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My late father’s late brother’s late wife

  • Published at 07:57 pm March 12th, 2018
  • Last updated at 08:24 pm March 12th, 2018
My late father’s late brother’s late wife
I know him only by name and his face from a faded photograph that is lost now.  Like most members on my father’s side, he was tall, over six feet while my father was five feet eleven inches. In the photograph he was sitting on an easy chair on a steamer’s deck. He was on his way from Chandpur to Kolkata, the city where they would all collect to play out their many and so differing histories. He was not smiling in the picture but stared straight with a firm gaze from behind gold rimmed glasses. That’s all I have of him visually and I am glad I have at least that as the photograph is now gone and with it the history of this man is gone too. Scribbles of half lost memories of forgetful elders, now almost all dead, and stray fanciful explanations of those who heard about him from the elders. He died in 1944. He had swallowed a full glass of liquid opium one afternoon in my parent’s single bedroom apartment in Kolkata, after locking the door and telling my mother, his younger brother’s wife of a year or so only, not to disturb him as he wanted to sleep long. My chacha was a person of his time and class. As it sometimes happened in those days, the Devdas era, he crumbled and never recovered when the parents of the woman he loved, had rejected him as a groom. They were distant cousins actually and such a match would have been common back then. In terms of aristocratic pedigree, he was probably higher but that wasn’t somehow enough to secure a match. What had really happened I was never able to find out as the subject was a taboo topic in my family. My father never talked about it or I was not curious enough to ask him properly when he was alive. But I think while marriage between cousins was common then, all being part of the family, opposition to such marriages was common too, for the same reason I assume. Even as I write this piece I suddenly remember there was another suicide in my extended family.  The death news of the lady, who killed herself after having been denied marriage to a cousin, was conveyed to an uncle (who had wanted to marry her) after he returned home from work. As he sat still in shocked silence for hours, the light bulb above him exploded into bits and the shards showered on him like crushed petals on a groom. A few more names can be added to the list of such deaths in the family including a few much less gallant narratives.
He was in many ways a typical member of the bygone era, standing with a feeble lantern of decadent aristocracy in his hand.
Now that my parents are gone, I have wanted to write down whatever I can gather about my chacha before I myself depart.  It’s a strange and arresting tale remembered in patched-up anecdotes,  of cowardice and courage, promise of love and terrible despair and how families can get caught up in history which overwhelms them leaving only a few fading footprints behind. My chahca was like a signpost of transition as feudal Bengal crumbled and new combinations and classes were emerging. He was in many ways a typical member of the bygone era, standing with a feeble lantern of decadent aristocracy in his hand. In its light nobody could see the faces of a tall impoverished lovers, helpless and writhing in agony as the liquid opium he swallowed ate into his entrails for two days. Then he breathed his last in a hospital bed surrounded by his bewildered and no doubt outraged family members. A not so brief family tree narrative   The family that my father came from was one of those middling zamindar families located in rural East Bengal but who also took education because with every generation the estate became a little poorer and Muslim inheritance law shrank it some more. “There were no shortages but jobs were a big help. Salaries were often more than rents collected from increasingly impoverished peasants,” my father had explained, I am not sure whether with pride or despair. Education was always an escape route even for many zamindar family members. The first name on the genealogy of our family tree is of one Shah Pehlewan Shah.  Not much is known about him but the stories circulating in the locality hold that he arrived on the back of a large fish.  My opinion is that this version is a myth and I am not sure whether a Pehlewan Shah even existed or not. And if he did why would he ride a fish when other modes of transport were more convenient? Unless he was on a boat and it sank. My oldest brother who is very admiring of his family tree says that friendly “shushuk”, sweet water dolphins, helped him to reach the shore; I am not convinced however. But let it be. Pehlawan Shah seems like the name of a central Asian fortune hunter and to the simple-minded Bengali peasants he probably passed himself off as a holy man, too. The relationship between piety and free meals should never be ignored. The next name on the list is more believable, Asgar Munshi. The title means a man of some education and he obviously made his living using his literacy skills. Things start looking up as a couple of happy Munshis are noted down the line and even a few Bhuiyans are mentioned as cousins. But the man who is considered the seminal patriarch was one Monowar Miah.  He was probably the son of a well off trader. The area he had lived in before he became a Chowdhury is supposedly under the sea now.  When Miah arrived on the scene he had a lucky break of a seriously high density variety.
The relationship between piety and free meals should never be ignored.
One Danabibi Chowdhurani, a widow of the Raipur estate of what is now Lakshmipur district, lived a worried life marooned with two unmarried daughters and no son to inherit all this and that. My late dadi was the source of all this info as she finally found someone who cared about family history. But who cares if it’s true or not.  It’s not a bad story. Thus Monowar Miah, a freshly widowed man, became the new son-in-law, landed gentry and founder of the Miah bari and Keroa estate in Raipur, Noahkhali and the stories around the family grew from strength to strength with each telling. He was locally known as “Monu Miah” and a senior archivist of Dhaka University once showed me a bunch of folk songs on the faded pages of a Kolkata magazine, written in honour of Monu Miah while tracing the history of the area. Monu Miah bought many zamindaris and taluks and there is one reference that says when he gave one of his daughters away to the Ulania zamindar family of Barisal, he gifted a zamindari to pay for her pocket expenses. Starting from him, we are fifth or sixth descendant down the family line, not exactly sure. The loyal elephant of the dead man  My father, born in 1919, was with my grandfather when he had died in 1931 in Bhola where the main zamindari was. The family lore was that someone had angered some Pir and he cursed that no (Keroa) Chowdhury would ever live past 55. My grandfather was unwell that day and had lunch with magur fish and lay down tired after his meal. “He closed his eyes and his body shook once and he was gone,” my father who was with him remembered. Grandfather was 52.  With all due respect to the legendary curse, most members of the next generation lived well past 80 and my dad died at 88. Curses clearly have expiry dates. Carrying the dead body for burial from Bhola to Raipur wasn’t an easy task.  Meghna turned wild and the boat almost sank. But they made it finally, my dadi said, who feared losing a son as well, my father.  My grandfather’s elephant broke his chains and rushed to the ghat wailing, unable to bear the pain of his master’s death, which he came to know through some instinct. He tried to touch the body with his trunk and then followed the corpse to the burial ground trumpeting in heartbreak. After the burial, the elephant lay down on his regular spot next to the gate and never got up again. A week later, he was dead.  Years later, our relatives dug up the ivory and sold it to a wealthy collector of the new, rich Bangladesh.  They also sold two Ford T-20s that had been with the family for long and lay dead in the garage.  Elephants have a better sense of history than living close relatives of dead zamindars. The impoverished feudal  My chacha did get the proper degrees, sat for the Indian Railway Service exams and was about to join when his life took the wrong bus.  He was, according to my mother, flamboyant, educated, good looking and moved with a bunch of friends who like him spent money easily but unlike him had loads of it.
And just as India and Bengal were in turmoil and the world was engulfed in a global war, my chacha fell in love.
My uncle sold orchards, gardens, land and whatever he could to fund his lifestyle. He was like so many other Kolkata sons of decrepit zamindars who were not rich but wanted to live like one. I can’t name the lady he fell in love with, out of a sense of propriety as they are still here, socially very prominent and unlike my chacha, were very rich and still are. All this before my father married my mother. The white sheep and his black sheep brother My father was the opposite of my chacha. After grandfather’s death he was brought up by his elder sister, the eldest sibling. His dulabhai was first a college teacher and then an education bureaucrat and finally an editor. He was to become a formidable man in Pakistan media as the editor of Dawn and was totally loyal to Jinnah and Pakistan. He hated Indians and Hindus and Bengali nationalism, if not Bengalis.  Mr Naqvi, the Pakistani journalist, said when he found out my connection, “He was a Muslim League thug in a journalist garb.”  It summed him up well to many.  He was not embarrassed about being an Ideological Pakistan “thug.” My phupu was a gentler soul who lived her life to raise her children and look after her husband and bully junior relatives, particularly the females. She didn’t know a word of English and on big national occasions, my phupa made sure that there was always someone who could speak Urdu at the table she sat. To her there were only two languages in the world, Noakhailla Bangla and Urdu, the latter she barely understood and spoke terribly. To her, Bangla was local and Urdu was a foreign language. So she spoke Urdu with the rest of the world under the belief that every foreigner understood it. She died believing so. And just as India and Bengal were in turmoil and the world was engulfed in a global war, my chacha fell in love. They all lived in Kolkata. My mother told me that the end of the relationship meant the end of my chacha’s normal life. He dropped out from society and I am not sure but he probably began to drink heavily as well. Again, I am not sure if it was the Devdas style alcoholism but his friends who in later life became quite successful were a known group of well off upper-class Muslims. Wine would have been natural.  If after the breakup he drank more, it would be very normal. Thik na? My utterly sensible, plodding and straight-line dad, having got a job after graduation, didn’t finish his MA though he had completed his classes as they were war years and jobs were scarce. Initially, he had passed the interview but failed the physical test. He was found tall but underweight. “I was a sportsman but I was thin. The job rejection hit me hard. So I took to walking every day and at the end of the walk I would have four small roshogollas to gain weight.” It was a determined effort on the cheap.  But luck hadn’t deserted him entirely. The interview board chair, an Englishman, asked, “Where is that thin guy who had answered all the questions?” When they said he was found too thin for hiring to press home the point, he waived all objections and used his discretionary powers to hire him as an Assistant Inspector in Calcutta Metropolitan Police. My father’s life changed dramatically. Suddenly he could stop having four small rosogollas and had to wake up at four in the morning to do physical training. The next thought on my father’s mind was marriage like all good boys wanting to settle down. “But my older brother was not yet married. So I went to see him and ask when he planned to marry as I wanted to. He said, ‘I will never marry. You go ahead.’  My father, I think, was relieved. Words were spread through the family network. And soon a prospective bride was found.
The problem with family lore is that either those who knew are all dead as it is now, or one can never be sure the truth is being told. Slowly over time the myths and legends, imagination and wishful thinking, and hostilities – all gather to produce a new past.
The mysterious rejection of the tall groom But what happened to my jilted uncle and why was his proposal refused? The problem with family lore is that either those who knew are all dead as it is now, or one can never be sure the truth is being told. Slowly over time the myths and legends, imagination and wishful thinking, and hostilities – all gather to produce a new past. My mother said that my chacha had little money, the zamindari itself was nearly gone and the lady’s parents felt there could be a better match, someone with both blood and money. But if he had qualified for the railway service, he would have had a decent job, right? And even not so well off, zamindars had enough, right? No, reason says, something else was amiss and I am afraid we shall probably never know. The black hole in the tapestry of facts of a past no one remembers remains that way. “The witnesses have all died, My Lord.” My chacha mourned his rejection in a proper Kolkata fashion and did a trip to Yangoon too but returned to the city. As his brother married and became a householder he led an increasingly dissolute life but he was close to his brother’s wife’s family. My mother said that he loved to cook and was very friendly with her father –my nana – who did the same. “One day he came into the kitchen and I was cooking. He made no noise so I never noticed. I turned around and just saw his feet, he was watching me cook. I was so embarrassed and felt so shy that I just ran away from the kitchen.” What was he looking at and what was he looking for?? But one day he came and informed the family of a very strange development. He had indeed gotten married to a woman who was keeping him company for a while. Her name was Chapala. She was a “noti” (dancer? sex worker?) but now was his wife. And Chapala was a Hindu woman to boot, socially unacceptable to the family, particularly to my dadi, my chacha’s formidable mother. My parents luckless matchmakers and a demented nephew My parents’ match was made by two uncles, one from each side, who were pals. One was S Wajid Ali, the eminent author and editor from the Tajpur  Ali family who was my mother’s mama, and Lutfe Ali Chowdhury, my father’s chacha. Both had studied law at Cambridge Law School and became barristers and friends. S Wajid Ali was married when he went to London and Lutfe Ali was single. Both returned with English wives and ironically both their wives left them for others. In case of S Wajid Ali, it was his younger brother while Lutfe Ali’s wife ran away with an English lawyer. It didn’t end in marriage but she never returned home. Never formally divorced, she emerged years later to claim unsuccessfully a share of her late husband’s ancestral property. She never got any as it no longer existed. She had a demented nephew for a sidekick who after her death would stalk us violently insisting he be treated as a scion of the estate. One day he entered our Dilu Road home and attacked my mother. My father and brothers did the needful, as they say, and we drove him out and ended his futile jihad. Poor guy never knew how history had set him up.
And one day my uncle declared that he had married the woman he was seeing or living with, a “noti,” as they said.
Chapala’s brief arrival and his departure To my mother, he was the revered older brother of the husband. She was a bit in awe of his Kolkata ways, having never lived in Kolkata, raised in the gentler climes of Shillong where my nana did business. “He was very flamboyant, very dramatic, very unlike your father who was calm and never did anything wrong.” My father was straight in every way and hated his job as a policeman as he had to mix with criminals. He longed for a more “respectable” profession. It happened one day when he caught the thief who had stolen from the bedroom of the CEO of UCO Bank of India. It was the butler of course. A year later he was denied leave when his new born son was sick. He resigned and went to see Mr Thakur who hired him the same day. My father became a banker, the profession that began in 1945 and lasted till his death in 2007. And one day my uncle declared that he had married the woman he was seeing or living with, a “noti,” as they said. Now he was his legally married wife and he wanted to bring her home, which meant my father’s police flat. “Her name was Chapala, he had said, and I was very excited; I wanted to meet her. But on the day he was to bring his wife to us, my shwashuri also came to our house and they all sat waiting for him. The footsteps announced that he had arrived with his newly married wife and he began to knock on the door. “I wanted to run and go and welcome them in. I was so curious to see her but I also saw the glaring eyes of my husband and mother-in-law. I was merely one year into the family in an era when disobeying murubbis didn’t even cross the mind of a young bou. He kept on knocking on the door for a long time asking to be let in but it wasn’t opened. Then the steps began to fade away and that is something I still remember, the staircase falling silent again.” A few days later he was back as if nothing had happened. The same charming man as all knew.  Everyone was pleased seeing him that way. His wife was never mentioned. And one day he came in the afternoon complaining of a headache. “He said he wanted to sleep. He asked us not to disturb him. We were very quiet but then after a while, groaning sounds began to come from the room. “Dilu, (a family retainer), was with me who began to push at the door and it opened after a while. Your chacha was lying in a rumpled bed, his body twisted in pain. His clothes were not properly on him. Dilu started to scream. I started to cry. People from the next door came in and your father was finally informed. When he came in, your chacha was still alive. He was rushed to the hospital.” He left behind two letters and an empty glass out of which he had drunk liquid opium.  One said, “No one is responsible for my death.” The other was written to my father.  It said, “Chapala is my legally wedded wife. Please take care of her and let her see my body before burial.” Two days later he died in the hospital despite all those horrific stomach washes. The burial of the dead and its math My mother told me that my father was struck with great remorse and guilt at his brother’s death. He felt terrible about not letting them in or whatever. The family was still against any contact but my father went to see her. Obviously the address was no secret or maybe it was mentioned in the suicide note. But when the funeral ceremony was held at a place opposite which my parents lived, she was there accompanied by my father. I had asked my mother to describe her or Chapala’s reactions but she said, “Are you serious? In those days we could do nothing without permission of our murubbis and I was not permitted to go there. I just saw the crowd and nothing else.” Chapala has no face in my mind.
Chapala disappeared from history and nobody knows any more about her.
My older brother, the first born, has a few anecdotes to add. First, Chapala did come in one day to see him, a few months old, a few months after her husband died. And then Chapala with several relatives did follow the bier to the graveyard and stood near the gates as her husband was being laid down in the grave. “Did you ever talk to his sisters about it? “ “They said she was a Hindu, so no more could be said. “ Maybe a ‘‘Muslim noti’” would have been better but I am not sure. My chacha seems to have broken more taboo than the quota allowed even to the reckless. And he paid the ultimate price. What were you expecting? Chapala disappeared from history and nobody knows any more about her. How she was swallowed by the bowels of Kolakata’s underworld, underclass life is unknown to me at least. No contact, no connection and no memories to resurrect. Chapala is gone. Farewell to thee and all My father never talked again to any member of this very well off family, who rejected my uncle as a groom. I asked my mother about the lady whom my chacha had wanted to marry but nothing came out of it too. But one day many years ago, while walking through the Maghbazar area, an elderly man greeted my mother. My mother was polite, though embarrassed, but we ended up having tea in their well appointed sitting room. They seemed very happy conversing with my mother, though she was not fully at ease. Later after coming home, she told my father about the encounter. I remember my father’s silence. That was how I came to know which family it was. As the families were relatives, contacts were never entirely lost till they all settled in Kolkata. My mother met my chacha’s beloved several times after his death and also met her husband. He was also a cousin and had both pedigree and money. “A very unimpressive man, no comparison with your chacha. She was always putting him down. She was very attractive and dignified but he was nothing. I think it was a very unhappy marriage, I am sure.’’ That I don’t know but I am certain of where my mother’s loyalty lay. Goodbye Boro chacha, Chapala chachi. Goodbye abbi, ammi and the rest of them all. Farewell and apologies for not having been there.
 Afsan Chowdhury is a multi-media journalist, historian and litterateur. His most well-known fiction is Biswasghatokgon. He has also written an acclaimed four-volume history of Bangladesh’s Liberation War.