Secular ideals begin at home
For me and the rest of my family, December 25 holds special significance, since apart from celebrating Christmas, it’s the birthday of my grandmother -- who will be 100 this Christmas.
Aging gracefully, she still has a hearty appetite for mangoes, and can differentiate between Himsagar, Gopalbhogh, Fazli, and Amrapali.
In fact, Christmas has always been special because of the birthday of the family’s matriarch, who has had a profound impact on the lives of her children and of course, the grandchildren, which includes myself.
For us, nanur basha was the centre of all excitement, some legitimate, many a little on the shady side. In fact, the house, which still stands as possibly one of the few remaining ones in apartment-filled Elephant Road, has always been, and still is, a place which never disappoints in offering some much-needed thrill.
My grandmother, wife of a policeman, the understanding in our area was the woman of the house was the real policeman, not the man. There’s, of course, a reason for such perception. Grandmother had always been a fiery, uncompromising, and a belligerent character.
I thought on her landmark birthday, some of her anecdotes can be shared with the readers.
A secular mind throughout
A student of Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta, she and her sisters grew up with very liberal mindsets and therefore, never fostered any bigoted ideas. Even in her 60s, she could recite witty aphorisms from Khonar Bochon and recite the Charge of the Light Brigade.
In the mid-70s, when we became ill, the inevitable place was her home and to be honest, we looked forward to getting sick because her house gave us independence. I do not know if today’s children are read Thakurmar Jhuli to them, but those memories of her reading me stories of monsters and evil warlords are embedded in my mind.
I do not remember her castigating us for breaking anything because she used to dismiss such accidents saying: “What’s gone is gone, no use crying over it.”
However, when she found cigarette ash on my bed, she did not flinch in taking out the police hunter baton to give me a lesson. For her, smoking was a cardinal sin.
Never mess with a policeman’s wife
To recall the stern sides to her nature, one event from the mid-80s comes to mind. At that time, we had a teenage girl working as domestic help, and by the law of the house, all female staff had to sleep by her door, so she could keep a close eye on them to prevent any possible transgressions.
Anyway, one girl slipped out and disappeared -- a few days later, a local grocery shop owner came and told my grandmother that he had spotted the girl, in full make-up, inside the house of a neighbour.
At that time, we didn’t take any notice of it, but one day, after coming from school, found police surrounding the neighbour’s home, grandmother sitting in the drawing room, baton in hand, with the neighbours, an elderly couple, asking impassioned forgiveness, sitting at her feet. It was revealed that the couple lured the girl away and persuaded her to work as a sex worker. The girl was saved, a quick marriage arranged, and sent back to the village.
To my friends, a living terror
With my grandfather dead, it was up to her to look after and maintain a fairly large home with several tenants and shops. In doing so, she adopted a fierce attitude.
“Toto’r nanu ailo,” was enough to disperse people, including local hoodlums, goons, and thugs. Toto is my nickname by the way.
She was also a champion shooter of the Rajshahi Women’s Shooting Club during the time my grandfather was posted there, and played bridge up to her seventies.
Once, when we were in university, one of my friends accidentally came face-to-face with her at the gate. In complete terror, he ran with my grandmother shouting after him. Believe me, instead of running out of the gate, which was open, my friend jumped over the wall. Later, he told me that he had climbed the wall fearing that my grandmother had sent someone to grab him.
Being the precocious kind, once I picked up a strip of empty birth control pills from somewhere, put it in my pocket, and promptly forgot about it. The item was found by the maid washing my trousers who dutifully gave it to my grandmother.
Coming back from school, found her knitting a sweater with the empty strip placed in front of her. In rage, she asked, “tor pocket e birth control pill keno?”
Stammering, I somehow concocted a quick answer that the trouser belonged to my friend. I realized that she did not believe me. From then on, my grandmother formed the notion that I was always up to something dodgy.
She still maintains that belief, asking me probing questions every time I go for a visit. Her first line to my wife was: “Khobordar! Do not trust him!”
I could go on and on about nanu and my escapades in her home. Actually, a book on her would be the best idea. Until I write it, these anecdotes will have to suffice.
Christmas and nanu’s birthday make the year’s end spectacular. She will be 100 years old on Tuesday, and to all my friends, nanu is still alive and kickin’, and don’t worry, the baton is retired, so come and visit any time.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.