The Untimely Death of My Nana and Our Loss – Perspective of a Grandchild Who Never Met Him

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.

My Nana
My Nana Md. Rafiqul Islam

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…

She walks in beaut

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.


My Wandering Life


In his essay Home-Coming, E. B. White wrote “familiarity is the thing – the sense of belonging”. Reading this, I reflected for some time about my current state of belongingness. Where do I belong?

For quite some time now, I have been a wanderer. Couple of years here, a few months there. The life of a traveler enriched me in many ways; it showed me the world, opened my eyes, allowed me to meet people of all colors and made me realize that all humans are essentially the same. They love and hate the same way, they cry and smile for the same reasons and, strangely enough, they joke and make fun of each other in similar fashion. This realization is particularly significant for me, someone who lived in an extremely homogeneous country for her whole life.

And I made friends, some remarkable ones. I can easily brag to my friends and relatives back home that I have a friend in almost any part of the world. A few of them also became my close friends, with whom I can open my heart and pick up the conversation even if we meet after a very long time. I owe to my traveler’s life for knowing all these wonderful people.

But the same traveler’s life inflicted me, again and again, with the pain of leaving the very same friends I made and the uncomfortable goodbyes with the fake consolation of meeting again. Over the years, I kind of became inured of such infliction. In any case, I am not a person who gets too attached to any person or a thing. I can’t really think of a time when I cried because of an imminent parting. But still today, it does leave a mark in my mind, like the mark left on the grass by the brick that was always there.

I heard people saying that you can get used to anything. But I guess there is a difference between getting used to and being comfortable with something. I still don’t know where I will be next month or next year or the next decade. Yes I got used to the prospective lack of stability in my life, but I don’t think I am comfortable with it.

I have this romantic notion of living in a town where I would live forever. I would take a little stroll every evening and meet the same people and pass by the same tea stall. I know very well even if I lived in my hometown, this would not be the case. Today, all my friends are in different parts of the world. And more importantly, people I knew changed a great deal. Me too. So it cannot be the same.

Yet the familiarity of belonging, as White said, is extremely seductive to me. Every time I have got to leave, I pack up like a pro. As you can imagine, I have become quite a good packer by now. But something deep inside me keeps telling “don’t go, don’t go.”

The story of the colorful people in Joburg, Lusaka and Livingstone and a couple of stray thoughts

The reason I like to stay in backpacker’s is of course monetary. But another strong reason is to meet cool people, have fun and make friends.  Lebo’s place in Soweto is full of fun, particularly in the evening. In this winter months, a fire in the outside sitting area keeps it warm and cozy with a very good selection of jazz and reggae.  I met here a playful and pretty German girl with strong Aussi accent. She works in Soweto with HIV infected kids and is trying to break the societal inhibition against HIV by bringing together HIV and Non-HIV kids. She’s planning a documentary to be made by these kids. I gave her some ideas how she could raise fund for this project. She seemed excited!  

Then there’s this Manchester guy who took a long bus trip from Malawi to save some money. He too, like me, is a “development practitioner”. We chatted by the fire about Jeffry Sachs, Paul Farmer, state of the word, sustainability and the hypocrisy of the development practitioners, so and so forth. We chatted about our hard luck in finding a job in this tough economy where development money is quick to dry out. We don’t need Wall Street salary, but come on, at least we need roof on our heads, food to eat and couple of trips here and there. We sincerely empathized with each other even though we did not even learn each other’s names!

We saw this beautiful giraffe in the Lion and Rhino park in Joburg.
We saw this beautiful giraffe in the Lion and Rhino park in Joburg.
The gorgeous Victoria falls in Zambia

It is hard to forget the captivating African dance of the beautiful and carefree French girl by the fire. She works as a waitress in a part of France and when she could save enough money, she quits her job and travels around Africa. With a cider in my hand, I watched her body move with the ancient African beats as I talked with the sweet-nature German girls who worked in a rural part of South Africa for one year after finishing their high-school. They just finished their volunteer job and are travelling a bit.

The German gentleman in Lebo’s was little reserved in the beginning, a stereotypical demeanor befitting a German. But then he started talking. Slowly but with lots of wits and humor.  He is a leftist politician from Germany, traveling to Johannesburg with a comrade to organize an African youth leadership conference.  He does similar activities in Nepal too. After few hours of conversation, he asked me whether my marriage was a “love marriage” and if it had an arranged component. I laughed hard and we became very friendly.

His name is Thomas. He shared numerous stories – techniques of drinking beer from a five-litter boot shaped glass, getting lost in the rural Nepal with his wife, and his grandsons aged 2 and 4. I don’t know the truth behind, but Thomas and his comrade Iyrin, (and I believe many other leftist Europeans, too!) are convinced that HIV was accidentally created by USA while they were secretly trying to develop biological weaponry! Is that funny? I don’t know. I felt that this serious-looking gentleman was actually warm and child-like who liked to have several servings of Ice-cream after dinar. When we departed, my friend Le gave him a hug and said to him that he was the funniest German man she ever met! He began to smile and she said “not so quick. You are the second German man I ever met!”

While we found the Joburgers to be friendly and fun-loving, Lusaka people in the beginning seemed a little somber and aloof.  The people at the Kalulu backpackers seemed little less enthusiastic. But despite this and the lack of hand-washing soap in the bathrooms, I had a great evening talking with a Harvard PHD student of applied physics who is doing his research on developing low-cost rapid diagnostic medical assessment technologies. I also met a KIVA volunteer working on how to have high impact on the lives of the borrowers of KIVA fund. Who knows why these backpacker’s hostels are the meeting places of liberals, leftists and those apparently concerned (like me!) about poverty and sustainability? May be because they don’t have money! Whatever the reason is, it is fun.

Lusaka is a beautiful city with big trees and, now a days, big brands and huge shopping malls. I wouldn’t believe that the per capita income of this vast country is less than $500 if I landed in Lusaka without knowing it! Most of the trees are so familiar to me, they are so much like those of my homeland. But Lusaka is much nicer than Dhaka I admit. Unfortunately perhaps any city is nicer than Dhaka in recent times. I was stupid to forget my camera charger in New York. So I went to a spotless brand new shopping mall to get one and I paid about $75 for my stupidity. Most of the manufactured products are imported here and are super expensive. I wondered how people beyond the small expat communities and the urban middle-class survive in this poor country. I had a glimpse as I came out of the air-conditioned shopping malls – jobless youth sitting by the streets. Their empty eyes wrenched my heart.

Then in Livingstone, the town beside the Victoria Falls, we met a Korean girl and I learned that she worked in Dhaka for two years as a volunteer! She worked right beside my parents’ house! She was travelling alone. So we tagged her along in our falls trip. In the evening we cooked noodle and soup, ate together and became friends! We also met a couple of travelers from New York. One of them studied at Columbia! Small word, huh! I guess it is a small world for the well-connected people like us because the number of such people is not very huge. And the world is small in a different way for the people like that Zimbabwean, who was trying to sell cliché craft to me on the falls bridge. He told me that he felt like jumping of the bridge and finishing his life in the gorge in desperation. I gave him ten Kwacha and he thanked me several times for saving his life!

I am back to Lusaka again. And it’s the end of my “fun” trip and start of work. I am travelling to the western province of Zambia tomorrow where I will be based for next three months. The head office of the organization I’m working with is in a green suburb of Lusaka. I went out for lunch and found an inviting café. I went in and sat in the breezy porch for a sandwich. I don’t know why I had this strange uncomfortable feeling as the delicious Panini melted in my mouth in the very western café full of smart people, locals and expats. I wondered if I could do anything to make the world of the people like that Zimbabwean craft seller a little bigger. I hope so. I hope so.

Johannesburg- a City of Golden Hearts

It is not really my first time in Johannesburg. But the last time I came, it was not really a visit. It was just a official trip for an hour or so to a business incubator. But to have some feel of this city, rich in gold as well as history and culture, it is necessary to stay here for a while and there cannot be a better place than Soweto to be in for this purpose.

Soweto is a short form of South Western Township, which was built during 1940s and 50s during the Apartheid, far away from Joburg City center to dump the black working class people as far as possible from the withes. Soweto is the place where Nelson Mandela lived for about 15 years, where Winnie Mandela kept their children safe from bullets shot at their house by the police for long 20 years when Nelson Mandela was in prison.. She built a partition in their very small and modest living room to do so.   

South Africa

Soweto streets are where student movement originated and thrived against all oppression. Students protested against the endless discrimination that they faced in education – lack of teachers, lack of furniture, cramped schools and impositions of Afrikaans as their means of education  Hundreds of them were brutally murdered by the police. The names of those students are engraved in bricks lying in the harsh and black atrium of the Hector Peterson Museum. Hector Peterson was just a 13 year old boy who was murdered by a stray bullet and created a lot of stir in the community by giving up his life. The Museum was pretty overwhelming with large windows and cold and bare brick walls, with its hollowness and muffled sound of those angry protests captured in rare footage. Large black and white pictures had lots of stories to tell.

But nothing like the apartheid museum. Rich history and culture of South Africa, the rise and the fall of the heinous scheme, the struggle of the Africans, grueling life of the miners, sophistication in racial identifications, whites, blacks, Indians, colored and Chinese and an enormous institution to keep non-whites away from whites. The depiction of the discrimination, the disenfranchisement of all civil and human rights, the everyday humiliation and torture the native people faced is astounding. Even more astounding are the sights and sounds of the resilience, the protest and the patience of the South Africans, the sagacity and prudence of their leadership. It is amazing how they kept their hopes alive in those desperate times by singing and dancing. It is amazing how cultivated and educated South Africans were, even back in those bleak times. Coming out of this beautiful building, my heart was filled with love and respect for this fearless nation.         

 And why not, after all “Humanity was born in Africa, so all the people, ultimately, are Africans.”