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Dhaka Tribune

‘The day I officially became a storyteller’: Novelist Iffat Nawaz’s (very) personal essay on writing

‘I had become the voice of my family, the storyteller who would explain how we lived, how he died, how we desperately needed to live further to make it beyond.’

Update : 27 Jan 2024, 10:35 AM

My father is younger than me. A few years back, I imagined him knocking on my door, appearing even more youthful than I had seen him last. He had come over to ask my permission to take a younger version of me out for a walk, maybe some ice cream, a rickshaw ride, a leisurely stop at a bookstore. True to the sweet-natured man that he was, he spoke to me with a polite grace, just a little short of calling me “Madam.” I took a minute to contemplate his proposition and then allowed my inner child to walk out the door with him. They left giddily holding hands, his palm cupping hers, securely, adoringly. She kept on looking up at his face, smiling ear to ear, beaming with excitement. “Precious soft things” I had thought as I shut my mind’s door to go back to another reality, where fathers and daughters don’t meet often, don’t play, don’t let the ocean’s breeze let their bodies sway. It was January 30.

On October 8, 2018, I turned 40 years four months and one day old. Exactly the age my father was when he died. I remember stepping into the hours of that day which would turn me older than my father with the trepidation of surpassing a mark that I wished I didn’t have to. No one teaches us how to deal with such moments when we are young, we are only taught how to count numbers and the names of months so that later we can calculate dates and years and solve equations which feel too difficult to work through.

On January 30, 2024, it will be 30 years since my father had taken his last breath in the confined air of a flying aeroplane. In some unmarked cloud in the skies over California and Arizona, his heart had decided to stop beating. His eyes locked into mine, his lips quivering to tell me something desperately, though no sound was formed, and I don’t remember his last words before he became a mute cry.

No CPR or emergency rescue procedures were done to save him. The whole plane was so distraught by the sudden fall and quick exit of this large-eyed man with a close-knit family that there were only gasps, screams and fear-filled whispers. I was 15, my brother was ten, and my mother was 37. The four of us were on a vacation in the US, a vacation which turned into an exile, the aftermath of the biggest tragedy of our lives.

Down on the ground, there was a fire truck waiting. Someone had handed me his belt as I walked out of the plane. They must have taken it off to begin a life-saving medical procedure that eventually never took place. I was holding on to the belt in the manner of a long whip. Some passengers murmured to us, “Hope he gets better soon.” I nodded politely like an adult, a public death does not let you mourn in an intimate manner, and so as a reaction, I mimicked faces I had seen in the movies, pushing out a sad-hopeful expression all the while knowing he had already died.

Before we got into the fire truck we were taken to the airport staff room. There was a large glass window and I saw my father’s body being carried into the truck. Someone took me to a phone to make calls to anyone we needed to. I had dialled my paternal uncle and aunt, both on the East Coast and at work. I didn’t leave messages when the answering machine prompted me in its mechanical tone. 

My mother and my brother were not staring at my father like the way I had been when he stopped breathing. They were still praying for his life. My mother whispered to me something about her fear that he would be forever paralysed.

“What if he ends up in a wheelchair?” Tears rolled down her face as she pressed my arm.

“He won’t.” I again copied a face I had seen on television, a brave young girl giving false hope and pretending to be fine.

The hospital folks had us sit in a trauma room. The three of us quietly waited. There was a phone there and I dialled the numbers again of my relatives. My mother was holding onto my father’s bag, inside it was a small notebook with phone numbers neatly written and organised alphabetically. Again I could not reach anyone, and as I dialled family friends in some other corner of the US, a doctor entered the trauma room to tell us that my father had died on the plane. I had my back to the messenger of death. He did not wait for me to turn toward him, but I looked back anyway to read my mother’s lips which spelt, “He is gone.”

“Do you want to see him?” the doctor asked us. My mother and my brother nodded no in unison while I nodded yes.

A minute later a supple-faced nurse came and walked me to another room, she was tender and hugged me (I think) at some point.

My father’s body lay tired in a room that appeared half-lit, on a hospital bed with wheels. I neared him, he smelled like sweat and I thought how he would have hated that, a man who loved his colognes and his showers. I said a few things to him, again mimicking movies, and kissed him on his forehead, which I didn’t do seldom. I had become more shy about showing physical affection to both my parents after I reached puberty. But at that moment I knew he was dead and I did not have to feel embarrassed for expressing a bit of the suppressed affection I had been storing for him since the day I was born.

Back in the trauma room my mother and brother stared blankly at the wall. My mother told me we were not going back to Bangladesh and that we would be staying in the US. We had the option to do so legally, we had green cards. I nodded my head and then again returned to the phone to dial more numbers which would not answer my call.

There was a fat yellow phonebook sitting idly next to the phone. I think I had asked myself what would Abbu do in this situation. The answer arrived spontaneously in the next few seconds. I started going through the phone book looking for mosques in the area, cold calling them to explain our situation, hoping for someone to come and take us somewhere, though I was not sure where that might be.

The method worked. After a couple of tries, I reached the other end. Ears listened carefully and asked for our location. Then upon hanging up, the mosques made more phone calls and after a couple of hours, a family friend turned up at the hospital. She had heard through the grapevine that Ahsan Nawaz had a heart attack on the plane and his family waited with his dead body in the said location.

I narrated and repeated the story of his death about twenty times that day, and then a hundred times in the next weeks, maybe a thousand times in the next years. There were lawyers, social workers, an aeroplane case investigation team, relatives, friends, friends of friends, teachers at my new school in the US, my friends, my parents’ friends, a psychiatrist, and some strangers. My mother mutely gave her consent to do so, signalling that somewhere between the sky and the ground of Arizona I had become the voice of my family, the storyteller who would explain how we lived, how he died and how we desperately needed to live further to make it beyond that day and time.

With years the story became more concise, I told it with emotions and not. I told it in the first meetings and lasts, I let it define me as I observed the impact of it on the listeners’ faces. I took it all in, the different reactions of each individual who heard about the day my father died. I learned to modulate my voice and pause in spaces, I learned how my grief likes to dance in the eyes of others, if I could jerk a tear I knew I had done something right.

Then one day, many moons later, I stopped telling the story. I assume I had moved past it. Maybe I got bored or my grief left me after being over-utilised.

So many things have happened in the last three decades in our lives. When I look back and pierce through the last thirty years, and touch the fingertips of that fifteen-and-half-year-old girl with mine I feel unchanged. I cannot tell the difference between me and her, as though whatever I am today I had already become on that day, in that sky, with silent gazes and inaudible last cries.

But today, at the feet of yet another January, I know one thing my father had given me as a parting gift, his last surprise. He turned me into a storyteller, with prayers that my heart may run longer than his, and when I too am gone, like a greedy girl I hope this story survives.

Iffat Nawaz is a writer based in Pondicherry. Her debut novel Shurjo’s Clan was shortlisted for the Best First Book (Fiction) by the Tata Lit Live/Mumbai Literature Festival in 2023. This essay first appeared in and has been reprinted through special arrangement. 

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