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Volume 3 Issue 6| June 2010



Original Forum Editorial

Truth, Not Punishment
--Jalal Alamgir

Building a World-Class University-- --Syed Saad Andaleeb
Just Another Bomb Blast in Afghanistan-- --Syed A. Mahmood
Reaping the Whirlwind
--Ziauddin Choudhury
A Tale of Two Cities
-- S. Aminul Islam
Rethinking Primary Education
--Manzoor Ahmed
Photo Feature: Ghost Workers--Arman Adnan
Justice Denied
--Marianne Scholte
TV 2010
--Khalid Hasan
Reviving Professional
History in Bangladesh

--Iftekhar Iqbal
Of Corruption Most Chronic
--Mahfuzur Rahman
In Real Terms, Please
--Nader Rahman
Contemplations on Mortality
--Samier Mansur


Forum Home


Contemplations on Mortality

SAMIER MANSUR muses over the life lessons learned from
the graveyards of Dhaka


I have always been drawn to grand monuments of the past -- the older the monument, the more intriguing I find them. Recently, however, I found myself spending time at a different kind of monument -- a smaller, and more personal kind. I found these in the graveyards of Dhaka as I set out to explore the historical gems this ancient city hides under its many folds.

Between these ageing gravestones and the sanctity of hallowed earth, I found stillness -- one that allowed me to contemplate my very existence and finitude, and in that process, what it means to live a life of meaning and purpose. We are all dying, you and I. Every beat of our heart, every breath we expel from our warm mouths and rising and falling chests, is one less beat, one less breath, never to be retrieved -- exhausted into the infinite expanse of our ever changing lifescape.

Within our own lifespan we have already died a thousand deaths. Surely we are not the same person we were when we emerged from the womb. No, that innocent child has died in our memories. And do you recall that existence, when we shared our first kiss? Yes, that child too has passed. We have died in the course of our short lives and will continue to reincarnate our being as we remake, reshape, and refine our selves until our final passing.

"Die before you die!" said the Prophet Muhammad from the desserts of the Middle East in the 7th century. Seven centuries later the great Sufi mystic, Rumi echoed a similar sentiment amongst his whirling Dervishes of Konya, "Die! Die! Don't fear the death of that which is known, for if you die to the temporal, you will become timeless!"


With this inspiration I sought out in Old Dhaka an area called Armanitola, dating from the late 1600's. At that time, tens of thousands of Armenians settled in the area as prosperous merchants and traders. They built beautiful homes, stores, and cinemas with ornately engraved facades, and for nearly three hundred years they called this city of the subcontinent their home. Now, all that remains of their once robust presence are a few crumbling buildings. And amongst their ruins, within the dust and chaos of Old Dhaka stands a beautiful, brightly painted church surrounded by a ring of graves, the ghosts of which tell the story of a vibrant and influential past.

As I slowly made my way through the labyrinth of concrete tombs, reading each of the loving dedications, I could not help but wonder about the identities of the generations of people who lay beneath my feet. Among them were husbands, fathers, children, wives, mothers, poets, and lovers. They once breathed like you and I. They once sang, and loved, and danced full of life, like you and I.

Inscribed on one of the graves was name of a woman, two years shy of twenty. I saw her in my mind's eye applying a red shade to her warm lips, rubbing her cheeks with her delicate hands to redden them for the eyes of the young man she hoped would look her way during Sunday mass. What illness stole her from the prime of her youth? What flowers were placed in her porcelain fingers as she was lowered into her final resting place? A few feet away I read the name of an Irishman from Belfast who died in 1901, on his grave was a touching poem written by his granddaughter, "It was hard to part with you grandpa, no eyes can see me weep, but ever in my aching heart, your beautiful memory keep."

Oh, the stories she must have marveled at upon hearing of his travels, while she was a young girl, sitting on his knees. How hard she must have squinted her eyes while conjuring up an image of what the bitter winter of Belfast must have been like, as she sat in the sweltering afternoon heat of Bengal.


And then there was the grave of an Armenian born in Shiraz, Persia -- the birthplace of my favorite poet, Hafez -- and laid to rest in the soil of "Dacca," my motherland. My imaginations were interrupted as I came across a tombstone with a fresh bed of roses on it -- startling, as it was the only grave on the grounds with flowers on it. The name read Veronica Martin; she was the beloved wife of the current caretaker of the church, Mikel Housep Martirossian, the last Armenian of old Dhaka.

In another corner of old Dhaka, I spent time in what is known as the Christian cemetery, dating from the time when Bangladesh was a part of the jewel in Queen Victoria's vast empire. In this cemetery, surrounded by wild dogs and forgotten memorials, I felt that I had discovered the paradigmic secret garden, a lost sanctuary buried in an energetic, pandemonium filled city of 13 million. As I entered, wild feral dogs that have since claimed the grounds, approached in greeting -- their heads lowered in a timidity I would have not expected from wild animals.

I took out my camera and focused it on a decaying mausoleum that stood in front of me. At this moment, the Hindu caretaker of the cemetery jumped in the way and forbade to me to take any pictures. This was not a place of recreation, he told me, in the little I could understand of his address. I convinced him shortly thereafter for me to continue. I would catalogue these sites, I told him, so that others may see the forgotten history of Dhaka.

I made my way into the mausoleum and wondered how glorious this structure must have been when first built over two hundred years ago. It stands now as crumbling monument, an homage to a distant past, covered in moss, with branches poking in and out of the domed ceiling, vines slithering their way in and out of crevices, and stones struggling to hold on to their foundation. In this mausoleum, my only companions were a dead cat, the tomb of an unknown Christian, and a band of hashish smokers who found safe-haven from the eyes of city outside.

As I walked the grounds, amongst all the death and decay, and edifications of glory to the old British Empire, I found life. It was in the greenness of the trees and the swaying of their branches; it was in the gentle purring of kittens hidden away in ancient, vandalized graves; and in the fluttering of butterflies of various shapes, sizes, and colors dazzling over the unkempt grass and weeds. Such sights, and such peace in Dhaka are the exception, and I was overwhelmed to have experienced it the way I had.

I have wondered why I have felt the pull to visit cemeteries as of late. Perhaps it is because my former roommate, Maaz, someone whom I considered to be a brother, passed away a few of months ago. Perhaps it is because the family experience that I grew up with is now drastically altered with the separation of my parents and the scattering of my mother, sisters, and father on two different continents. Or maybe it is because I have undertaken a new journey in life in my attempts to chart a new path for myself.

In each instance, someone, or something has been laid to rest, and all that remains are echoes -- the fading sounds of my brother, Maaz grasping for his last breath of air; the laughter around the family dinner table; and the turning of a new page in the book of life.

As we each seek greater meaning and clarity of our individual contributions to life, reflection on our mortality can humble and inspire us to walk our brief life-paths with a greater sense of purpose and courage. When I see a grave now, I see the reflection of my future-self. In this contemplation, I have come to believe that if death serves a purpose, it is the affirmation of life and the power of living a purposeful life.

John Donne famously wrote; "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." While our final passage is but a matter of time, it is the moment between each ring -- that brief moment when the inertia of the pendulum glides it through the air -- where life is lived; it is in the dash between the years of birth and death chiseled onto the concrete slab of a tombstone where meaning is given to life; and it is in the physical space between gravestones, where life exists in perpetuity and abundance.

Samier Mansur is a Research Scholar at the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James Madison University, Virginia, where he conducts research on Islam and contemporary issues of global peace and justice.


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