Saturday, 29 January 2011

The refugee

Mizan Rahman
    It has been absolutely miserable weather the last few days. Thick grey clouds like a huge sheet of paper covering the entire sky. Somewhat like the ominous lull before the storm in Bangladesh during the monsoons. Except that this cloud  bears rain that  freezes as soon as it touches the ground. Everything that it touches gets slippery. Often the snow follows. Big branches of tall trees can buckle under the weight of snow and ice, and sometimes do. Power lines snap. This rain is not the ordinary rain, it is called the freezing rain. I’m mortally afraid of it. During freezing rain the best thing to do is stay home. Stay home and look out. So I’m staying home all day. I have kept my drapes and blinds wide open. Little beads of ice have nestled on the windows giving them an unreal aura. The view is quite spectacular, to tell you the truth. Two days ago there wasn’t a single leaf on any of the trees. They stood like skeletons covered in a blanket of dry bark. But not today. Today they look like dressed in beautiful white robes lined with precious rubies. For 5 full days there was near continuous freezing rain. Feels like forced confinement inside, but Mother Nature out there was in a celebratory mood. The trees, bowed under the weight of heavy ice, were looking like just-married brides, with their lowered heads in bashful modesty. Every tree was looking like a timeless work of art by a master sculptor. The light from the street lamps had added an additional glow on the trees. Like beautiful women shining in their glittering silver jewelry. Looking out from behind my drapes I find it hard to take my eyes off. I feel enchanted, mesmerized. My mind wanders at far-away places. Thoughts swarm in my head. Questions clog the mind. Is my own world like this? A world made of glass? Is my soul, my love, poetry, my life made of ice? This charmed life of mine, built with a lot of blood and sweat, is it all a dream?  Deep inside nothing but a dead branch of a tree? An empty shell?
   I must admit that I don’t like Canadian winter much anymore. Wouldn’t mind that much before as I do now. I had my health before, now I don’t. Not too long ago I wouldn’t think much of picking up a shovel from the garage and clean the snow from the driveway. If the car got stuck in a pile of snow I wouldn’t hesitate to give it a push by the brute force of my shoulders. Not any more. It’s more than 2 years I haven’t touched the shovel. The job is done by the professionals now. For me it would be stupid to try to push that snow----strictly forbidden by the doctor. Life has drained away the strength out of my body. Canadian winter is not for the weak and old. One has to fight the forces of Nature to survive here. When you are on the wrong side of 60 you may not have the strength to fight anymore. At least I don’t. That’s why now I watch the storm from behind the blinds. I don’t dare step out of the house. I hear the roar of the cold arctic wind over my roof. My house shakes nervously when the wind blows. Light bulbs blink at times. In those moments my old little house seems so fragile. As if the bricks have all become as brittle as ice. I get a funny feeling----that shy  young man from Hashnabad has come to Canada to build an ice-house! I don’t even feel myself a resident of the house----I feel like a refugee, an asylum seeker. It has been a long journey from that tiny railway station of Hashnabad with nothing more than a bundle of rags in hand. Do I have a permanent address, I wonder. This house of mine appears to me like an object made of glass.
    Many if not most escape to warmer climates after they retire. Those who were born and brought up in Canada, and are reasonably well-off will normally pack up and head for south. Or some dreamy island in the Carribeans. Summer months here, winter months there. They wouldn’t probably come back at all if it were not for the health insurance-----you won’t be covered if you are more than 6 months out of Canada. At our age you can survive without a credit card or a debit card, but not without your all-important health card. So you can’t move for good even if you want to---it’s not practical to cut your umbilical cord. For me, of course, umbilical cord is not the problem since I wasn’t born here. Granted that my sons were born here, and that over the years I too have become more than just a bit fond of this beautiful country----I feel a real attachment for it. My little house may not mean much to me, but this is the house my sons will want to come back to because this is where they grew up, played with their friends, had their birthday celebrations. They are as emotional for this glass-house of mine as I am for the earthen hut I left behind in Hashnabad. By ‘home’ I still mean that little village of mine----not the house in Ottawa, not the one in Fredericton, nor even the 3 houses I lived while I was growing up in Dhaka. Only the village hut where the roof had a leak that couldn’t stop rain from soaking us all during the monsoons. Likewise my boys will call Ottawa their “home sweet home”. So I don’t think I’ll be able to leave Ottawa forever even if I can afford to. It’s not the health card, not the old friends, not the money, it’s the emotional shelter for my children. I do not wish them to feel like refugees as I did most of my life.
   I got a letter from Abdul Matin, a dear friend who has been living in Victoria for a number of years, inviting me to be a permanent house-guest at his place, where he says he set aside a private room for me. An attractive proposal, no doubt. Victoria is known as the senior’s capital of Canada----as much as 60% of its population is supposed to be retired. There isn’t going to be any health-card problem there. Just as importantly there isn’t going to be any snow, any freezing rain, and all the other weather related hazards in Victoria. At the same time summer is supposed to be more moderate there than in Eastern Canada. An ideal place for an elderly nomad like me. Everything fits---so why not? Yet, my mind hesitates. It may give me an ideal home out of home, but still it is not my sons’ birthplace. It is not the place where  I played hide-and-seek with them when they were very young, soccer when they were in their adolescence, and went fishing at the lake. All those memories are here, not in Victoria. This is their native land. No, I do not yet feel the urge to sit in a rocking chair on the sandy beaches of that lovely town and spend the rest of my life staring at the mighty waves of the Pacific Ocean. No, thank you very much, Matin Saheb.
   Of all my Bengali friends and acquaintances there was only one I knew who bought a condominium in Florida. He had a lot of money, so he could afford one. He rented it out, of course, that only helped add to his already impressive bank balance. The real reason was, however, to move there permanently, or at least for six months every year, after retirement, like many other good Canadians do. He is a different kind of Bangladeshi----doesn’t like to socialize much with other Bangladeshis, doesn’t follow the same ethnic culture as others. At one time our two families happened to be quite close, but not anymore. Perhaps he became a bit too Canadian for me and other Bengalis to cope with. Apart from atypical Bengali individuals like him most others, including me, have started worrying about how and where to spend our retirement years. Some are already in there, others are close. How to manage all that extra time is one problem, but the bigger issue is where to live. Temperamentally we do not seem to be cut out to live comfortably in places like Florida, California or Bahamas. By a warm country we can think of only one country----Bangladesh, our homeland. The way we see it, if we indeed need to move to a warmer place then why choose Florida instead of Dhaka or Cox’s Bazar? Granted that one can cite a host of reasons why it’s not a good idea to move to Bangladesh these days, rather than Florida. First of all there aren’t as many power outages or political strikes or traffic jams in Florida as in Dhaka. Then there is the pollution, shortage of drinking water, chronic floods and droughts and hurricanes. Yet the bottom line is that Florida is a foreign land to me, Dhaka isn’t. Bangladesh is where my heart belongs. Dhaka is where I spent my youth and childhood. So my raw emotions urge me to head back home to Dhaka. But then the logic intervenes----are you a fool, it asks? I realize it’s no longer possible to move anywhere----Dhaka or Florida. I’m stuck here, where my sons were born. When we are young our home is where our parents are. At old age our home is where the children are. Sometimes I get this sinking feeling that apart from the simple hut dwellers in villagers who live their entire life at the same place everyone else in the world is a nomad, looking for a home---- a refugee. At least in their minds.
   My son and daughter-in-law in California have been writing me to seriously consider moving with them after my retirement. They bought a new home, custom-designed so that my wife and I can live in a separate section of the house without being bothered by anyone----complete with a separate kitchen, bath and toilet. Just like an independent apartment. It is their wish that we spend a better part of our lives there, if not the whole. We haven’t made a decision yet. It’s a great idea, no doubt. We may indeed have no choice but to accept their offer some day----one or both of us may have a stroke, or Parkinson’s or whatever. At our age anything is possible. How can we survive without their help? We pray and hope we never have to face that situation. Some of our friends had indeed fallen there----they couldn’t think of any other choice. But are they happy? I don’t think so. When I look at their vacant look I feel we might be better off in a seniors’ home. Living with a grown child at old age is a part of our tradition. But not here in this country. Times are different. Yes, we do want to live near our children, but certainly not with them. It’s not just our independence, more important is their life. No matter how cautious we are in keeping a respectable distance from them our presence in the same house is bound to create some problems for them. A little inhibition is completely unavoidable. Isn’t it then better not to even think of moving with them?
   So you see, the crux of the matter is that at our age there is really no place for us to live. Yes, we have a house, a property, a car and so on, but no place where we can live the rest of our life---a home. Those poor farmers who live in villages do. Even if their roofs leak, it’s still where they live, they have to live. They are not homeless refugees like us. Especially like us---- the homeless expatriates.
(Translated by the author from his Bengali article “Shoronarthi”, first published in 1996, in the weekly Toronto paper “Deshe Bideshe”.)

Ottawa, 29 January, ‘11

মীজান রহমান  
Mizan Rahman

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