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     Volume 6 Issue 43 | November 9, 2007 |

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Salma Rahman, or the Death of an Aesthete

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Salma Rahman died in London a few weeks ago. It was, as it were, a sudden coming of the end that took the life out of her. It was a swift, unexpected squall that felled the tree which till the very end would give little sign of collapse any time soon. For me, the demise of Salma Rahman touches some deeply personal chord, for she was the sister of the woman I married nearly a quarter century ago. She was seventy four, which was a good five years more than the age in which my mother died a year ago. In a sense, you could say that Salma Rahman was more than a sister-in-law to me. There was something of the comforting about her, of the kind that let you know easily that you could indeed call forth the courage to approach her in friendship.

And that is how I have related to Salma Rahman all these years. It was in the 1980s that I met her, here in Dhaka. Since the later part of the 1990s, though, through my three-year stay in London on a diplomatic assignment, which again was followed by my annual visits to the city, it was intellectual communion that bound me to her. I was always the chhoto jamai, husband of her youngest, and prettiest, sister. Once that reality had been handled, it was books and music that strengthened our links. She sang well, even in her advanced years. Those who have known her since her youth in Calcutta have always had cause to remark on the melody in which her songs transported themselves from her heart to the hearts in others. You might, without actually being aware of it, break into a hum in her presence. She would spot the song effortlessly, identify with it, before asking you to sing it in louder, clearer tones for her. As you acceded to her request (or was it demand?), you realised that she was singing along with you. It was a voice that was a reminder of a pristine past, of an era when music came softly in the company of poetry. And then it became poetry itself.

In her time, Salma Rahman caused her personality to stretch itself into wider areas. She was associated with the BBC and at one point also regaled audiences through her talks on VOA. If she sang Bengali and Hindi songs in all the passion of an Indian summer, she recited Shakespeare in the perfection that was Elizabethan drama. You could close your eyes and convince yourself it was an English theatre artiste you were listening to. Salma Rahman was an incorrigible romantic and fell easily in love with the simplest manifestations of nature. And in the manner of most romantics, she broke into tears at the slightest intimation of pain. Again, like men and women of hard-boiled genius, she could be plainly demanding at times. Those who have experienced the fiery nature of anger in her have often felt intimidated. Those who knew her up close understood that behind that volcanic upsurge dwelled a little lamb, quiet and innocent in the way it looked out at the world. Salma Rahman enjoyed conversing with people on books, on history. The last time I met her, about a couple of years ago, we talked of Dag Hammarskjoeld. And there have been the times when we let the mind rove all across the lives and careers of Montaigne and Pascal and Thoreau. Outside, it was cold rain that made the London evening shiver.

Salma Rahman's reputation as a caring soul was sealed in 1940s Calcutta, once the worst of the Hindu-Muslim rioting was over. As the daughter of Syed Badrudduja, once mayor of Calcutta and subsequently a parliamentarian and reputed orator, she trekked from home to home, from street to alley providing succour to those the carnage had left in a bad way. It was then for Samaresh Basu to make note of her fundamental decency, her civilised way of looking at things, in his work Tori Hote Teere. From Calcutta, it was then to London that she travelled, back in the 1950s. She was beautiful, she was young and she was articulate. Everywhere she went, she drew unintended attention to herself through the spontaneity of being that bordered on charisma. She spoke the Queen's English, she sang traditional Bengali songs and she bantered in Urdu. She thus left individuals like Begum Shaista Ikramullah impressed with her diction. First time visitors to her home listened to her in awe and then went away dazed by her sweeping view of the world around her. She did not suffer fools. And she had little time for the ignorant. You cannot say there was not something of the elitism about her, for it was things of a common note that left her exasperated. Maybe that was a reason why she admired Winston Churchill, the wit in him, and deprecated the schoolboyish in Tony Blair.

Salma Rahman's departure leaves gaping holes in the lives of those left behind. Of the ten children of Syed Badrudduja, one has passed into the ages. Of the many whose lives she touched, every one of them knows that a star has raced through the night sky, to rush into inexplicable oblivion.

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