Everyone was there at the airport. Younger brothers Habib and Mukhles, sisters Sharifun and Rumi, their children. A few of my in-laws, too. They didn’t have to come, but they came anyway. They always do, carloads of them, every time I go for a visit. Secretly, I always wanted them to. Despite my desperate attempts at self-control, emotions always seem to get better of me whenever I set foot in my homeland.
Yes, everyone was there to receive me, except one-----the one I needed most. This is one man who would always be the first to welcome me home with a broad grin on his face. Then, ignoring the presence of everyone else, he would wrap his arms around me, and burst into uncontrolled sobs, keeping his head firmly set on my chest. Rain or hail, gales or storms, nothing but nothing could stop this old man meeting me at the airport. He would be waiting at the gates, checking the time again and again, that would seem to him to have slowed suddenly. He always kept his eyes on the incoming passengers, anxiously stretching his neck out to spot me in the crowd. Once he saw me somewhere, at the immigration desk, or at the customs, or anywhere, he would become a little child, screaming with joy, announcing loudly to everyone around that his eldest son had arrived!
Many long years he had waited for that moment, that gloriously euphoric moment. That was the only restless wait in his long, restful life.
And yet, this time he didn’t know that he had to go to the airport. He didn’t have the ability to know. Not seeing him there among others was a crushing disappointment for me, but not a surprise since I already knew what was likely to happen, and why. I didn’t want to let it bother me too much.
Decades passed since I saw my father for the last time.
Over this time his absence at the airport slipped away from my mind almost completely. I had my own life to think about, with all its worries and anxieties, hopes and despairs. I was still planning for better things in life, a better future for my family, my children. I was living far away from my father, from the airport of Dhaka, from my past life. Time had passed. Memories faded.
Then something happened. Can’t put my finger on it, but something profound and deeply internal. As if someone forced me to take a pause and look back. I was nearing the twilight of my own life. Time seemed to be racing faster than ever with my advancing age. My wife was trying to cope with her chronic illness. And the boys had left home to seek their own lives. The realization dawned on me that it was now my turn to station myself at the arrival gate of the airport to receive them, followed by the ever-painful task of having to wave them off at the departure gate. Perhaps that is what dug up that far-away memory from my consciousness. It was not a little, easy to forget, incident anymore. It had acquired a bigger meaning, a life of its own. My life, with all its goals and promises, big failures and little triumphs, seemed to pale before that ‘insignificant event’, at that tiny airport, many years before. My heart began aching for all the fathers of the world who, all of a sudden, forget to go to the airport to receive their children.
I would always love the ride from the airport to downtown Dhaka. The sight of the open fields, the green grass and the luscious foliage of the roadside trees, the naked children in the dust, the ubiquitous rickshaws----it seemed like a chorus of joyful chant, all waving at me in a gesture of warm welcome. I couldn’t help choking up in deep, silent, and shameless emotions.
And yet, all was not well on that fateful day years ago. My heart was heavy. My steps were timid, tentative. There was an eerie stillness in the air. I was going to meet my father. Gently, gingerly, I pushed the door open. And there he was, my father, who didn’t know, couldn’t possibly know, what was happening around him. His lungi was loosely tucked around his waist. Instinctively, he worked his fingers to tie it up a little firmly. Our eyes had met. A brief moment of pure joy danced in his deep, distant, eyes. Then it went out just as fast, as if an invisible hand had turned the switch off. He was visibly embarrassed to be so unprepared for a “visitor” in the house. In a humble, painfully polite gesture, he greeted me, saying: “How are you, sir?”
There was a time in my childhood when, like any other boy in the neighborhood, I used to think that my father was the best father in the whole world. I wanted to grow up to be just like him, and none other than him. In every little thing in my day-to-day life I’d try to emulate him as much as I could. Every morning, after his fazr prayer, he would go for a walk on the banks of the river Buriganga. Sleepy or not, I would force myself out of the bed, just to be able to follow him on the walk, to be able to hold his fingers, and to inhale the fresh air as he did. One of his favorite dishes in the mornings was a spoonful of pure ghee mixed with fresh-boiled rice and sugar. My mouth would water just watching him relish his meal. After he left home for work I’d plead with my mother to let me have a taste of that super-delicious delicacy that my father was so fond of. Among his many daily routines was a habit of half-an-hour’s workout late in the afternoon. Sure enough, I was there to show off my physical prowess just as he did. On the town’s football league’s game days, I’d meet him at his work after school. The father-and-son team of devoted fans would then hike the long road to the football fields in Paltan Maidan, to cheer for our favorite team. If there were too many people in the stadium, thus blocking my view of the playing field, (there were no public galleries those days), he would mount me straight on his broad shoulders, which made me feel so tall and proud. Today, after all these years, the sight of my helpless, childlike father sitting on the bed, unable to recognize his own son, made me feel so small, so utterly small.
My father spent all of his 35 years of working life behind the desk of a clerical job in the district court of Dhaka. The entire courtyard was like a second home for him. By extension, for me too. You could put a blindfold on our eyes, and we would still be able to navigate the whole place. On every little break I’d get from school I’d just run to his work. I had two attractions. One, my father was the chief of all the junior clerks who worked in his office, so they would address him as a sir, a token of respect in those colonial days. The sound of that word ‘sir’ was so sweet in my ears, so very, very sweet. I felt so proud of my father! Two, to be able to get a piece of his daily afternoon snack at Foni’s teashop in the courtyard. Oh how succulent and delicious were those gorgeous rasagollahs and jilebis and pantuas.The very thought of them was enough to water my tongue. You can’t imagine how I relished those treats, licking up every last drop of syrup from the plate. Satisfied with the treat of the day I’d head home, or walk to the soccer field holding his hand. They felt so incredibly strong and powerful, my father’s hands, that is. And yet, on this cold, hazy December noon, they were as brittle as a couple of dead branches from the mango tree in my brother’s backyard.
What do we, the modern fathers, do at the end of the day? Go home, freshen up at the sink, get a comfortable seat on the sofa with the daily newspaper, or push the remote button of the TV. Fathers of yester years wouldn’t do that, perhaps because there was no such a thing called TV in those days, not even a radio. At least not in our house. My father couldn’t afford the “luxuries” like a record-player, a telephone, let alone an automobile. Even the subscription to a daily newspaper would be a stretch to his affordability. So what did he do in the evenings of those dull, dreary, evenings? We, the children, would all sit down with books and pens and pencils, while my father, sacrificing a bit of rest and leisure, would join us to help with our homework. He was particularly attentive to my work at school, because I was his eldest son, his dream, his hope for a better future. So everything must go right with me. He’d make sure that it did. Every evening he would check my grammar, read my essays for spelling and good style, correct my math, test my memory. No, he was not a college graduate, didn’t have any formal degrees or diplomas. He passed his matriculation with a solid first division, but nothing beyond that. Yet, till today, I credit his untiring home-coaching for almost everything I learned prior to my college education. He had promised to himself that his son would not become a district clerk like himself, shuffling heaps of files every day in a dark dingy court-room. There was no way he would allow that to happen. And he kept his promise. His entire life was focused on that single commitment. That, really, was my saving grace. I escaped the same fate that the eldest sons of many clerks I knew had succumbed to.
But today, at my father’s bedside, I find myself wondering if I was really any bigger or taller than he ever was. Did he ever know what he was able to give me, despite his miserable existence behind a worn-out desk in a hot, airless room, was more than what I could ever give my own children, with all my apparent affluence and prosperity? I don’t think so. Fathers never know that.
This is a mysterious illness that does not have a name of its own. In the West they call it Alzheimer’s Disease-----presumably after the name of its discoverer. Does it have a Bengali equivalent? A friend suggested ‘smritilopaghat’ or ‘biswarani’----meaning that it robs one of one’s memory. But nice words do not usually carry the weight of the ugly beast it really is. It’s a cruel ailment that has taken away the last ounce of my father’s dignity. It came precisely the moment it was time for him to enjoy the harvest and fruits of his lifelong labor and hardship. It has reduced a man of great vision and wisdom to a frail piece of hanging flesh. It has taken his ability to enjoy life, his capacity to recognize his own children, let alone express any joy and happiness. It sucked away all his conscious feelings and emotions. All he was left with were those heartrending words: “How do you do, sir?”, that hung in the air like an ugly ogre grotesquely mocking at my father.
I was feeling so completely lifeless sitting beside him on the sweat-soaked bed-----I felt I didn’t have the strength to move my arms. Every fiber of my body wanted to touch him, to give him a good shake, to force him out of his trance. I wanted to do something, anything, to relieve the tension that was building up in the room. He was the brightest star in my life that had lost its light and luster much too soon. My father had suffered the ultimate humiliation. The century-old giant of a tree had hit the dirt. This old man, this ancient octogenarian, had given his life to help me build a good life, to give me strength and courage. And hope when there was no hope, shelter when there was no shelter. Father is more than a word out of the dictionary, more than a mortal person. Father is a pillar, a tower of strength and resolve, a strong arm that protects his child in the face of storms and calamities. Father is a solemn prayer, a prayer of manhood, and valor. A Father is symbol of our hopes and desires, of ambitions and achievements. He is the shining beacon in the dark nights and blind alleys of life. Father is an abstract concept.
Altogether, I was there for 4 weeks. Hoping against hope, that my father would, at least once, maybe just once, call me by that sweet, familiar name, Mijoo, as he did so lovingly all his life. But it never happened. All that happened was that despite his loss of memory he seemed to like my company. Every evening when we would all gather around the TV set in my brother Mukhles’ house , he would look so happy, so content. Occasionally he would look at me, searchingly, then offer a compliment: “ You are a good man, sir”. That would tear my heart apart. He had no idea why a “stranger” like me was staying in the house day in and day out, and why I was so anxious to stay close to him. Yet he seemed to enjoy it, savoring every moment of the extra attention he was getting from this “visiting gentleman”. To him there wasn’t much of a difference between a man in the house and one outside. “In” and “out” had lost their individual meanings. Every now and then he would put on his shoes and walk out of the house. My brother employed a young lad just to keep an eye on him so that he would not sneak out of the house alone. There were times when he would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, unbolt the front door and walk out in the dark.
Once, while I was still in Dhaka, he slipped out alone, in the middle of the day. The young boy and I ran out looking for him, in a real panic. Mukhles was at work at the time. We combed the entire neighborhood searching every nook and corner. I walked the long street from one end of the district of Rampura to the other. There was no trace of him anywhere. I was beginning to have a sweat----in fear and sheer exhaustion. What if he wanders along an unfamiliar road and stumbles on to the path of an oncoming truck? What if a low-life creature decides to hold him for ransom ? All sorts of negative thoughts kept swarming in my head. After 3 long, agonizing hours a rickshaw came in sight, with an old man in the passenger seat. Could that be my father? Yes, of course it was. It was indeed my own, very own, lost father. Oh, what a relief it was. I took my father in my arms and clung to him as if I was hanging on to my dear life. I asked the rickshaw-puller how he found my father. This is the amazing story he told me.
The young man had no idea that my father had no memory. He expected a reasonable fare when he agreed to take him to the “district court” in the old town, a few miles down the road. There was no haggling with the fare, not even a question. Naturally he assumed that he would get not just his normal fare, but maybe a generous tip as well. So, he was completely shocked when he dropped my father at his destination, and saw him start walking away with absolutely no concern for something called ‘paying the fare’. Naturally he was quite upset, so he got off his rickshaw and demanded to be paid for his labor. My father, of course, had no idea what the fuss was all about. It wouldn’t matter, anyway, because he did not have any money. Fortunately the rickshaw-puller was not a heartless man. He sensed something wrong with the old man. The way my father walked, looked, his empty, vacant eyes, the state of confusion, raised a bit of suspicion in him. He didn’t press the fare-issue any more. Instead, he waited. In the meantime, my father climbed up the steps that led to the old court-room where he spent his 35 years of life. He obviously didn’t know why he was there, nor could he recognize any face that he saw inside. But something drew him automatically toward that all-too-familiar desk, looked at it wistfully, with distant empty eyes. There was, of course, a lot of change in the courthouse, the rooms, the desks, the clerks, the orderlies, everything. The past he knew was completely erased. He felt so baffled, so out of place, and so old. Instinctively he started walking back, not knowing where he came from, or where he must go back to. Thank God, this rickshaw-puller, this angelic messenger from the heavens, was waiting there to pick him up and drop him off at exactly where he took the man in the first place.
Not long after that harrowing experience it was time for me to pack my things for the return trip. I had to board a flight. It wasn’t easy, not easy at all, to say goodbye to my father that time. It is never easy to say farewell to the ones you love most, to the land you cherish, and to the people you owe so much to. It was particularly painful on that visit, because I knew that would be the last time I’d see my father.
(Translated from the original Bengali “Pita”, by the author, that appeared first in “Mashik Banglaesh”, in 1994, then reappeared in his collected essays “Lal Nodi” published by Purbapashcim, in 2001)
Ottawa, 9 May, ‘13
Reviesed. Received 2014 March 28.
মীজান রহমান :: Mizan Rahman