Last month on December 22 I received a call around 10:30 p.m. from my niece Tanita that my mom had been hospitalized. It was dreaded news for which none within our family was prepared. I remember talking with her a few hours before she went to sleep that night. She sounded cheerful in the presence of my younger brother Shameem who was visiting her. I quickly called his wife Sabina in Houston to find out the details. Shameem and our sister Jessy had been in Chittagong Metropolitan Hospital since the dawn of December 23 and could not say much saying that the doctors were trying to determine whether it was a stroke, or massive heart attack or diabetes related sugar-spike that had caused the problem. We could only pray and hope that she would survive.
The news was a shocking and devastating one, which I could not believe. I was hoping that she would survive her latest bout with death and that I would meet her when she recovered. But that did not happen. A couple days earlier my wife Eva had left for Bangladesh with our two sons. As noted above, my brother Shameem had gone earlier, before the Christmas, with his daughter Sadaf, to be with our parents. And he was the fortunate one, along with my sister Jessy, to be able to spend some precious time with her when she was well, before her hospitalization. My two other sisters left from the USA on the day of her hospitalization. All of them were able to see her before she died on the late night (or early AM hours) of December 26 but could not communicate with her.
I reached Bangladesh on the 28th instant to be with my bereaved siblings and father. After spending more than a week I returned on January 8. With the rest of my extended family members, I am still mourning her loss. No words of mine can express the sadness we all have since been feeling. Her death feels as if it was too sudden, too premature, and this, in spite of the fact that she was nearly 81 years old! She was the last of her siblings to die and be buried far away from the place of her birth.
My mother was a wonderful woman, a gentle lady and a caring mother. She was in poor health last few years, especially since 2004 when she had undergone a stent operation in Bangkok, Thailand to unblock her clogged heart arteries. She had to be flown back to Bangkok again a few years ago for another surgery for spondylitis. She also recovered from a stroke that she had suffered some years ago. Weak and frail, still she was in stable condition before she suffered a massive cardiac arrest just 70 hours before her death.
The ambulance service was too slow to come and pick her up for the needed medical care in the early hours of the dawn. Nevertheless she had her senses in the first two days, but on the third day, everything took a drastic turn for the worst and she had to be put in the life supporting system in the Intensive Care Unit where she died. My youngest sister (doctor) Sabrina and brother Shameem – both visiting from Houston, Texas, were on her deathbed. After issuing the death certificate, the hospital released her, and she was brought back to our “Aranika” bhavan, given a funeral bath and buried after Friday Jumu'ah prayer in a graveyard in our neighborhood. More than a thousand people attended her janaza (funeral) prayer. My cousin sister Fahmida Begum (Shilpy) and cousin brothers Raquib Razzaq and Nurul Haque came from Dhaka and Khulna, respectively, to attend the funeral service. My cousin sisters Shefali (Firoza Nazrul) apa and Lovely also came to pay their condolences. There were also many friends and relatives who came to pay their last homage.
Although I had bought a ticket when I heard the news of her being taken into the ICU, it was too late for me to attend the funeral service. I arrived on Sunday night in Chittagong. The next day, per her living wish, we fed more than 2200 people in our complex. We also sent food for 3 orphanages. [My childhood friend Engineer Siddiqur Rahman and cousin Prof. Sheikh Firozuddin of Jahangir Nagar University flew in from Dhaka to be at the event.]
In the 1940s my mom studied at the famed Sakhawat Memorial High School in Calcutta. It was almost unheard of in those days for a Muslim girl coming from a conservative background to seek education hundreds of miles away from home. But against all odds, my mom decided to pursue her education in the famed English-medium school, which was founded in 1911 by Begum Rokeya – a Muslim renaissance lady. The school had dormitory for such out-of-town girl students, thus facilitating their education. In her enrollment year, my maternal uncle, Sayedur Rahman (later a famous barrister in Dhaka High Court), was already a college student at the Presidency College. His presence as a local guardian surely made it easy for my mom (and my grandparents to consent) to study in Calcutta. After completing his university degrees there, when my maternal uncle left for London, UK to pursue his law degree, my mom's older sister's husband (Aftab khalu) who was working in Calcutta became her local guardian.
When British India was partitioned on August 14 and 15, 1947 giving birth to Pakistan and India, respectively, the Muslim girls' hostel in Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School was closed down by the new Indian government, creating a severe problem for many out-of-town students like my mom who had very few choices left open to them then. My mother had to move to Anjuman Girls' High School, which had hostels for Muslim girls. She matriculated from Anjuman after the Partition and then moved back to her village in Bashtali of Rampal thana in Khulna district of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). It goes without saying that in those days, there were very few opportunities for Muslim girls to pursue college education. Muslims – boys and girls alike – were heavily discriminated in Hindu-dominated schools and colleges. Many such Hindu-run academic institutions did not allow Muslim girls to study there, esp. if they chose to put headscarves. [Note: Shamsun Nahar Mahmud, later a writer and social activist, was removed from Dr. Khastagir Girls’ School – a Hindu-run school in Chittagong when she was in the 6th grade on grounds of purdah.]
When my mom was a high school student, my father was a college student in Calcutta who had met and known my mom's relatives there. Apparently, after my father had graduated from Calcutta University in 1948 and opened his medicine business in the port city of Chittagong, he left the communication channel open with my mom's brother-in-law (Aftab khalu) in Khulna. The latter played the match-making role to unite my parents. After my parents were married in Khulna, my mom moved with him to Chittagong, hundreds of miles away from her place of birth. Before my birth she briefly moved back to her village to be cared for by my grandma and her older sisters. Then we both moved back to Chittagong city to be with my dad.
There in Chittagong my mom completed her primary teacher's training at the PTI (Primary Training Institute) and then moved on to complete her intermediate and bachelor's degrees from Chittagong Government Girls' (later Women) College when the college opened on Zakir Hossain Road in East Nasirabad part of the city. We were then living in a house in Ice Factory Road (later named Collegiate School Road). The girls' college was more than 3 miles away from our home – a considerable distance to commute by rickshaw. By then my father has established himself as a very successful, honest and respectable businessman in Chittagong, and had bought real estate properties in various parts of the town, including in south Khulshi, in front of the Girls' College. But the latter place was still inhabitable for civilized living. We continued to live in our Ice Factory Road home while maintaining a garden house in Khulshi where we would occasionally come for picnic.
After earning her BA degree, my mother taught at Goshaildenga Municipal HighSchool. When Chittagong University opened in 1966 my mother joined the university as its first batch of students to graduate from with a master’s degree. She had the privilege of studying under famous professors like Ali Ahsan and Anisuzzaman. By that time, we had moved into a 2-story house (Prantik) on Zakir Hossain Road, which was within a quarter mile of our Khulshi properties and the girls' college.
She did very well in her MA class (just shy of being placed in the First Class), and after earning her master's degree taught at Gul-E-Zar Muslim Girls' School, where she was the Assistant Headmistress. Later she was called in to teach Bengali literature at the Govt. Girls' College (the college remains located in front of our Aranika Bhavan). Some of her students later went on to earn their PhD degrees in the USA and the UK.
In spite of her busy schedule as a full-time student and later as a college lecturer, she was always a very caring mother and devoted her time to ensuring that her children had gotten the best of their education. My dad also was very supportive of such matters, placing highest value on education. My younger brother and I both went on to attend cadet colleges and then pursue higher studies abroad. [All my siblings have university degrees. We are also married to highly educated spouses. There are 4 PhD degree holders within the family, not counting children’s families.]
My mother had her first bout with death when she got electrocuted due to short circuiting of a cloth liner with a faulty electric wire. I was then a primary student at the PTI, and still remember how everyone in the neighborhood looked sad and my younger sister Jessy (Jasmeen) crying when I had returned home from my school. My mom was trying to put some wet cloth on a cloth liner when the accident happened. Thanks to our housemaid – Aasia's mom – who was close by, and had the sense to pull her out. My father was informed immediately who sought help from doctor Arshad (father-in-law of Engineer Mosharraf, now serving as a minister in the Hasina Cabinet in Bangladesh). The latter was able to do the needful to bring my mother back to consciousness.
As the years passed, she developed cataract problem with her eyes and needed operation. Although the operation was successful, and she could read, she was advised not to strain her eyes. That meant, not teaching! She complied, and left the teaching position in the college, probably around 1977 or shortly thereafter.
She was a gifted writer who wrote short stories on the lives of ordinary people. Some of her stories were played as dramas in the Radio Pakistan, Chittagong in the 1960s.
She was a very generous person, and gave away all her earnings to the poor and the needy. She supported many needy families and talented students from the rental income on our properties. When the Islamabad Siddiquia Fadil (Degree) madrasa in the Rampal area of Bagerhat district was facing discontinuation because of lack of funding, she provided the necessary financial support through my cousins – Nurul Haque (Kachi) and Nuruz Zaman (Manju) – to keep the historic institution running. She also provided the necessary seed money for some institutions, which include a health complex and a girl's madrasa cum hostel in Khulna and Bagerhat districts. Realizing that how difficult it is for young woman and college going girls to find safe and secure hostel-like environment she convinced a cousin sister of mine (Parul) to open such facilities in the Nasirabad/Khulshi area of Chittagong city. And what else can be better than walking the talk? Thus, in that very spirit, she allowed our old house – Prantik – to be turned into "Shanti Niketan Hostel" for college girls and young women professionals. Many girls who, otherwise, could not have pursued their dream of a college education now benefit from such services that she pioneered in Chittagong. She never turned down any request for financial assistance from anyone, many of whom she never met in her life.
I could probably write a book on her many wonderful deeds. But that is not necessary here as I remember how blessed my siblings and I have been to have such a kind, generous and ever concerned person as our mother. Her loss will leave a permanent void in the heart of many of us who came to know her closely.
As she left us all to meet her Lord, we pray that He will accept her as a true servant who tried to do her little things in ways that met His approval. May Allah rest her in peace! Amin.