A tribute to Jahanara Imam
(Translated from Bangla by Zaynul Abedin)
It was about 9 o’clock at night and I was busy writing something when my second daughter came running to me, and said, “Baba, one very renowned person has just phoned, asking for you!”
I saw my daughter’s face glittering with excitement. I was a little surprised. It’s not that renowned people did not call me. Then why was my daughter so excited?
“Baba, I hope you won’t have me tell her that you aren’t at home. You’ve a strange habit to say it even when you are in.”
“Who has phoned, my dear?” I asked.
My daughter replied in a whisper, “Jahanara Imam.”
“But why are you saying it in a whisper?”
“Baba, when she identified herself as Jahanara Imam, I felt so nervous that I forgot to greet her with salaam.”
“It has been a great mistake. Let’s see what we can do about it.”
Picking up the phone, I said, “My daughter forgot to greet you with salaam, so she is very ashamed of herself. Would you be so kind as to forgive her? She is now standing just by me as I speak.”
I could hear the sound of her laughter from the other side of the telephone. And she said, “But I have called to reproach you for something.”
“Please go ahead.”
“I think I must say it, no matter how you react.”
“I am waiting with fright to hear you out.”
“Why do you write for the magazines of those who work against the spirit of the Liberation War? I know a lot of writers do this. But why on earth would you?”
She was speaking in a quiet voice but in unequivocal terms.
I was a little taken aback, for I had not foreseen that the attack would come from her side. I had some reasons, though, for contributing to those magazines. I believe the reasons were not feeble either. I tried explaining them to her, which apparently irked her all the more. She told me in no uncertain terms, “I have read some sequels of your Misir Ali series. I know you are apt to come up with good arguments. But I am not willing to listen to any of them. You have to promise me that you won’t write for their magazines. You are a son of a liberation war martyr. You have also penned the famous slogan ‘Tui Razakar’ (Thou a traitor). Promise me you won’t write for their magazines anymore.”
I do not easily yield up to influence. But that night I did, and said to her, “I promise I won’t write for them anymore. Now tell me if your anger has abated a little.” She burst out laughing, chortling like young girls in a way that would leave the grown-ups embarrassed.
I now complained, “I have always noticed you use aapni* while addressing me. When you do so, I feel distant. Please use tumi with me.” She agreed, “Okay, I will. I will do it from now on.”
But she never used tumi. Every time I had reminded her of it, she said she would. But she ended up using aapni. Perhaps she could never consider me one of her close aides.
My mother was very close to her, so was my younger brother Zafar Iqbal. She even referred to Zafar in her writings. Every time his name came up in conversations where she was present, she would express her delight effusively. She would treat only me with such coldness. Perhaps she thought that I was evading the great movement she had been spearheading. I was one of the 101 members who had initiated the movement in the form of Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (the Committee for cleansing the murderers who had collaborated with the Pakistan army in 1971). For some mysterious reason, my name was nowhere to be seen as the movement was gaining momentum. I was becoming more and more distant from it. So, she had every right to be cold with me. It was only natural.
She called me on another occasion, her voice subdued and indistinct. I asked if she was feeling unwell.
“No. I am fine. I have phoned to talk about something,” she replied.
“Please go ahead.”
“You know we need a lot of money for the movement we’ve been waging. We have to depend solely on people’s contributions. You have to contribute a fixed amount of money to our cause.”
“Of course I will.”
“I am sending someone to you. Please pay him this month’s subscription.”
“Okay, I will. But how much should I pay?”
“Give as much as you can afford. Could you contribute two thousand takas a month?”
Later a person came and collected the first monthly subscription. For the next two months, he was nowhere to be seen. I felt sad. I thought it was probably decided that they would not collect any more subscription from me. In the third month, she called me and said, “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you paying your monthly subscription?”
Very politely I said, “But nobody came to collect it.”
“I don’t have a lot of people working for me. How could I send someone? Why don’t you bring it by yourself? You live on the Elephant Road, only two minutes’ away from where I live.”
“I will be there in a while. Oh before I forget, let me tell you: I have a bone to pick with you. Let me first arrive at your place, and then we will talk about it.”
Surprised, she said, “But I do not make head or tail of it.”
“You will understand as soon as I arrive.”
“No. Please tell me now.”
“My eldest daughter has thick and luxuriant hair. You are her role model. So she likes your short hair and she’s had her hair cut short as the first step towards becoming just like you!”
“Please come by and see it for yourself.”
She laughed like young girls again, and said, “Please tell your daughter I like long hair a lot. When I was her age, I had long hair cascading past my knees. I have a photograph, which I will show her some day. I have had my hair cut short for the cancer I have been fighting. My hair was falling off due to chemotherapy. What else could I do?”
Once she expressed her willingness to visit us. She said she would spend some time talking to my daughters, for she wanted to mingle with them. She came in a car that we had sent. Our house overflowed with joy. Just like the stars orbiting around the sun, my daughters revolved around her. She told them of her childhood. I wanted to join them but she said, “Please do not come near here. You are not allowed to be here.”
The news of her arrival had already spilled out of our house and onto other flats in the building. Children began to appear in groups. They wanted their fair share of her stories.
My wife got busy, contemplating the food choices, but she was not sure about what exactly she should offer such a great person. She might not touch anything outside her regimen.
But she reassured my wife she would not leave without eating something. Then she added she might taste a few slices of ripe papaya, assuming we had some in the kitchen.
We had no ripe papayas at that time, so I sallied forth to buy some. As soon as I stepped out of the lift on the ground floor, a man said excitedly, “You won’t believe it! Jahanara Imam has come to pay a visit to some flat in our building.”
His ebullience melted my heart. This mother figure had secured a place within such a short time in the hearts of so many people.
The news of her death was broken to me by Asaduzzaman Noor.
The cassette player was on at that time. My daughters were listening to John Denver’s “The Colorado Rocky Mountain High.” The cassette player stopped all on a sudden. My daughters entered their rooms and locked the doors behind them. Now that Jahanara Imam was no more among us, my mother asked me if the movement would continue. I replied, “We have no second Jahanara Imam. One Jahanara Imam was born and now she is gone. But somebody will certainly turn up. Let us wait.”
My mother sat on her jainamaz.
I was sitting alone on the veranda. I felt that a profound sense of desolation was accumulating in my heart. I felt I had made a great mistake: I could not express how much love and respect I had always had for her. The only consolation I had was that she could certainly feel our profound love and respect from the other side of life. She would certainly understand we were always beside her. How could it be possible that the children of the Mother of Bangladesh would not be beside her?
No more will she be able to leave her footprint on the holy soil of Bangladesh. However, those working against the spirit of the Liberation War should have nothing to exult at the news. She kindled an eternal flame in the heart of the nation. No matter how enormous the storm, that flame will continue burning. How fortunate we are that she was born in this country!
*Aapni and tumi distinction signifies the level of formality, politeness and prestige in Bangla language. Aapni is used to address older people as a mark of honor and also in formal situations while tumi is used informally.
[This is a translation of “Tini” from Atmajaibanik Rachanashamagra (A collection of autobiographical writings) by Humayun Ahmed, edited by Meher Afroz Shaon and published by Pratik]
Zaynul Abedin teaches English at the University of Dhaka.