There are the long moments, in this twilight season of my life, when I travel back to the times which have assumed a permanence of sorts in my landscape of memories. There are the images I recall --- of my Dadi taking a long dip in the pond, enough to make me believe she has drowned; of my parents spending Sundays giving us siblings a thorough makeover in the bitterness of January in one of the coldest places on earth; of my Nana waving at us for the last night time as he stands in tears at the launch ghat in Taraganj on the Sitalakhya; of my Dada in the stillness of death only minutes after he has spoken to my father; of another Dada, a mystic-cum-mendicant, suddenly appearing at our home and going away soon after, never to be seen again; of the heartbreaking moments when my siblings and I place our long-struggling parents to eternal rest in their graves, fourteen years apart; of three babies coming into the family and giving us an immensity of joy that can only be felt in the heart.
And then there are those moments, politically charged ones if I may so describe them, when I try recalling where I happened to be when powerful men died in circumstances natural and not so natural. To be sure, there are people like me all over the world who will remember precisely where they were when certain men and women of influence had their lives draw to an end. It is part of human nature, part of us, to identify with the forces and flow of history, with the lives of the makers of history, in our disparate and personal ways. As my father noted in his diary on 30 January 1948, ‘Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi today’. A lapsed Indian when he became a Pakistani in August 1947, my father was at the time in Quetta, having arrived there after spending five years in the Indian geological survey in Calcutta in British colonial times. He had witnessed history taking shape in all its malevolence. He had spent his waking moments saving himself, through sheer ingenuity and luck, from falling into the clutches of the Muslim and Hindu mobs bludgeoning one another to death on the streets of Calcutta in August 1946.
Perhaps it was my father’s sense of history, his readiness to refer to the men and events he had observed in his time which spurred my own fascination for history. It was through him, through the copy of Panorama, a journal of the US government, that I came to know of the American space programme. Images of John Glenn preparing to lift off into space and then returning to earth were an insight into a new universe, an experience that in subsequent years would keep me riveted to Apollo-8 in December 1968 and Apollo-11 in July 1969. The imagination in me often runs wild, even in these days of a coming sunset, when it is outer space, indeed the universe I reflect on. The vastness beyond our world, the line-up of planets and solar systems, the great probability of intelligent life being out there somewhere transports me to the immeasurable wonder that is Creation.
For me, religion throbs in the heart. My faith comes enshrined in the mosque, the church, the temple and the synagogue, all of which are part of my search for God. The sounds of rain falling through the leaves of monsoon-draped trees on the raw earth and on our tin-roofed home in our village are a manifestation of Creation for me. And certainly I have that preoccupation with death, with cemeteries which endlessly sensitizes me to the mystery that is the cycle of life and death. My walks through ancient churchyards in the West and through graveyards at home in Bangladesh are consistently my communion with faith, with the piety that serves as the basis of all religious belief. Faith assumes newer dimensions in my late night wanderings across the landscape of Rabindranath’s puja songs.
In my museum of memories are stories which have been gateways to experience for me, as they have been for so many others around the world. When I step inside Bangabandhu Museum and stand gazing at the stairs down which he tumbled lifeless, time stands still. Fond memories of the beautiful moments, amidst the scent of roses wafting in from the garden on a summer evening in Quetta, when he pinched me on my cheeks in affection, come alive. And I recall hastily slurping down a cup of tea because he would be at Dhaka University, on a morning in August, and because I needed to go and hear him speak. I did not finish my tea, for Bangabandhu, as the shrieking voice of murder made it known on the radio, had been gunned down. It is the softness of his hands on my cheeks, his queries about my education, about my father, the superhuman in his being, which shine bright in my hall of memories.
There is always a flood of images which overwhelms the soul in me. My sister, uncomplaining, walking to school and college in sun and rain; my brothers dividing their youth between educating themselves and educating others, the latter through tutoring them across town; my father, holding the railing and waiting for his children to come home at the end of day; my mother declining to eat until all her children were at the table; the Calcutta woman, later to be my fiancée and then my wife, turning up between my tests at the civil service examinations to see that I have my lunch; the faces of friends who have gone to their graves; the good men, my gurus, who launched me into my career - these form the kaleidoscope of the life I have lived.
And I wait for the sun to set, for the monsoon rains to pour on my grave, for lightning and thunder to go on piercing the heavens as they have for aeons.
I wait for the nirvana that will be mine beneath that dusty mound of earth.