The past is another country

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It is healthy remembering one’s past. I do that all the time. And I do it because it keeps me rooted to thoughts of where I used to be, to where I have arrived now. There is, I have always believed, a heavenly power up there somewhere who takes care of things down on earth. You may call that power by any name, depending on what faith you subscribe to. For myself, I have never been a religious person, at least not in that conventional sense. But I do believe there is a Creator. And I find Him, I would like to think, in the stirring of a leaf, in the ripples breaking out in a village pond, in the smile of a baby. All my life (and I am into the autumn of life, in that western sense of the meaning) the Creator has had a role to play in its shaping. On nights when the moon plays hide and seek behind the monsoon clouds, it is again the Creator who comes into my imagination, to remind me of who I am and what I once was.

And what was I in the past I am so fond of recalling at every given opportunity? The question takes me back to my youth, when I was a student of English literature at Dhaka University. Those were hard times, for me and for my family, in that very financial sense. No one who has not gone through economic hardship will comprehend what it is to suffer for want of money at every turn. One afternoon I spotted a notice on the board of the department of journalism seeking a part-type typist at a very low salary. I reasoned within myself that I could do the job, even if at that point I knew no typing. It was late in the evening when someone in the department office agreed to see me. He heard me out patiently, then decided I could not do the job because I knew no typing. He was of course right, but I returned home in an extremely sad mood.

There were all the times when my parents struggled to give me and my siblings a good foothold on life despite the financial problems they were constantly going through. And they did give us good education, putting us through the best schools and colleges in the country. It was this that I recalled not long ago, as I stood before my parents’ graves in our village. I remembered the yearly trips I made to a bookstore in Quetta with my father to buy new textbooks for the new classes my siblings and I had been promoted to in school. And I remembered too the many means my mother devised to make sure that we had enough food on the table. You do not, you cannot ever forget the times when you had to accompany your father to a bank to have your mother’s necklace pawned for a paltry sum because of monetary necessity at home.

Forgetting the past is similar to condemning the future to perdition. In the lugubrious month of August, it is Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman I remember in absolute intensity. Memories of that long ago day, when as a schoolboy I met him in Quetta, had dinner with him and came away with his autograph, come alive. He did not take my outstretched hand, but he did pinch my cheeks affectionately. Being in his company was, for me, an experience in scaling the heights. After that first meeting, I met him a few more times. I was yet a student. On the day that I prepared to see him address a convocation at Dhaka University, disaster struck the country. The assassin-soldiers killed him before he could speak to the students, before I could walk down to the university to hear him speak. Losing Bangabandhu was like losing your grip on life. There is never a moment when I do not recall him. Every time I am abroad, holding that green passport at immigration on arrival, I tell myself that the passport is a symbol of the political grandeur Bangabandhu stood for, that it is his historical legacy to us and to future generations of Bengalis.

The past is another territory, to be sure. But it is territory we have traversed in our march to the present. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was almost routine for me and for my friends to spend time reading at the American cultural centre in Dhanmondi. And while we did that, we also went through all the volumes which told us we could apply to American colleges and travel to America for higher education. All of us sent off applications, multitudes of them, to various colleges. In the end, my friends went off to America, one after the other. I was the only one who could not make it. Which reminds me of the time when a fortune teller, a very aged Anglo-Indian lady, read my palm and that of my friend. She gave a clean bill to my friend, telling him he would be going abroad and achieve his ambition. About me, she had nothing of the encouraging sort to offer. I would, she told me, never go abroad. That was quite a damper, until the time came when I began travelling abroad.

The past is about romance too. At university, I wrote much poetry, fell in love with my classmates on a regular basis. They of course did not take me seriously and went off to marry the men of their choice or those their parents had chosen for them. I have loved intensely. Some of the women I have loved, or who loved me, are now in the grave. I remember them; and sometimes I ask the Lord of the Universe why he had to take them away so early.

And I recall the time when my first article appeared in print. The joy of that moment is something I have never been able to recreate. My mind travels back to that floral moment when a young woman from Calcutta, newly arrived in Dhaka, told me I reminded her of Woody Allen. We did not know then that destiny would bind us together for the rest of our lives.

I do not forget the November morning when I held my niece Binita, moments into her birth, in my arms. Some years later, in those same arms, I held a tiny boy named Shahan and a tiny girl called Suhani not long after they came to life as twins on a June day.

My father was placed in his grave on an October afternoon. Before the earth seized him for all time, I patted him on his head one last time. On another October fourteen years later, I touched my mother’s cold cheeks before the grave claimed her forever.

The heart breaks every time I remember the way my brother Nadeem, the youngest in the family, wept as our mother slowly disappeared from view.

The past, you see, thrives on a high pedestal of human experience. It punctuates our present.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Time & Space
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Issue 9
  • The past is another country

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