Last night my Dadi died. I got the call from my parents at 11.13pm. I missed it. I called back straight away and my brother answered after the seventh or eighth ring. My dad crying in the background confirmed my fears, but it still shocked me when Rafi said the words: “Dadi died.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I don’t know exactly how old my Dadi was, but it was bordering on or even over 100. Every time I’ve gone to Bangladesh in the last ten years, I’ve left in the knowledge that it could very well be the last time I saw her alive. Despite her diabetes, poor eyesight and failing mind, she was still quite fit for a woman of her age, and it was hard to miss her presence on the farm; but at that age, death is always imminent.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. For the last two months I’d been planning a trip to Bangladesh in December, specifically to record oral histories. I’ve heard so many of her incredible stories, and I wanted to document them so that others could hear them too. About how she was married at 11, and had six children before she was 22, all of them dying before they reached 1 week of age. About how my Dadu loved her so, so much, that he never wanted her to have to work even around the house. About how he gave all his money to the poor in the village, and so there was barely enough for them to eat and no money to send the five surviving children that she bore to school; and so she had to sneak out of the house when he was away to work as a servant in other people’s houses so that she could give her sons an education (she was a fierce patriarch too, but I’ll get to that). Many of her stories would seem banal and mundane to a lot of people; like the time when someone stole her chicken’s eggs and laughed about it behind her back, or the times that people gave her the evil eye because they were jealous of her – “hinksha!” was a word that came out of her mouth often. But they are stories that are etched into her skin, and I wanted to record them side by side. I wanted to take proper portrait photographs of her, and try and imagine what she would have looked like when she was younger. Many people in the village have told me that I look like she did when she was young, but my mum always scoffed at that and made sure I knew that my Dadi was a thousand times more beautiful than I ever could be.
Even just in the last week I’ve spoken to so many people about this trip. I missed my Dadi so much. I missed Bangladesh so much. I knew it would be close to impossible to actually go in December; the country is already in political turmoil and with the elections scheduled for December it was always going to be incredibly risky and dangerous to go. I can’t remember a time I’ve been to Bangladesh in the last 15 years where there wasn’t an element of risk, but while usually the riots and strikes are most volatile in the capital, this time our little rural area in the north-west is just as dangerous to pass through let alone visit. But I was determined to make it happen after my December 2012 trip never came to fruition.
The last time I saw her was in February 2011. It was the first and only time Will got to meet her. That trip, she asked how long it took to get from Sydney to Shimulbari. Would we be able to make it in time for her funeral? I was dumbstruck. My dad assured her that we would be able to, but she had a wry smile on her face that indicated that she wasn’t going to get her hopes up. I told her I would do my best to make it to the funeral. On the car ride to my parents’ house last night, I talked through my plans with Will. I had to contact the unit co-ordinator for the subject I had on Tuesdays to find replacements for my three tutorials. I had to email the 12 students I had meetings scheduled with on Thursday to post-pone them til next week. I had to pack, and get my passport ready. That’s when I remembered that I didn’t have a passport. I’d sent in my passport renewal application form last week, and I wouldn’t have a new one for another four or five days. In the meantime, I was stuck in Australia. Even if I got an emergency passport, it would take a while to arrange a visa for Bangladesh – being born in Bangladesh, I’m exempt from needing a visa, but you need to get that exemption from the High Commission in Canberra. My old passport had the exemption, but my new passport wouldn’t. By the time I arranged all of that, my grandma would be buried. I didn’t even know if they would wait for my dad to arrive before they buried her, let alone me.
When I got to my parents’ house I could hear my dad sobbing uncontrollably. My mum and brother were there, of course; so was Liza Aunty, our family friend who lived across the road, with her two oldest children. Soon Zakir Uncle, Yaseen’s dad, arrived. We all tried to console my dad. It is harrowing to see your father like that, lying on the ground in the fetal position, repeating over and over again “Why did you struggle so much, ma? Why did you make your life so hard, just for us?” and “I did nothing for you.” We responded telling him that he did so much for her and she knows it, but that what she needs now is our du’a, our prayers, that that’s all we can do for her now and that’s all she wants from us. I don’t think he heard anything we said. My mum was worried he would have a stroke or something so we fanned him, put cold towels on his head, and forced him to drink water. We tried to get him into bed but the best we could do was get him to half sit on the ground with his head resting on the bed.
In the meantime, there were a thousand other things to do. There was Qur’an to be read and flights to be booked. Liza Aunty called Mohib Uncle, who is a travel agent, to ask him advice about flights. Even though it was midnight they were happy to help. It is times like this that you really appreciate how important community is, especially for people who have left their entire families behind. My mum finally managed to get in touch with my uncles in Bangladesh. They had tried for half an hour to reach my parents, but the phone kept cutting out every time my dad picked up. My mum said he had gotten frantic, realising that something terrible must have happened but unable to do anything about it. Eventually my mum called her own mum in Nilphamari, which is the town about an hour and a half from my dad’s village. My Nani could not believe that they hadn’t heard the news – “tomra khobor shunu ni?” – and my mum thought she meant maybe it was news about the country, that there’d been a coup or the military had shot hundreds of protesters dead or there was a full-fledged revolution going on.
My mum was not able to contact my dad’s relatives until after I got there. My relatives in Dhaka were stranded there; there was a hortal (general strike) on and the country was shut down. There are varying levels of hortals; I’ve been in Bangladesh during the strictest of hortals, and also fairly lax hortals where it was possible to get around towns or even between towns without incident. This hortal was serious. People were burning and bombing buildings and setting any cars that tried to get around on fire. People with money sometimes got around this by hiring ambulances to take them across the city – my uncle and aunt did this on their wedding day six or seven years ago – but they couldn’t hire an ambulance to take them across the country for 10 hours. If even they couldn’t get to Shimulbari from Dhaka, how were my parents going to be able to? There was no guarantee that even my Dhaka relatives, including my dad’s oldest brother, would be able to make it to Shimulbari in time for the funeral, as in keeping with Islamic tradition it is vital that the dead be buried as soon as possible.
It is very, very unlikely that my parents will be able to make it for the funeral; they caught the earliest flight out this morning, but they won’t get to Dhaka til 8pm. We are praying that the hortal is called off tonight so that they can catch an overnight coach across the country, or tomorrow morning at the latest, but it’s just too unpredictable. I don’t know what they will do if the hortal continues. I think they might risk it anyway, and I’m terrified for them. They won’t be able to even get to my mum’s oldest brother’s house, where they normally stay, because their is a BNP office right next door to them, and those are the kinds of offices that are being targeted right now. I know that even if I had a passport, there is no way that my parents would have let me go with them. My dad was adamant that even my mum stay at home, but he was in no state to travel alone.
So this is what we were trying to figure out while my dad grieved for his mother. By now Runu Aunty and Mamun Uncle, two of my dad’s closest and oldest friends had arrived, driving all the way from Wattlegrove. Soon after they were able to convince my dad to get up to make wudu, and start looking at the flight options Mohib Uncle had suggested. I was sent to pack my parents’ bags and organise their travel documents. It was 1am and my dad was more lucid now, although still very dazed and finding it hard to comprehend things. Rafi, Will and I ran around trying to do things to keep busy. By 2am my parents had booked their flights. My dad had accepted that my mum would travel with him. He seemed calmer. I always thought that grief aged you, and maybe it does in time; but last night my dad looked like a boy. He was the youngest son; he had a younger sister, but my Dadi being a patriarch had no time for girls. She doted on my dad. He was always her baby. Him migrating to Australi was the hardest thing that happened to her, I think. Someone once told her that Australia was to the East, and ever since then she could not stare East without becoming teary at the thought of my father. One day about fifteen years ago, someone in the village had a baby and they gave him the same name as my father. My Dadi flew into one of her famous rages, and went and rebuked the family until they changed their son’s name. She was worried that all her prayers would go to their son, instead of to my dad. She had a reputation in the village for her rages, but in her old age they were responded to with affection rather than fear or anger.
Even though she loved boys the best, especially my brother as he was the only son of her youngest son, she loved me too, because I was my dad’s daughter and I lived so far away. She had no time for her granddaughters or her daughters, otherwise. On the farm used to live my dad’s middle brother, his wife, his two sons and one daughter before they moved away for university. My Dadi always made a point of boiling eggs for the grandsons, but never for the granddaughter, a tradition she carried on from her own children. When Will met her, she liked him very much, primarily because he was male. I had been apprehensive about how she would react to a white son-in-law, but she took it completely in stride. The first thing she said when she saw him was “He’s very white.” My dad explained how Will used to be Christian and then became Muslim, like many generations ago her ancestors had converted to Islam too. She nodded and then asked if Will ate pork. We said no. She was pleased with this answer and accepted Will fully from then on. She always called him by the name he adopted when he converted, Salah’uddin; or rather the Banglafied version, “Saladin.” Nobody else calls Will this. My dad did in the beginning, but stopped early on. Before every meal my Dadi would yell “Saladin!” in her shrill, old voice, to make sure he was fed. She was certain we weren’t feeding him properly. One morning, I got up before Will and I was in the kitchen sitting on a stool, eating breakfast. Dadi came in and asked where Saladin was. I said he was still sleeping. She looked at me reproachfully, and asked: “You’re eating before Saladin?!” In her eyes, the men should always eat first, and then the women. It is bizarre to me how someone who I view as being one of the strongest, most fearsome and most powerful woman I know, could be such a misogynist. Even though as she aged she oversaw less and less of the farm’s matters, she was always the head of the household to me. She was the epitome of a matriarch. It’s also bizarre to me how someone who disliked women so much could raise children who have always believed so strongly in their daughters being able to achieve anything that their sons could.
A photo of my Dadi with my brother Rafi, when she saw him for the first time the last time we visited.
Added story from Will: One time we were eating jambura (a variety of grapefruit, I think) from the tree above the kitchen. We cut the flesh and mixed it with salt, sugar and fresh chilli, and distributed it around to everyone who was there. This was while taking a break from scaling and gutting fish that had been caught from the pond a few hundred metres down the road. I offered some to my Dadi who was still crushing small fish into a paste, and she waved me away in annoyance, yelling “I don’t have time to eat jambura!” while sideyeing the rest of us for being lazy. I really wish I had recorded her voice at some stage, because it is even more hilarious when you imagine her saying it in her strong dialect and squawking, screechy voice. This is a photo of her with the fish.
And a photo of the jambura.
Photo from the catching of the fish.
My parents left this morning at 5.45am. We managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep before they departed. I stupidly left our contact lens cases and solution at home; it didn’t even occur to me. We slept with them in. When we said goodbye to my parents, my dad seemed much more composed. I noticed that the bags they were taking were different to the ones I’d packed, so my mum must have stayed up fixing them. It was so hard to see him last night but I’m glad he got to let it all out. He is very ‘norom’/soft – sometimes it is used pejoratively, and it’s been used that way to describe me, as being too soft and sensitive. But I am glad my dad is so soft-hearted, because it means that he is one of the most compassionate and kind men that I know and I admire him deeply for that. Last night, towards the end, he kept repeating (and this is a very rough translation that doesn’t quite capture how heart-wrenching it is) “I went and showed you your grave” or “I left after showing you your grave.” My mum later explained that when they visited my Dadi in December, my Dadi had wanted to be shown her grave site. My dad was reluctant but she insisted, and he went and pointed out where she was to be buried, next to my Dadu who died 24 years prior. She talked to the people at the masjid next door about what she wanted done, what trees she wanted planted on her grave. She had the opportunity to get her affairs in order, and she was content in that knowledge. But I know that my dad will never forget that the last time he saw her alive he showed her where her grave was to be. My dad is a poet, and he takes such things to heart.
This morning after my parents left I slept for another couple of hours, then woke up to call my mum’s boss to let her know she wouldn’t be coming to work for two weeks. Then I slept again, woke in the late morning and brought in my parents’ washing. I took the 6 containers of leftover curries and 5-6kg of fruit and veg in the fridge to Liza Aunty because the three of us couldn’t finish it on our own. It’s strange how life and routine keep going on even after a death.
Before my parents left, I asked my mum if she knew how Dadi had died. Was she sick? Had she gone to hospital? My mum said no; she was particularly lucid yesterday. She walked around the farm, talked to people, prayed and ate well. One minute she was fine and the next she was gone. I am so glad that she didn’t suffer. I am sad, of course, but since she had to pass away, I’m glad it was like this. She was somewhere around 100 years old, she had lived a long life and raised five children. She saw her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, and even her great-great-grandchildren. She got to see four generations that had come from her. That is a privilege that the majority of us will never experience.
Please make du’a for her soul. She had her quirks and her rages and her pettiness, but she was also a very devout, God-fearing woman who worked hard and struggled her whole life for her children. She had never left Bangladesh, and had only even traveled to Dhaka a handful of times, so she never made it to hajj, but she also never missed a prayer and always fasted when she was well and able. She gave zakat without fail.
Please also make du’a that my parents reach Shimulbari soon and come back to Australia unharmed.
Thank you for reading and I apologise for the poor writing and spelling and all that, but I wanted to write it as soon as I was able.
This is the only photo I have of my Dadi where she was smiling. In Bangladesh it’s considered ‘immature’ to smile in photos. Although that’s changing now in many places, it’s still the case in many rural areas. She’s smiling in this photo because it’s candid. Her smile was fantastic – she had a great and often wry sense of humour, and a wicked toothless smile. I am going to miss it a lot.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raj’iun.