my family was forced to move from place to place, trying to avoid the Pakistani military who were systematically moving through the country, murdering and raping Bengalis.
My mother’s elder brother was on the Pakistani military’s hit list and had to go into hiding. Her second brother, his wife and their new baby were imprisoned when my aunt’s brother in the military went AWOL. My mother’s sister’s new husband was taken to jail for supporting the independence where he was tortured daily and forced to watch the Pakistani army murder his best friend.
My mother, pregnant with me, moved with her family and sister from Dhaka to Sylhet then back to Dhaka. Within Dhaka, they moved from their house in the diplomatic zone Gulshan, which became deserted when the foreigners around them left, to my father’s relative’s house in Dhanmondi, then back again to Gulshan. I was born some three weeks before my country’s independence, and my family wrapped me in blankets and hid under the staircase as bombs flew overhead.
When war was over, they settled into their family home, a bungalow with a large garden filled with fruit trees. We lived there until I was five and my family moved to Kuwait where my father got a job. It was some years after that that my brother, at age 16, died from an asthma attack. As I’ve written elsewhere, my family never recovered from this tragedy, most of all my mother. For decades, she couldn’t cook his favourite food, watch his favourite TV shows or see his friends without needing to leave the room to gather herself.
My family moved back to Bangladesh some years later and my mother’s peripatetic lifestyle finally drew to a close. My sister had already left to study in the US and I was to soon follow. Despite the distances, I have remained close to my mother, spending months if not years at a time with her all the while working and living around the world. And so while I miss being with her on her birthday, I celebrate her and three qualities in particular:
- While I perennially question Who Am I, with Identity and Home being forever in flux (and in angst), my mother – despite being born into India, then officially being Pakistani before finally becoming Bangladeshi, and decades of living abroad – has never, ever questioned where she belongs. Her roots – thanks to her upbringing and family, her language and ties to her siblings – are very secure and without debate.
- A friend said our parents’ entire generation suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, having gone through the war, yet nobody talks about it. When I think of the immense turmoil my mother went through (all the while pregnant), I’m in awe of her and her generation that learnt to survive hardship and soldier on without complaining.
- My mother is a rare wit and a great mimic, able to keep us in gales of laughter. She loves looking after her extended family and gathering everyone round to share a meal. She tells terrific stories and has an astoundingly good memory. She was the one who taught me to draw and paint. She and my father gave me endless support when I had depression and could barely get out of bed. She has always believed that it takes the same energy to be kind as it does to be mean, and she has always chosen to be kind. While she is traditional in many ways, she is also staunchly accepting of others, even those very different from her – like when I told her of transgendered people and she said that people must be allowed to be who they truly are, even if they are not born into it. I am constantly struck by how she never tried to mould me into what she thought I ought to be or believe in. She is the first person I run to when I need advice, and the person I turn to the most to understand me, even when I don’t have the words.
Happy birthday, Ammi!
‘The giving of love is an education in itself.’ — Eleanor Roosevelt
Some of the things my mother and I have enjoyed together:
Every Bengali I know can recite from Sukumar Ray’s collection of absurd poetry, Aboltabol (literal translation: gibberish). My mother not only had me memorising them (and performing them at ‘functions’ – that awkward mainstay of my childhood), but she too recited some recently at her own women’s group organisation’s event.
Some years ago, my mother came to visit me when I was recuperating from surgery and we spent our days watching film after film. There was none we enjoyed more than Gol Maal, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Even today, we frequently quote from it to each other, which is guaranteed to make us break into helpless giggles.
My mother in many ways came into her own in London, away from all that was familiar and learning for herself what she liked. Exposed to the Beatles just as they became popular, she grew to love their music. Every time I listen to Hello Goodbye I still remember her playing it for me the first time when I was very young and watching her sing along to it.