A few months before her passing at the age of eighty-six, Begum Shamsunnahar—grandmother—handed me a Bangla book of modest word count, half its pages filled with pictures. It was her debut as an author. Her autobiography.
On the cover was a picture of her on her marriage day. Her face was blank, verging on somber. Dressed in a neatly pressed sari, the watch on her left wrist hinting at her family’s affluence, my grandmother looked both young and old.
One of nine brothers and sisters in a prosperous family, Begum Shamsunnahar was born in Narsingdi District in 1932. Her father worked for the government, and their peripatetic lifestyle would see them move around the country. This would become a theme in Shamsunnahar’s life.
One day, in her teens, she noticed that something was afoot in her household, a low-simmering excitement of which she was not a part. It was eventually revealed to her that her uncle had found a prospective groom for her. A young man of twenty-three from a good family. He had a BA Honors from Dhaka University and was working as sub-inspector of police. Shamsunnahar’s father agreed that such a match was too good to let go. She was told that the young man, Abu Taleb, would come to see her the following week. Shamsunnahar would be “inspected”.
Although on the day her brother-in-law would suggest that she wear a pink sari, this was later changed to white so as to best highlight her features.
“But I didn’t lower my eyes,” she recalls in her biography. “I didn’t cover my hair either.”
Abu Taleb, my future grandfather, arrived with a friend who worked in the railways. They examined my grandmother carefully, paying particular attention to her hair, her legs. They spent some time on her feet for Abu Taleb had a sister-in-law with toes that were merged together.
Eventually satisfied, Abu Taleb sat back down. He presented his left profile to her. “Look closely, the hair on this side is already turning white. Is that acceptable to you?”
“Why don’t you ask me something?” He offered generously.
She thought about it. “How much is your salary?”
“A hundred taka a month,” he said. A handsome sum in the day.
It was agreed that they would be married that evening. A cleric was called to pronounce the marriage. A hasty feast arranged. Dowry paid. Neighbors were invited. Abu Taleb left to report to his station the following day.
My grandmother was fourteen years old.
The nomadic beginnings of her life would follow her into marriage. Abu Taleb was a man of short temper but unshakeable principles; he wouldn’t and couldn’t be bribed. This moral intransigence meant being shipped around the country by frustrated colleagues and supervisors, year after year. Young Shamsunnahar did the best she could to manage a household under the circumstances. At the age of sixteen (the same age my daughter is now) Shamsunnahar would have her first child: a healthy baby girl named Rosy. My mother.
Over the years she would have nine children—five boys and four girls. These happy events were punctuated by several miscarriages and stillbirths. These my grandmother rarely talked about, and only briefly mentions in her biography.
Her debut, delicately and introspectively dictated to a journalist over the course of a year, is a brief but rich read whose taste lingers long after finishing. Among many anecdotes that range from funny to sad to poignant, my grandmother recalls wanting to learn to sing. When she expressed that wish to her husband, he immediately bought her a harmonium and appointed a vocal coach. She mentions being nervous about cutting fish heads until a kindly neighbor showed her how. She remembers the shock on her English obstetrician’s face when she saw how young she was, the occasions (twice) when a child of hers nearly drowned while she was attending to chores, of housekeepers addicted to opium, of doing her best to help the starving poor during the famine of 1943, when people were literally dying at her doorstep.
Her own education cut off at a young age, Shamsunnahar lived vicariously through her children, each of whom would go on to at least finish college, and establish themselves in industry, commerce, law, medicine, the arts, and teaching. She was immensely proud of them, as she was of her numerous grandchildren, and a smattering of great grandchildren.
I was one of those lucky many who received her care as a child and her wise counsel and support as an adult. My fondest memories of her were of spending time at the great, mica-topped table that dominated her dining room, upon which, until the final years, she would always set the feasts she had prepared for me. I had settled abroad you see, and my visits were rare and brief.
She was always a touchstone back home, someone I could call and just as soon ask for recipes of my favorite dishes and lament the state of the Bangladeshi cricket team.
I would call her at least once a week from Canada, but in December of last year life was getting in the way and I found myself putting off my weekly phone call. My grandmother had always been there for me and always would be. So what were a few more days?
I last spoke to her on my birthday, not knowing that the very next day she would have to go to hospital for recurring gallstones. She would pass a month later, due to complications from surgery, a time during which she was entirely in the ICU while I, helpless, could only wait for updates from her sons and daughters, who were there with her until her final moments.
That day when my grandmother gave me her book, I saw that she had signed it for me, writing my name in neat Bangla on the title page, calling me her “beloved grandson”. I flipped through it, made appreciative sounds and congratulated her on her achievement, impatient to move on and tell her about all the book festivals I had visited over the months, all the publications from which I had garnered praise, the fact that my novel had made the cover of The New York Times Book Review.
Unlike me, my grandmother had listened to what I had to say with careful and unfeigned interest, and when I finished, her praise was as warm and unstinting as ever. “Arif, you have become a very great person indeed,” she said, before going to the kitchen to make me some tea. It would be the last time I saw her alive.
It is a measure of the comforts and protections that our grandparents extend to us that we so take them for granted. Begum Samsunnahar’s life was richer and more interesting than that of any character’s I could dream up. It loomed over mine like a great front yard oak, and whatever success my book has earned could have only bloomed in the sweetness of her shade. During the month she was in the ICU, she would never be in a state when I could tell her this, or that there was no acclaim that I could garner in this world, no plaudit I could earn that could eclipse her achievement, that compared to my novel, her slim biography, dense with pictures and memories, would always be the greater work. In the forty-two fortunate years I had with the world’s greatest grandmother, that is my only regret.
Arif Anwar is a Bangladeshi-Canadian author who has written the internationally acclaimed novel, The Storm.