Perhaps I knew since I was a baby that my Nana, my mom’s dad, passed away a year before I was born, at just forty-something. I learned that the old harmonium that I played with my passionate little hands was bought by my Nana for my mom when she was a child. I learned that my Nana completed his education from Dhaka University, known as the Oxford of the East at that time, but chose to be a school teacher in the village. I saw his elegant handwriting on the first pages of old books and dictionaries, expressing the desire that his young daughters and sons would use those someday. I saw his blurry photo with curly, jet-black hair and peaceful eyes through a pair of glasses with a large frame. He seemed very familiar to me – almost the kind of familiarity you feel towards someone so close that you forget to care about him. Maybe that’s why I never missed my Nana as a child.
But my longing for this man began to increase as I started to learn more and more about him. The first reason is very selfish. My mom was his first-born and he loved her intensely. I am my mom’s first-born; so I imagined that he would have loved me the same.
Gradually I learned that his love was not contained within his immediate family. In his time, roads in rural Bangladesh were almost non-existent. Monsoon rain would turn the primitive, mud roads into sludge and the villages into impenetrable islands. The dry summer-heat would turn those roads into a sea of fine powder, which would cover your feet like the face of a mime artist. But nothing would put him out. He would simply shrug his shoulder, put my mom on the front of his bicycle and start his customary visit to his relatives’ places one by one – sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces. One monsoon night, they reached his sister’s house surrounded by a temporary lake of fresh water. Since it was very late, they could not find a boat. They shouted but nobody responded. So my Nana took off his clean shirt, put my mom on his shoulder and waded through the water to see his sister. Decades after he was no more, the eyes of his sisters and aunts would be filled with large tears every time they remembered him, telling us how much he loved them and they loved him back.
As I started forming a complete mental picture of the kind of person he was – from the stories that people told me, the eclectic collection of books he left behind and his invaluable diary, scrapbook cum journal, that he bequeathed my mom – I started realizing what an exceptional man he was.
My Nana loved music, so much so that he bought a nice harmonium for my mom when she was a child, despite his financial limitation. In rural Bangladesh, it would be hard to find a good music teacher. Whenever he would learn that a good signer was around or even in a not-so-close town, he would coax them to accept his invitation to visit his house and teach his daughter a song or two. As early as I can remember, I heard my mom singing, mostly Tagore songs. I can’t imagine now, how she sang those songs without crying, just a few years after his death. I would.
After his death, his family was under deep water. With the tiny salary of a Head-Master, he had to maintain a family of seven. Not surprisingly, he did not leave a lot of wealth behind. When he died, my mom was barely twenty, married yet a student. All her siblings were still in school. My Nanu, my mom’s mom, must have spent endless nights with the feeling of standing on a quicksand after the death of her husband. But in the end, nobody died of hunger and all her children and their children including myself, did quite well.
Uncertainty, poverty and suffering is a part of most people’s life in the world. But as I began to feel his aura, I realized that his untimely death had created a loss more profound than mundane pain and suffering.
The declaration of the equal rights of women is pasted on the first page of his diary that I inherited from my mom. He got it typed from somewhere with his initials at the bottom. The promise of that declaration written half a century ago is still elusive. Did he believe in those words? I have a feeling he did. My mom told me that, after coming from school, often he would wash my Nanu’s clothes by hand and hang them neatly on the clothes line. I don’t know a lot of Bangladeshi men, even from our generation and next, who would do such a thing.
If he wanted a good life for himself, he could probably choose some other profession, particularly with his excellent command over languages. Instead, he chose to teach school kids in godforsaken corners of Bangladesh after finishing his education in the city. Some ten years ago, I visited a village and saw the very house where my mom’s family once lived. The aging house was falling apart by then, but even in its prime time, it was just a little mud house with almost no modern amenities. It is not that he never worried about money. I found a couple of entries in his journal where he expressed his frustration with the governing body of his school, who never cared about how the teachers made their ends meet. But the other day my Nanu told me, in a sour tone, how my uncle, her son, turned just like my Nana, spending his time and money on his students and caring very little about his own family.
My mom talks about a childhood which seems almost Spartan, mainly because they had so little means. But I can sense the richness of her social life back then, receiving the love of so many relatives and friends of my Nana, learning music from so many teachers, singing with her music-loving neighbors on cool and often not-so-cool afternoons and, of course, being the daughter of this enlightened man with a beautiful mind. Being the first-born, she was fortunate to spend the longest time and forge the strongest bond with their dad.
My mom studied English literature because my Nana really wished she did. He himself was a student of history. But his love for literature was endless. His literary collection of thoughts and quotes about the meaning of life, happiness, morality, beauty and romanticism, his journal full of poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Byron speak for his endless pursuit of wisdom and aesthetics. Pasted on the scrapbook, there are pictures of philosophers, poets and writers from random, precious magazines he could occasionally find. There is a sketch of classic beauty with a soft gaze – She walks in beauty like the night…
On a sad monsoon day, this fine man simply fell on the ground while teaching a class and never woke up again – leaving behind a beautiful young wife and his five children, his school and his students, his books and dictionaries, his journals and scrapbooks and his dreams, now shattered, of his children and students intensifying and carrying the flame of his desire to be enlightened.
For the kind of man he was, his untimely death felt glaringly unjust to me when I grew up. At times, I would be filled with an unreasonable fury towards him. Why he had to die so soon? Why he could not wait long enough to give me some of his treasures? My unseen Nana left a hole in my heart which could not be healed.
During my recent farewell brunch with my American Mom Dena, I was telling her about my Nana. After listening everything, she mused that may be the kind of person I am today is because he was my grandfather. Suddenly I realized that actually he did not die; he is somewhere in my genes, constantly stirring me to find the truth and beauty in life. Suddenly I stopped missing him anymore.