Seven years on, remembering an extraordinary Bangladeshi
Suraiya Morshed was a complete woman. I am proud to be her son (a sentiment that my sisters share too). I have learned to appreciate her from multiple perspectives even more greatly as I have grown older and seen more of the world. I came to these realizations when I myself became a parent and faced challenges in life beyond self-care and basic survival.
To understand why I call her a complete woman requires us to revisit her life from her early childhood. She was born into both nobility and wealth and could have comfortably lived her life in the style to which she was born and not do much more.
However, her upbringing and her strong personality led her to do many inspiring things in her life while retaining strong values. What were those inspiring things? Before I start enumerating those, I want to say that her family and social values, her cultural and religious upbringing, all played a part in what she would become later in life.
For her, family was always above all else. The strong family relationships instilled by her father and mother in early life laid down the foundation of who she would eventually become. Valuing relationships and respecting others, keeping up social contacts and networks were all aspects of her personality.
From her very childhood, she had a hunger to succeed and do well in whatever task or challenge or feat she undertook. This meant excelling in academic pursuits, at sports, at extra-curricular activities -- whatever she did, she did with passion and to perfection.
While she belonged to a big extended family with whom she was close, the immediate family of five were also very close. She always looked up to her older brother who also had strong academic pursuits and was a role model for her, and she in turn became a role model for her younger sister.
She did not go to school but persuaded her parents to allow her to study privately. She passed her matriculation exams having studied entirely at home. She went on to Eden College and then entered Dhaka University. She did extremely well in BA (Hons), and MA (Hons) in English from Dhaka University. She was well known at university for her scholarly and extra-curricular achievements and was dubbed Ms University for four years.
At this time, she decided to pursue a second Master's degree, this time in education from the prestigious American University of Beirut and did so on scholarship. In Beirut, she focussed on education, with an emphasis on children’s education, psychology, and development, an approach which would eventually become her expertise, both in academic work that she pursued later in life, and also, as a mother to her children.
Besides studies, she was also into sporting activities in Dhaka as well as abroad. She took up sporting challenges in table tennis and badminton and represented her university in many major competitions in both an individual capacity as well as in a team capacity -- making her a champion.
In Beirut, she was sponsored to travel by private plane, very rare in those days, to participate in a badminton tournament in neighbouring Kuwait with her team to win the tournament for the university. She passed on her love of sports to her children but sadly, none matched her achievements.
Until the very end of her life she enjoyed watching spectator sports such as tennis, soccer, cricket, the Olympics, and other sporting events. Her greatest passion was tennis -- she never missed watching a major tournament, whether it was Wimbledon, Roland Garros, or the US Open.
It was not enough for her to have a second Master's degree, she then left for London again on scholarship, to pursue a PhD at University College London. She did not complete her PhD but her time in London also helped shape who she became -- especially for her cultural pursuits there.
The life of the party
Her values were very strong and thus reflected in every aspect of her life. She was always dedicated to wearing saris, whether in the hottest or the coldest of cities. She also took interest in and excelled in cooking.
She learned from her mother who had been handed-down age-old family recipes but also learned cooking from the celebrated Begum Shahabuddin who had taken her in with great affection during her time in Beirut. Her culinary skills as well as her great talent in hosting events made her very popular wherever she lived.
She was gregarious and an extroverted person and had the ability to integrate into different societies, which stood her in good stead throughout her life. She also was vocal about social values and helping the underprivileged. She believed that all were created equal and she encouraged helping everyone. These values were the values on which she raised her family.
She represented United Pakistan in the 1965 New York World’s Fair and became the face of the country at that important event for several months. Those few months also shaped her outlook and cosmopolitan personality, and she made long-lasting friendships.
She was an ardent traveller, taking interest in different cultures with a great interest in history, arts, and museums besides her love of music and cinema and inculcated these same passions in her children, years later.
Love of literature was always her first passion and lasted through her life. Her interest in literature led her to studying Medieval English and culminated in her studies on Mrs Humphry Ward on whom she had started her PhD, which sadly she did not complete.
She resisted getting married because of everything she wanted to achieve, despite all the pressure and when she finally did, she married someone with whom she was wonderfully and uniquely matched -- a brilliant and highly qualified officer of the Pakistani Foreign Service, A K H Morshed.
The wife and the mother
This was the start of a brand new phase -- as the wife of a diplomat and becoming a mother to three children. In so doing, she relocated with her family from city to city following her husband, my father's postings.
Each posting was a new experience, challenge, and pursuit. Being a wife of a foreign service officer was also a new identity that brought in a host of new duties in diplomacy, decorum, and protocol -- all of which she excelled at too.
The postings during Pakistan times took her to Islamabad, where I was born, Tokyo where the older of my two sisters was born, and finally Australia where my younger sister was born.
Then came hard times with the War of Liberation. My father defected from the Pakistan mission and later established the new Bangladesh consulate mission/embassy months later. But the intervening months were difficult for my parents who had to deal with much stress, strain, and uncertainty with two small children and a third one on the way.
Home posting to Bangladesh came after the emergence of Bangladesh. While dad was very busy with new responsibilities, she took up responsibilities as a teacher in junior and senior school at one of the elite missionary schools in Dhaka.
She enjoyed those years as a teacher and used her skills as an expert in child psychology for her students, as well as to raise her own kids. She cooperated well with other teachers and guided others as a team player all the time, leaving an impression on the school after she had left.
She left the school in 1976 when my father got his posting as an Ambassador to Brazil. In Brasilia, she was in her element representing Bangladesh in cultural platforms and social gatherings and hosting elegant dinner parties. During those years, she spent a lot of time and energy on her parenting duties, serving as a strict parent who disciplined her kids but also imbued in them the right religious and cultural values.
Despite being out of Bangladesh for many years, the children were constantly reminded about their identity as Bangladeshis. She always insisted her children spoke in Bangla, especially when in public places. Participation in functions was important within the Bangladeshi community where we the children always attended and participated.
She hired a Bangla tutor for us so that we could keep in touch with the language. These values continued through all the family's postings in Brazil, then Bonn, West Germany, Geneva, Switzerland, and in Berlin, East Germany. The years in those countries were joyful for the family because our mother made sure we visited galleries and museums, and made day trips to cities in neighbouring countries -- broadening our horizons whenever she had the opportunity. This eventually increased our global exposure exponentially.
Our father was also accredited to the UN offices in Austria, the Vatican, and Czechoslovakia and she made sure we accompanied whenever we had the opportunity. She took us on many trips to countless cities every weekend always trying to show us more and more of the world -- and passed on the love of travel and discovery to all three of us.
She took it on herself to guide our educational decisions. Our father focused on science and mathematics, she focused on literature, history, and geography. I mentioned already her passion for art and music which she made sure we continued to have exposure to through our travels and visits to museums and galleries throughout Europe.
She was very prominent in the Foreign Officers’ Wives’ Association (FOWA) Bangladesh and she wrote the bible of the FOWA, which all the wives started following as the key doctrine on official protocol and etiquette as a wife of a diplomat. This was promoted by the then senior officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Back to academia
When my father and mother returned to Bangladesh after my father's retirement, she found renewed purpose by returning to her first love -- academia. She joined a prominent school as a director of studies. She was encouraged to some extent by her children who saw that she still had much to contribute.
She was given leverage to set up a centre for resource development where she would train teachers who became high caliber resources of the school (Scholastica). She conducted workshops and wrote two books which became part of the standard syllabus that the English Medium Schools have used in their studies many years later.
Her colleagues at the school whom she trained still speak in glowing terms of the indelible impact working with her had on them. When we meet them, we often hear them say "I would not be who I am without Suraiya Apa."
She contributed towards the school till virtually the end of her life and especially through the 11 years that she bravely fought cancer. She never stopped working -- as soon as she was better after an operation or after a treatment of chemotherapy, she was back to her work with deep passion, discipline, and commitment.
All the while, she continued to give her time, love, and attention to her family with her full heart -- to her children and their families, especially her grandchildren whom she adored.
Mom finally succumbed to complications of cancer on September 14, 2014. Today marks her 7th death anniversary. This extraordinary person continues to be missed by her family, relatives, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers -- many in number -- who remember her as an unparalleled and complete woman.
Waleed Morshed, son of Suraiya Morshed.