Of a Mother Dying in Autumn
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Fourteen years and three days after my father took leave of life, my mother passed on to the Great Beyond last week. The soul left her quietly, almost unobtrusively, which was quite in contrast to the feverishness that had defined her last few weeks as she struggled to live on. As we in the family watched her strength ebb, day after day, we knew too that she was a fighter. And because we thought she was, we somehow lulled ourselves into the belief that, as she had in the past, she would emerge triumphant from her struggle once more. Only, that was not to be. She survived smallpox and chicken pox in the 1950s; she held her own against heart-related ailments for four decades in a row and she never let her high blood pressure and asthma push her into a corner. It was her kidneys that did her in. They declined swiftly, drained the life force out of her; and early on a Saturday, even as darkness prevailed before dawn, mortality subdued her. We buried her in the afternoon in the little village, our village, we call Noagaon.
There was a simplicity of the soul in my mother. In her girlhood she was the quietest one in her family, growing up among siblings who had lost their mother to one of those ailments for which no medical help could be had in the villages of this country. Years after her marriage to my father, my mother led me by the hand to her mother's grave below a cluster of bamboo in her village, told me stories about her. And then she wept silently. It was that weeping I remembered as I climbed out of the open space in the earth where I had just placed my mother, moments before the earth would cover her and bring her long story to an end. I tell myself the old tale, as I sit on my mother's bed. Trying to will myself into calling her back through magic of some form or the other, I let the mind wander back in time to give myself back the mother I knew in my schooldays. There is the smell of her that I have never forgotten, the familiar bonding which holds a child to the being who gave it birth. I do not forget the horror, the sobs, that took hold of my mother when a careless Pathan milkman ran his bicycle over me and two of my siblings on a snow-driven day in Quetta. She nursed our injuries, which were minor of course, and would not sleep for nights on end. In the 1960s, when typhoid afflicted me twice, she secretly passed on some rice and meat to me, beyond my father's knowledge, looking happy as I wolfed down the food in what should have been a period of convalescence for me. A day later, the typhoid came back for the third time. A year later, as the September 1965 war between India and Pakistan forced a blackout all across the city, my father nervously paced back and forth, moved heaven and earth wondering how he could transport my mother's body home to Dhaka once her heart stopped breathing. The doctors had given up on her. My siblings and I cried.
But my mother lived on. On the night my father died in 1992, she cried as she prayed for his soul. It is a flood of tears I think I will recall for a very long time, for they came from inside a woman who had just transited into the world of a widow. In the months and years that followed, my mother would sit beside my father's grave, immersed in loud thoughts of what must have been going on where his bones lay. In my own way, stretching all the way from childhood to the fast progressing afternoon of my life, I have watched and I have recalled my parents relate to each other. They met and married on a long ago October and went off to a distant desert country to build a family. They watched movies and memorised the songs they heard. On the moonlight-bathed grass of the race course in Quetta, they watched their child, their third, warble happily at the sight of the lunar orb. For their only daughter their worries about her well-being were constant, till the end of their days. And worries pervaded larger areas of life too. Economic difficulties remained a constant refrain, but my father and my mother made it a point that the education of their children skirted around the obstacles that came by.
It is all this, and much more, that I remember as the sun declines in the twilight of early November. There is, as a floating Ishmael would say in Moby Dick, the feeling in me of taking to the sea every time a damp drizzly November makes its way into the woodlands of my soul. My mother sleeps, even as autumn begins to give way to the first tremors of winter and the dew makes ready to descend on her grave. Many moons will go by, the floodwaters will flow over the ground where she rests and there will be a time when her children, themselves weighed down by age and ailment, take the same beaten tracks to nothingness.
Tonight, though, the child in me rushes back to the mother it knew once, holding on to the folds of her sari for fear the elements might tear her away from him in a moment predetermined by the gods. The elements have done their work, finally.
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier)
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