Remembering Razia Begum, a remarkable woman
My mother Razia Begum, who I called Ammu, passed away on August 25, 2019 at age 96.
She lived a full and fulfilling life. She was a loving wife and a devoted mother who raised six children. She was proud of their achievements but was never tired of trying to improve their performance and conduct.
In 1996, at an international conference on Bangladesh which I organized at Columbia University, when Professor Amartya Sen complimented her by saying: “Apni chhoy shantan manush korechhen,” Ammu’s quick response was “Aami oder boro kore diyechhi, manush korte perechhi kina janina” (I raised them but I do not know whether I was able to make them proper human beings).
She was an adventurous person who trekked in the Alps with me when she was in her 60s. In her 70s she went with me to the open air concert of Paul Simon at the Central Park in New York where more than a million people thronged.
She had tremendous curiosity and was always eager to learn new things and expose herself to new experiences. I was amazed by her capacity to grow continuously and adapt to changing situations.
She was religious but the opposite of bigoted and narrow-minded, a person of deep faith and spirituality. She loved life in all its dimensions.
In the last 10 years of her life, when she was wheelchair-bound, she found joy in watching plants grow, flowers bloom, and birds making nests.
When her doctors asked her how she was doing, Ammu invariably asked them in return how they were doing. Her doctors were amazed and told me that she was the only patient who enquired about their health.
Ammu had a traditional upbringing befitting her times. She was home-schooled and was married to my father (Abbu) Ahmadullah at age 14, gave birth to her first child at age 16, and left her village in Noakhali to live in various districts of West Bengal where my father was posted as an official of the Bengal Civil Service.
After partition in 1947, my parents lived in various districts of East Bengal. Five other children were born, and finally at Ammu’s insistence my father built a house on Elephant Road in Dhaka in 1957, a place she called her home.
After her marriage when they lived in West Bengal, Ammu was exposed to Bangla literature and people from different cultures. Ammu shared Abbu’s passion for reading, and she developed a superb skill in writing, expressing herself in lucid and nuanced style which is testified by the two books she later authored in her early 80s.
Her command over Bangla language and literature would put many graduates of Bangla literature to shame. I always wondered how she could write such literary Bangla without any formal schooling!
Growing up as a child and young adult, I perceived Ammu mainly as a mother. Only after Abbu’s premature death in 1971, when I began to spend more time with her, I could see the woman in her.
She was a superb mother, ever present at home, bidding her children goodbye when they left and welcoming them back when they returned always with a smile.
The routine never varied all through my years at home or even when she was a visitor to my home in Kuala Lumpur, Geneva, and New York.
She was the pre-school teacher of six of her children. None of us siblings ever went to kindergarten or primary school. Ammu taught us Bangla, English, and maths, and we were first admitted to government schools at class III or class IV.
These days I hear pre-school is critical to a child’s later development. Ammu did an outstanding job as a pre-school teacher preparing all six of her children to excel in their studies.
Three of her children earned PhD degrees from Harvard (Rounaq), Berkeley (Kabir), and Iowa (Karim), and three earned Master’s degrees from Chicago (Roushan), Boston (Nilufar), and Indiana (Munir).
Abbu took over tutoring responsibilities from Ammu when we were admitted to school. But Ammu remained a life-long teacher, specializing in our character building.
To drive home a point, she would always use a proverb. Since I was quick tempered, the proverb she frequently repeated for my benefit was: “Mukher kotha aar haater tir, ekbar chhurle aar pherot ashe na (what you say is like an arrow, once you throw it, it cannot be recalled).
Alas, even to this day I remember Ammu’s proverb a bit late, after I have already thrown many arrows!
Ammu came from a zamindar family. I often made fun of her feudal background. But over the years, I began to appreciate some of her feudal values.
She did not much care for having a lot of money but valued a life with dignity, good manners, and grace. Earning the love and respect of people was for her a high priority.
She was always happy when she would hear from my students that they remembered my classes. She regretted that I left Dhaka University to go abroad and would forever tell me: “At least you did one good thing in your life, you taught those students in Dhaka University and they will always remember you.”
Ammu changed many of my binary views about women: Traditional versus modern, feminist versus non-feminist.
In the first article I wrote in 1973, to illustrate a point about women’s loss of agency, I highlighted the fact that many women were not called by their own names but as the mother of their children. But much later in my life, I discovered to my astonishment that Ammu actually preferred to be called a mother and not by her name.
When my non-Bengali friends would try to address her by her name she would say: “Call me Ammu.” With great pride she would go around and say: “Now I have become the Ammu of everybody at Columbia University.”
Pride in being a mother did not prevent her from establishing her own agency. When she lived with me in New York from 1999 to 2005 she had some free time and started writing her memoirs.
Words came easily to her. On her own initiative she began publishing poems and articles in newspapers and magazines published in New York. Then she became even more enthusiastic. Her first book, titled Smiritir Janala (Windows on my Memories), was published in 2003 when she was 80.
The book, chronicling her life and times from the 1930s to 1971, is a perceptive piece of social history written from the perspective of a homemaker who lived in various districts of West and East Bengal. I had often thought it could be used as a text in the gender studies courses.
Her second book, titled Dairir Pata Theke (Pages from my Diary) was published in 2007. It is a travelogue with wonderful description of the various places in South and Southeast Asia, Middle East, Europe, and North America where she visited with her children from 1974 to 2005.
I was amazed how she was able to recollect the details of the different places even after 20-30 years. I took her to many of those places and I had little recollection of those details. I was full of admiration for her that while I was always talking about writing our family history but never got around to doing it, she actually did it.
Ammu was my most frank critic. She would listen to my seminars or watch my talk shows and would point out the places where I was not lucid. She did not scold but was very effective in gently pointing out what was right and what was wrong.
Whenever I used harsh words she would say: “Tumi chole gele loke tomar babohar mone rakhbe” (people will always remember you by your conduct, your treatment of others).
Now that she is no more, I wonder who is there to save me from all my follies and consistently remind me that I still have to work hard to be considered a manush.
Rounaq Jahan is a Bangladeshi political scientist and author.