“My name is Habiba, and the meaning of my name is sweetheart.” I nervously blurted that out to my new classmates while standing in front of them on my first day at Shiddeshwari Girls’ School. I had been home-schooled up until then and was painfully shy, so that is what popped out of my seven-year-old mouth when the teacher asked me to get up and introduce myself. For a moment, there was no movement or sound from the other little girls sitting at their wooden desks facing me. But the next thing I knew, the whole room burst into laughter. I could even hear the teacher giggling from behind me. The rest of the day, my new classmates taunted me and kept saying – “Habiba the sweetheart!” I felt like crying. Why did I have to say the meaning of my name instead of just saying my name? Now my name was a joke. I went home that disastrous first day and told my “Amma” (“mother” in Bengali) about what happened. She looked at me.
“Why did you say the meaning of your name?”
The teasing continued for the next few years, and I started to detest the name Habiba. I also loathed school in general. Luckily, I got a chance to leave this particular school four years later. When I was eleven, my father, one of his sisters, some of his friends, and a few of his colleagues and acquaintances all bought lots in a newly established rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Dhaka called Lake Circus. It had been a large garden full of fruit trees situated on a miles-long everglade. The original Hindu owner of this expansive garden wanted to sell it after the Partition of India in 1947. By the early 1960s, he finally got around to dividing his property and putting each lot up for sale. Once my parents bought some of this land, they quickly started building a new house. When I started at my new school and introduced myself to my new classmates this time, I was careful to only say “Habiba” without any extra information. I said it in such a low voice that most of the girls of my new class couldn’t even figure out what I said. When we moved to our new community in early 1961, our family consisted of my parents, myself, my little uncle Obaid (my mother’s youngest sibling and only brother who was actually eleven years old like me), and my three younger siblings – Kamrul who was eight years old, Pauline who was four, and Fakrul who was one. Obaid had been living with us since he was six years old for a better opportunity for an education and for the strong guardianship of my father since Obaid’s father, my maternal grandfather, died of typhoid fever when Obaid was just a baby. Another sister, named Asma, came between Kamrul and Pauline but she died shortly after birth from a suspected neurological condition. I remember looking at her tiny face briefly just after she had passed; my mother had called me in to see her. Perhaps Amma knew that I was the only sibling that would be old enough to remember her and wanted me to be a witness to her short life. She was right. I am the only sibling with any memory of Asma to this day, although the memory is a fleeting one.
The Lake Circus neighborhood was so new that very few families actually lived there, especially those first few months, even though lot after vacant lot all had owners. In fact, one of my aunts owned one of the vacant lots adjacent to us. Some mornings we would awaken to find milk cows owned by distant residents grazing on the grasses of the numerous uninhabited properties. The owners fitted them with slack rope collars and staked them to the ground. Often, on the following day, the cows had disappeared having been moved overnight to another unoccupied lot.
Many fruit trees of all kinds remained from the original garden. On the left side of our lot, we had three gargantuan jackfruit (Kanthal) trees in a row. One of them only produced a few fruits per year. But those jackfruits were so massive that it took four to five men to get them down off the tree. On the right side of the lot, we had an old bael tree. The hard-shelled bael fruits took almost one entire year to ripen. The size of our baels was a little larger than a pomelo. Our servants had to crack them open with a hammer or a stone in order to get to the pulp. We were cautioned not to hang around under that tree if by chance a ripened bael fell on our heads and fractured our skulls. There were several other types of fruit trees on our property as well, but beside the bael tree, stood a huge flowering palash tree. This tree did not bear fruit but was too gorgeous to cut down. To me, the flowers looked like bright orange parrot beaks. In the spring, the tree would be covered with so many brilliant titian blooms on its branches that it seemed the tree itself was on fire.
One of my earliest and happiest memories of childhood came during the middle of that first year in Lake Circus. That was the first day that I did not have to go to school, because of monsoon season. It had been raining nonstop for the previous three days when one night I overheard my parents’ discuss the possibility of school being closed for a while. My “Abba” (“father” in Bengali) had just returned from wading through our streets in the dark with the other men of our community trying to capture the schoolhouse’s escaping furniture. Abba and some other community members had established my private, neighborhood school. Now, the desks and benches floated out with the rising waters through the large windows that had not yet been fitted with grills. The men had mostly been successful in getting the furniture, but the new classrooms were in bad shape. Besides, the unpaved street that I would have taken to walk there would be impassable with all of the slippery sludge.
So, the next morning, I had no intention of moving. I was happily tucked into my full-sized bed covered with my soft katha quilt as snug as a bug. Once again, I had halfway awoken to the sound of the falling drops of water. It started as a patter on our tin roof, but gradually became a steady, soft drumming of rain. The rhythmic thrumming was relaxing. It made me feel lazy. Within a few minutes Amma came into my room and pulled aside my window curtains to wake me up. She glanced outside and said,
“I cannot believe Gathla started already.”
Gathla, the rainy season, had certainly begun. We already knew that monsoon season meant that it would rain continuously for at least one week. That would usually be followed by a couple of days of sunshine, and then it would be back to another seven days of uninterrupted rain. This pattern would go on for months, and we were just at the beginning of it.
“Wake up, Habiba. I am going to give you some Arabic lessons this morning since there is no school today.” Amma said.
Arabic lessons? I couldn’t believe it. I disliked learning Arabic! I played possum and kept my eyes shut. Before my mother could say anything else, Bahar, our eight-year-old foster brother, interrupted from the next room.
“Amma, Bua (respectful title for the maid) said she can’t start the chula (a wood-burning, double-mouth, clay cooking stove), because the matches are too damp to strike a flame.”
“Do I have to run to the kitchen to strike a match for her too? I don’t know why I am paying her a salary.” My mother exclaimed toward the cookhouse loud enough for our kitchen maid to hear. She then turned to me and said,
“Habiba, get up now! Fold your mosquito net and make your bed. I am giving you fifteen minutes.”
Amma left my room headed for the kitchen. As she walked, she tucked in a loose piece of material from her pink cotton sari so that when she lit the match for the stove, which she was sure she would be able to do, her clothing would not accidentally catch on fire.
“Habiba’s mother!” My father’s voice boomed from the veranda addressing my mother. (He always called our mother “Habiba’s mother.”) “Come on - let her sleep thirty more minutes.”
I smiled and proceeded to ignore my mother’s order as I rolled over in my bed nestling blissfully under my cover. I knew Abba’s order had superseded hers. I dozed off for a little while to the soothing rhythm of the rain as well as my father’s voice humming a Rabindranath Tagore song. The last thing I remembered hearing before I drifted off was my four-year-old sister Pauline chiming in trying to mimic him. Thirty minutes passed very quickly. Before I knew it, Abba was taking my mosquito net down with my sister Pauline hanging around near him.
Abba recited in English, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man…”
Before he could finish, I protested, “I am not a man.”
“Man’ in this quote means all people.” Abba explained patiently.
“Abba, she is not getting up. Shall I take her cover off?” My chubby little sister offered.
Just then I realized that Fakrul, who had barely learned how to walk, suddenly came out of nowhere and was already starting to pull my covers off with his tiny hands. Abba must have been carrying him when he walked in and put him down to gather up the mosquito net.
“No,” I thundered. “I don’t want to get up, because Amma is going to make me go over the Arabic alphabet again.”
“No, she won’t.” Abba said. “Since I am off today, I am going teach you how to find out a country’s mineral resources from its map.” In the meantime, Amma, too, had failed to start a flame out of the matches in the box. I heard her call Bahar from the kitchen.
“Bahar, run to the corner store and buy another box of matches please.”
There were no stores nearby, so Bahar had to make it out of Lake Circus and onto the main street. He was hyperactive by nature though, and was thrilled to get out into the elements even if it meant trudging through all the muddy muck. This was an adventure to him. I saw his shadow race by outside my window as he took off down the street.
Meanwhile, Abba, Pauline, and Fakrul had left the room to allow me to dress. Reluctantly, I sat up for a few minutes rubbing my eyes. Then I got out of bed and put on my little girl’s frock and my leather sandals. I didn’t have to wear my school uniform that day, which made me feel better about having to get out of bed so early. I crossed the tile floor to the window, and combed my hair while looking outside and yawning.
All of our guava and banana trees were taking a steady beating from the shower. I must have been daydreaming for a while because before long, I saw Bahar’s little form running back through our gate from the street carrying a matchbox. The one from the store was only slightly less damp. He, however, was absolutely soaked. He handed it to Amma without a word, and dashed over to the room shared by Kamrul and Obaid. Something was on his mind. He seemed even more excited than he was when he had left. Bahar whispered at them,
“The people at the store said that there are hundreds of fish in the ditches.”
After these first few days of heavy rain, the local ponds had swollen. The rising waters had started to spill over into the channels and streams all over our neighborhood, taking the liberated fish along with it. The gulley that ran through our yard had been gushing with water since the day before but apparently, those waters were now teeming with fish. As Obaid and Kamrul shot out of the front door and into the rain without a second thought, I ran to the front window to watch all the activity. My brother and uncle reached the gulley in a flash with Bahar right behind them. They squatted down and got drenched as they surveyed the rushing water to confirm that it was full of fish. Kamrul suddenly stood up and ran back inside dripping wet. He flew past me into the cookhouse and begged Amma,
“Can we have a net to catch the fish?”
“No, no fishing in this rain.” Amma said fiddling with the new matches. “Call Obaid and Bahar to come back inside immediately. After breakfast, I will teach all of you Arabic.”
My mother didn’t have time to fool with the boys any longer. She had to make a shopping list and send the male servant to the big market right away before everything was sold out. Her last command before being distracted by the daily house chores was to me.
“Habiba, get a gamsha towel and dry your brother’s wet hair.”
I loved my brother Kamrul with all my heart, but I didn’t like him. He used to practice his boxing skills on me when he was younger. He also bossed me around whenever he could, even though I was the oldest. While I was slowly and unenthusiastically looking for one of our many colorful cotton gamsha towels, Kamrul ran to Amma’s sewing cabinet, and grabbed some mesh type material that was supposed to be for a new mosquito net. He also swiped a wide roll of medical gauze that Amma got from her brother-in-law who was a physician. Back outside my brother joined my uncle and Bahar who had somehow gotten hold of a bucket. In the downpour, they alternately held the net and the gauze against the running water of the gulley and seemed to be catching a lot of fish. A handful of local people had gathered around to watch them. At one point, all three of them noticed a very large boal, a type of catfish, swimming toward their makeshift trap. They managed to outmaneuver it and then wrap it up with their netting. Some of the bystanders cheered, and the boys became instant heroes for the day. They finally came back inside walking around like proud conquerors. Abba, who had been keeping up with the hubbub with much amusement, jokingly recited a classic Bengali quote which essentially meant that writing and reading would always lead to an unpleasant future, but catching and eating fish would always lead to a happy life. In other words, education was over-rated. While I watched the three young fishermen through the window, I pondered about how funny it must have felt to the fish to be swimming over foreign waters and seeing things they had never seen in their isolated ponds. Perhaps they were in a frenzy, nibbling on the feast of different debris that floated along with them. I wondered where the fish that hadn’t been caught would go. Being free, there were so many possibilities in my tropical motherland filled with waters which were currently at flood stage. No one could know the destiny of each fish. But it seemed certain that only the strongest would survive, and reach the Bay of Bengal where all of our major rivers flowed. From there, if they could survive the salty waters of the sea, they would travel where the currents took them. I imagined how challenging and demanding the long journey would be for the survivors. I knew one thing for sure – none would ever again live in the little pond in which they were spawned.
Chapter Two: Munshi Girl
I was born near the Meghna River, one of my native country’s major rivers, in the village of Comilla three years after the 1947 Partition of India which ended British control over the Indian subcontinent. At the time, Bangladesh was known as East Bengal and was one of the poorest areas of the world despite its plentiful waters. Impoverished Bengali families were everywhere, but I was very fortunate that my family was not one of them.
My mother’s ancestors were aristocrats from Murshidabad, a city that used to be the capital of the Bengal Subah (a province that contained the districts of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa) of the Mughal Empire. Her forefather, Mohanlal, a Hindu, was the Diwan or chief minister to the last true Nawab (ruler) of the Bengal Subah -- Siraj-ud-Daulah. Sadly, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah lost the Battle of Plassey to the British in 1757 after his chief commander Mir Jafar betrayed him and helped the British to establish the East India Company. This was the beginning of British rule in the Indian subcontinent.
The Nawab was killed shortly thereafter, and Diwan Mohanlal was imprisoned. His son Sheiklal escaped from Murshidabad, and settled in a remote area in Comilla. He eventually became a great zamindar (land owner). He also married a Muslim missionary’s daughter and accepted Islam as his religion.
The ruins of my mother’s family’s ancestral home, Shahab Bari (Gentlemen’s House) is actually a tourist attraction near Comilla now. My maternal grandfather Hannan Mia, a railway officer who dabbled in acting, was a direct descendant from this line. He named his first child (my mother) Bilkis after the Queen of Sheba. My father Serajuddin Ahmed was from a Munshi family. Being a Munshi meant that he came from a well-known, long-established family of scholars. My parents married through an arrangement by their parents after the Partition.
In 1950, my father was a twenty-six-year-old police inspector whose job kept him away from home quite a bit. He learned about his first child’s arrival a week after my birth by a letter from my sixteen-year-old mother. This news made him ecstatic. He rushed to the village to see and welcome me. My father lost his mother when he was a little boy, and was raised by his older sisters and stepmother. He was so young when his mother died that he couldn’t even remember her face.
When I was born, he somehow felt his mother had come back to him through me. He had heard his older sisters address their mother as “Ma” when they spoke about her. He started calling me “Ma,” and I quickly became his most treasured possession. (My other sisters were also lovingly addressed as “Ma” by our father when they were born.) Everyone else in my family, however, jokingly called me “bedana” which means pomegranate in Bengali because of my almost comical, perfectly round face.
Despite my mother’s aristocratic background, I was considered a Munshi because I was my father’s daughter. My father’s ancestors were given this prestigious title which became our family name, because they were part of the intelligentsia who taught language, literature, and mathematics to royal family members and/or colonial families of the British Raj.
Most of my paternal forefathers were highly respected for being in the upper echelons of learned and literate men. One of my father’s uncles was actually a personal assistant to Lord Louis Mountbatten of British India. My father carried on his family tradition; he was educated himself having graduated from Dhaka University with a degree in science. He was able to enter the police force as a high level commissioned officer because of his education. He later went to the US for further studies in electronics. Since I was the third child (I had two older cousins by my oldest uncle Mohiuddin Ahmed) in the next generation of this intellectual clan, the implicit Munshi mandate of achieving a strong education fell soundly on my shoulders just as it had on the shoulders of my cousins. My father, being a very modern man, couldn’t care less that I was a girl. I was a Munshi and that was all that mattered – I had to live up to our time-honored family name.
We moved to Dhaka, the capital city of East Bengal shortly after I was born. A few years after that, my home schooling began. Among other subjects, I was taught four important languages side by side: Bengali, English, Arabic, and Urdu. I still remember my mother contributing as well especially with the Arabic and the Urdu. Urdu was not the language of the Bengali domain, but it was the national language of Pakistan, and we were encouraged to learn it since we were under Pakistani rule. Arabic was thought to be essential because the Quran was written in Arabic. In order to understand the religion of Islam in its true form, it was thought that the knowledge of Arabic was essential.
Both Urdu and Arabic sounded strange to my ears, and I didn’t enjoy learning either. Bengali and English were, at least, a little better. It didn’t matter what I thought though. The burden of being a Munshi meant I must continue with all of it. By the time I was six, my mother wanted me to be a doctor, and my father thought I should be a professor. At seven, I began going to a real school - Shiddeshwari Girls’ School. I genuinely tried to do the best that I could and obediently did my lessons, but I couldn’t possibly imagine myself as a doctor, because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood and was afraid of dead bodies.
By the time we moved to our new Lake Circus neighborhood when I was eleven, I realized that I definitely didn’t want to be a teacher either, because I was too shy to have to stand up in front of a class every day.
When I turned thirteen, I secretly began to dream about becoming an actress. My maternal grandfather had been an amateur actor so I hoped that my parents might have an open mind to this, but I decided not to mention my aspiration to them yet. The relationship between my school work and my daydreaming about being a movie star was commensurate - the more schoolwork I had, the longer and more fantastic my daydreams would get. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that some famous film director would discover me at any moment. It didn’t matter that I walked to and from school on a sparsely populated road in a barely-known new community. I had lots of young teenaged optimism. After all, Sabitri Chatterjee, one of my favorite actresses, had been born in the same rural district as me! If she could make it coming from such a small place, so could I. I couldn’t wait to have the entire world sit up just to see me.
Over the next year or two, I tried to escape into my fantasy world of acting as much as I possibly could. As the oldest child of now six children – my youngest sister Rosanna and then our youngest brother Saiful had been surprise late additions to our family – I was lucky to have my very own room in our modest house. In fact, I was quite fortunate to have this kind of privacy considering that we also had two of my first cousins, Lutfa and Ayesha, as well as my father’s youngest sister, Chanu, living under the same roof. They had all come to stay with us so that they would have better access to education.
Lutfa was a little older than me, but we went to the same school. Ayesha and my aunt Chanu were in college. In the evening, when all my siblings, cousins, and aunt were doing their homework in other rooms, I would carefully put my algebra study guide to one side, and pull out one of the entertainment magazines that I had perfectly positioned right underneath my homework. As soon as I picked it up, I shifted into a more comfortable position and straightened out my cotton salwar kameez (two-piece traditional outfit worn by females of South Asia; the salwar being pantaloons and the kameez being the long top) almost mindlessly. I then automatically readjusted my orna (light shawl) by tugging it tightly over my shoulders so that my chest was covered. Gone were the simple frocks of my younger childhood. Now that I had hit puberty, I had to wear more grown-up clothes and be careful to cover my developing bosom.
Once I was completely cozy, I opened my treasure. We still hadn’t electricity or telephone service at that time, because the utility companies didn’t have any lines to the remote Lake Circus community. Thus, all of our nightly activities, even the secret ones, were done by hurricane lantern light.
There in the dim glow of my kerosene flame, I read with great attention every article I could about all the popular movie stars and their current movies. The most popular films in those days were Bengali Indian pictures made in Calcutta. I was a particularly big fan of Indian actor Soumitra Chatterjee (no relation to Sabitri). Most of my adolescent girlfriends and I believed that he was the best-looking hero of all - we just adored him! The actress I really liked was the glamorous and beautiful Suchitra Sen who was also from East Pakistan. Once I had studied an article or two, I would crack open my scrapbook and review all the newspaper clippings that I had collected of these actors and their movies.
Before I knew it, I was gazing sideways at the shadow of myself cast on the wall by the glowing lantern. For a moment, I saw the outline of my short hair parted down the middle and gathered with ribbons into two symmetrical bundles on top of my head. Then I looked past my shadow out the window. Instead of seeing the miles of quiet marshland covered with rice fields, I saw myself standing in a golden gondola gliding along the waters of the Bosporus. I was already a famous actress by then, and this was my first movie with Soumitra Chatterjee. I was playing a beautiful Ottoman princess dressed in an opulent blue velvet brocade caftan with sleeves that fell all the way down to the floor of the boat. My numerous gold necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings bore classical Ottoman motifs of the 16th century, and complimented the gold and silver threading that adorned the caftan.
My makeup artist had emphasized my large brown eyes with well-arched, strong eyebrows and finished my face off by creating perfectly red lips. My long dark hair was brushed back and then held with gold hair pins over which sat a small bejeweled fez. The enticing aroma of cinnamon and cardamom filled the air. I turned to see my prince get down on his knees. And just when Soumitra’s character was about to propose...
“Children – it’s milk time!” Amma’s announcement would jolt me out of my reverie.
*** We always drank warm milk before going to bed. I would carefully place my study guide over my magazines and halfheartedly join all the other kids in the house in the dining room. There we lined up without a word, grabbed our cups from the table, and headed to the kitchen, a separate, miniature, roofed room that adjoined the main house. The chula sitting in this tiny area made the cookhouse the hottest place on our property so it was kept separate.
We circled the maid who was standing in the kitchen by the stove over a pot of boiling milk. Without a word, she filled up our cups one by one. And then like cadets leaving the serving area and heading into the mess hall, we ran back to the less steamy main house and sat around our wooden dining table. At that time, we had never heard of pasteurized milk.
I hated that yucky hot milk with all my guts. It tasted awful, and I found it rather hard to swallow. Apparently, my siblings did not like it either. Kamrul would first add a little sugar in his milk from the small sugar pot that was always kept on the table to make the concoction palatable. But sometimes when he couldn’t stomach it, he would conveniently “find” an ant swimming in his milk. We had seen other insects like flies and baby roaches swimming in his milk before. We were disgusted. The milk was awful enough without a dead bug in it. I could feel myself getting nauseated and had to run to the kitchen sink with my cup. My mother had to intervene quickly and switch out his milk before all of us started to throw up. With the commotion at the table, I was able to pour my milk down the sink without Amma’s notice.
Sometimes I would place my filled cup in the cupboard with the clean cups and run back to my room. The maids usually found my cup filled with rotten milk a few days later. At these moments, I would swear to myself that one day, when I had my own family, I would feed my children nothing but cold chocolate milk and chocolate covered cookies. For that matter, I also promised myself that I would never force them to finish their vegetables – another thing I disliked. Now, if I was ever caught putting bugs in my milk, I would have gotten a thorough spanking. But Kamrul, always my mother’s favorite child and first son, would always get away easy. By the time I was in high school (typically begun around fifteen years old in the Bangladeshi system), East Bengal had long since become East Pakistan for political reasons, electricity had arrived to Lake Circus, and my daydreams were in full swing. I had become an expert in ignoring my monotonous teachers with their explanations about the differences between hard and soft water or some other boring thing. It was so much more fascinating to be a spy in James Bond’s latest adventure. I was learning Russian, obtaining all my false IDs, and breaking secret codes. When the school bell would suddenly ring, I would find myself staring off into space while my classmates were finishing up our math problems. I walked out of the classroom in misery; I had just missed meeting my new handsome contact Alexi in far-off Moscow.
Although I was a brave spy or a strong warrior queen in my acting fantasy world, any imagined courage was long gone by bedtime. Instead, when it was time for me to go to sleep, I was taken over by the fear of thieves breaking into the house. It was hard for me to close my eyes; I was sure that there was a burglar standing just outside my window of our one-story house.
This was not totally unfounded. In our neighborhood, thieves coming around midnight when everyone was fast asleep was not a rare occurrence. Sometimes, they would cut the window grill in order to enter. A robber once broke a portion of our foundation with a sledgehammer wrapped in a towel. He then removed a portion of the slab and took off a few bricks. He must have planned to make a tunnel to get inside, but my father, who happened to be home at the time, awoke to the dull pounding of the sledgehammer. He rushed outside, and grabbed at the perpetrator. Unfortunately, the thief whose skin had been heavily greased up with mustard oil, slipped away.
Being a police inspector, my father always kept a gun at home, but he didn’t want to kill a petty thief. He had just wanted to catch him and see that he went to jail for his crime. The thief, however, had employed the usual criminal countermeasures that my father knew all about. Bengali burglars would go about their crimes bare bodied except for black shorts so they could blend into the dark. Additionally, they had their wives grease them up before their nightly excursions so they could slither away if someone tried to get them.
I was so afraid the thief would be back again that I would bolt my windows tightly before sunset in the summer months even though I knew that would turn my room into a sauna. I always checked under my bed with a bright flashlight before going to sleep in case someone was hiding underneath. Then I would begin a miserable night of tossing and turning in my hot room. Many nights I opened my eyes and found my windows wide open.
“My windows are open!” I would cry and wake everybody up.
“I opened it so that you can have some cool air,” my father would answer from the next room.
“Would someone please come and close my windows?” I shrilled.
“You close your own windows,” my mother would order sharply from their bed. Our window shutters were exterior which swung shut from the inside when we needed them to.
“He is going to grab my hand if I reach for the shutters,” I would yell back.
“Okay, okay, I am coming.”
Abba would come and close my windows. He would then check for mosquitoes inside my mosquito net with a flashlight as he didn’t want to turn the lights on and bother the others. Sometimes I thought I heard some footsteps and smelled mustard oil outside. I would run into my parents’ room and crawl into their Victorian style queen-size bed. Some nights several of my siblings would join me. We would lie at our parents’ feet or squeeze ourselves into any space we could find. We had to use mosquito nets on every bed so some nights, my parents’ bed looked like a crowded refugee tent.
“I need to use the bathroom, and I need someone to come with me,” I would announce sometimes in the middle of the night.
“I am coming,” my father would say while coming to my room.
“Abba, please check my bathroom carefully, before I go inside,” I would beg. He would go and check everything first and then I would go in. My father would patiently wait outside the door.
“What are you afraid of?” He would ask.
I rattled off my list, “Thieves, snakes, bhoot (male ghosts), and pathni (female ghosts).”
“How would a snake get in there?”
“It could crawl inside the pipe line, couldn’t it?”
“No, it can’t. There is no space for a snake to get in.”
“Abba, do you think we have bhoot and pathni living in our jackfruit trees?”
“No, we don’t have bhoot and pathni here, because we live in a city. For one thing, they are afraid of being electrocuted. Now that we have electricity in our house, we have nothing to worry about.” He would then help me into bed and check for mosquitoes.
“Abba, when I went shopping with Amma yesterday, I saw a pretty handbag.” I would tell him while he was tucking my mosquito net under the mattress.
“Did you get it?”
“No, Amma wouldn’t let me buy it.”
“Do you still want it?”
“Yes, I do. I have been thinking about it.”
“Okay, I will ask your Amma to buy it for you.” My dad wasn’t able to say no to me very easily, and I took that opportunity to get all the things I wanted.
“Habiba’s Amma” he would say to my mother the next morning at breakfast, “when you get a chance, please go back to New Market and get that handbag that Habiba wanted.”
“Okay.” She would agree. But I knew she wasn’t very happy about it. I also knew she would have a talk with my father once we were not around about my inconsiderate demand as I had five younger siblings who didn’t ask for things like I did all the time. Nonetheless, she would show her respect for him in front of us. We never saw our parents showing any disrespect toward each other.
*** I graduated from high school and entered college in the fall of 1965. In my country “undergraduate college” is between the ages of sixteen and nineteen approximately. Since I had to get some sort of degree even if I was going to be an actress, I thought it might be fun to study history or Bengali literature. That way I could really get into my roles which might be based on some historical event or great novel. I was not able to convince my father of this however. I could always play him like a flute, but this was the first time I had failed to manipulate him. I didn’t have any chance to be admitted to the science department as my grades were very poor. But I finally got admitted to the College of Home Economics. My father thought that this would be a more practical degree than history or Bengali literature. I lived at home during college because that is what proper local girls did. In our culture, young women were expected to stay with their parents until they got married. In contrast, young men were supposed stay with their parents forever even after they married; a son’s bride would simply come and live with his family.
When I was a first-year college student at the age of sixteen, one of my relatives, a tall, slender young woman who had just given birth to her first child, came to live with us away from her baby. This was because she had started to display some strange behavior since the birth. Her husband was intermittently away at medical school, and the baby had been left with other family members for safety. I am still not sure why the decision was made for her to stay with us, but that is what happened. Since this relative was stunningly beautiful with long black hair and a flawless complexion, everybody in the neighborhood as well as many of my family members were convinced that she had been possessed by an evil Jinn. Jinns were supernatural beings made of smokeless fire. Muslims believed that God had made them before the creation of humans. They could be good or evil or neutral and take on different forms. But it was common knowledge that evil Jinns loved girls with long loose hair.
“No wonder a Jinn possessed her - she is so pretty.” Somebody had said.
“And she let her hair flow over her shoulders at night.” Someone else had pointed out.
“If you start to grow your hair, make sure that you braid it before you go out at night so that a Jinn doesn’t get you too.” One relative had advised me.
“But Jinns are supposed to be hanging around with other Jinns, right? Why is there one here?” I had asked one of my aunts.
“Sometimes they just cannot help it. They like pretty women so they disguise themselves as humans in order to possess them.” Then she warned me, “If you ever meet a man whose body always has a high temperature, then you know he is not a human - he is a Jinn.”
Within a few weeks of this relative coming to stay with us, our house became filled with preachers, ghost busters, and jugs filled with sacred water or blessed oil. Witchcraft spells that were supposed to rid her of her Jinn were uttered aloud to no avail. The only person who didn’t pay any attention to her possession was her husband - the soon-to-be doctor. He preferred to continue medical treatment for what he declared was post-natal depression. My father, the other logical person in the family, was away from home at that time, but would have sided with him.
At night, she wouldn’t sleep at all. She came into my room and dragged me out of my bed at midnight her first night there. She then asked me to come with her to visit her father. This was alarming, because her father had died a while back.
“Leave me alone, I don’t want to go out with you.”
“He is just sitting in that jackfruit tree, and he is asking me to bring you with me.” She would say pointing outside.
“Why me? I don’t even have long hair,” I would scream.
“He likes you, and he wants you,” she would whisper. “Habiba, he is waiting for you. . .”
I started locking my door, but every night she would come knocking and beg me to go with her to visit the apparition sitting in the tree. I refused but would be shivering with fear and tried to braid what little hair I had even when I went outside in the daytime. The jinn finally left her after two months of medical treatment, and she returned to her home and baby. However, I never again went under that jackfruit tree at night.
Chapter Three: Shifting Currents, Dancing Sun
On one fine winter day in 1965, my college friends and I went to see the movie Inside Daisy Clover at the Naz, a well-known movie theater in Dhaka that only featured English speaking movies. I was already a big fan of the American actress Natalie Wood. It was so cool to see that Daisy Clover could mail her recording of a song to a 25-cents-a-song recording booth on the beach and become famous overnight. I wished that I could do that, even though I couldn’t carry a tune. But what was much more mesmerizing about the movie was the handsome red-headed, blue eyed young actor who played Wade Lewis. I saw the actor’s name in the credits and at that moment, I became smitten with Robert Redford. And it was not just a crush. I promised myself that I would never ever fall out of love with Robert.
Anyone who had found true love like I had, knows that it causes a lot of heartache. Well, loving Robert was far more than just a heart ache. To start with, he was living thirteen thousand miles away with a literal ocean between us. Additionally, we were in different time zones - when I was dreaming about him at night, it was daytime for him. Furthermore, he didn’t know how to speak my language, and I couldn’t understand his English very well. He was also fourteen years older than me. Besides, he was probably in love with Natalie Wood, because I had read that they had graduated from the same school. But perhaps most important of all these many impediments - he was not aware of my existence.
I was certainly aware of his existence though. I immediately stopped seeing Natalie Wood movies. I didn’t like her anymore. All her pictures in my scrapbook were curtly sent to the garbage bin. Meanwhile, I started watching all of Robert’s movies one by one. I saw Situation Hopeless…But Not Serious, This Property is Condemned, and The Chase. And did I shriek or cry over him at the movie theatre? Oh, no. I never did that! I was not just some common fan. I was Robert’s girl - a sophisticated, highly cultured Asian beauty from East Pakistan.
When my best friend Julie, who supplied most of my movie magazines and novels, had the nerve to tell me that Paul Newman was much better looking than Robert Redford, I stopped talking to her for six months. Robert had no idea that I was fiercely defending him from the onslaught of highly exaggerated opinions about the greatness of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and a few other stars that were the favorites of my friends. He never realized that deep within a tiny country that he had probably never heard of, he had competitors, whose supporters were always trying to put him down.
I knew from the bottom of my heart that Robert Redford would find me one day. After all, John Lennon had found Yoko Ono. And Marlon Brando had found his first wife, actress Anna Kashfi. She was from Calcutta which was only 200 miles from my house! In 1967, the final results for all students passing the first two years of college were posted in the local newspaper. I could not find my name anywhere. I was later informed that I had failed English but would be able to take the final test again after three months in order to get promoted. My parents were very frustrated with me. But nobody was nearly as disappointed as I was - failing in English?
“How shall I ever talk to Robert? I cannot read or write English,” I wailed to myself.
Since he was so busy making movies anyway, I decided to focus my full attention on mastering the English language. Thus, I sacrificed myself to the messy world of this West Germanic tongue with the help of my father who was even more determined than me to improve my language skills. On the weekends, when most of my friends were listening to music on their battery-operated transistor radios, reading romantic Bengali novels, or secretly writing love letters, my father would ask me to translate into English a simple everyday news column from The Daily Azad, which was one of the most read newspapers in the country.
“Let your broad-shouldered verbs and nouns do the hard work of translation.” My father would advise before his nap.
I would then attempt to translate stories about sinking fishing boats and missing fishermen – a common story in a country so full of rivers both big and small. When boats weren’t sinking, I would try to translate other stories like the one I still remember about a woman robbing a bank while dressed as a boy. The problem was when my father reviewed my work, he would discover that I had translated a sentence, but the verb was missing. When I got the verb correctly, the tense was wrong. When the verb and tense agreed, then the pronoun would disagree. I kept getting lost with singular & plural nouns. Some nouns were always singular. Some nouns were singular and plural but spelled exactly alike! I kept floating backward, forward, and sideways in the world of the present perfect, past perfect, past progressive, and present perfect progressive tenses. Conjunctions, prepositions, interjections, and punctuations kept jumping up and down like some crazy rock-n-roll song inside my brain. My once dreamy weekends turned into nightmares! Every time I misspelled a word, my father, would ask me to write it one hundred times.
In the meantime, many dignitaries, Olympic champions, famous movie stars, and even Queen Elizabeth visited Bangladesh. But, alas, there was no sign of Robert Redford. How could he do this to me when I was working so hard to be able to speak to him? Still, I kept living for him day after day, week after week, and month after month. Being born and raised in a Muslim family, I was a firm believer in the miracle of prayers. For that reason, I started praying day and night to Allah to help me meet Robert Redford. When Allah didn’t answer my prayers, I decided to pray to Jesus – who is considered a prophet in Islam. Eventually, I prayed to other prophets – Moses and Abraham. I even broke from my religion and secretly prayed to all the Hindu Gods that I had heard of – after all, at least one of my ancestors was Hindu. I even prayed to the Buddha. Since Buddhism began in the Indian subcontinent and that is where I was, maybe my prayer would have more importance to him. Surely one of these religious figures would take me seriously. One evening, out of the blue, one of my favorite cousins from my father’s side, Chunu, and his wife, Shahana, invited me and my sister, Pauline, to the Film Development Corporation (FDC) studios to watch how movies were made. My cousin happened to be a successful film producer and also owned several movie theaters. He was several years older than me, so my siblings and I called him Chunu “Bhai”. “Bhai” means brother in my country. Addressing someone who is older than you by their first name only is very disrespectful in my culture. Hence “bhai” is added to the first name of an older male relative and/or friend.
FDC studio was like Hollywood to a cinema-obsessed teenager like me. Some of my friends and I were fixated on many of the glamorous actors and actresses that filmed there. I had always dreamed of having a little role in an FDC-made movie with a dazzling actor. Perhaps this was finally my chance. Who would have thought that one day my own cousin would make me a star and that my stardom would eventually lead me to meet Robert Redford!
Since most of the shooting took place late at night, our cousin picked us up after dinner around eight o’clock in his black sedan. His chauffer driven, air conditioned luxury car instantly made us feel very special amongst the rickshaws, buses, cows, and bullock carts that we passed on our way to the studio that was located outside the Dhaka city limits. Once we arrived, we were shocked that our cousin wouldn’t let us out of his car. He wanted Pauline and me to watch the filming through the car window. He had arranged for the car to be parked near the set in a space that allowed us to watch everything clearly. I was disappointed at first, but then I got excited again and began to watch everything with great interest.
Being the movie connoisseur that I was, I quickly figured out that the movie was about a princess who was being held captive in a palace under an ocean. The handsome prince that had come and rescued her was about to declare his love. The current scene was being filmed atop a plain stage probably fifty feet by thirty feet in area standing approximately eight feet above the ground. It’s rough concrete floor was packed with film crew members working under blinding bright lights. The cameramen were hollering at each other every few minutes in very offensive language. Finally, the “princess” came onto the set and begged the director for a bite to eat before the next scene. Her request was denied with vulgar words. As if that wasn’t enough, the high temperature and humidity, paired with the fact that the studio had no air conditioning, made the actress’s hair straight instead of being curled on her forehead. The makeup artist failed to keep it curled despite everything. Finally, we saw him rudely glue her hair to her forehead.
The “prince” wasn’t happy either. He too was hungry, sweaty, and angry. Apparently, the same scene had been shot eight times already earlier that evening, and the actor was clearly frustrated. He was having violent outbursts that frightened us even though we were inside a car at a distance. It was clear to us that the prince, the princess, the extras, and the whole crew hadn’t eaten dinner even at that late hour. On top of that, they hadn’t been allowed to have a bathroom break in a long while.
Nevertheless, filming began. The princess stood near the foot of the gold-painted bed with a crew member holding a huge picture behind her. She then said something romantic to her prince after which filming stopped again. The prince and the princess were being played by very famous actors at the time. I had often gazed at their splendid pictures in my magazines for hours. Regrettably, they didn’t look glamorous at all that night. The unpleasant reality of a film set was a slap to my face. It did not take me long to realize that this type of work was uninteresting and demanding. For so many years, I had entertained the fantasy of being an actress, but that night, my long-standing desire came to an abrupt end.
“It's nothing like children imagine,” my cousin commented to his wife on our way back.
He was right. I saw the reality. But, how would I now find Robert Redford? Tears were welling up in my eyes. Pauline, with her cheeky little face turned at me, was nosy and trying to figure out my sentiments in the dark. But she was seven years younger, so I was not about to discuss my feelings with her. I silently told Robert that he would always be on my mind and that I would be his number one fan forever. Then I broke it off with him.
“Roll the windows down a little, will you?” my cousin asked his chauffer.
As was common with the dynamic weather changes of my country, even after this hot, humid day, a light breeze suddenly started to blow. The gentle northern wind dried up my tears and soothed my heart.
Chunu Bhai had unknowingly switched off the Robert Redford thought from my head. My actress fantasies faded away, and my new dream of getting an education was finally in line with the Munshi decree. So, for the first time ever, I put my all into my studies. My parents were pleased with my change of heart and reminded me that education was the only thing to ensure security to fall back on if times ever got rough. All these years later, I wonder now if they had arranged with my cousin to take me to the studio that night to face reality. Anyway, after breaking up with Robert Redford, my grades started to improve. I completed my undergraduate degree in 1969 and began my master’s degree.
I discovered that I had admirers too. There was, in particular, one young fellow in the neighborhood who had apparently been centering on me with great interest. His name was Abdur Razzaque, and I was told that he had a crush on me. His parents were our neighbors and lived about one third of a mile down the road from our place. As a matter of fact, his father was one of the acquaintances of my father who had bought lots in Lake Circus years before. Thus, I had known of this young man my entire life and had seen him from a distance. But he was eight years older than me so we had never really crossed paths. Eventually, he sent a marriage proposal through a mutual family friend. In my native land at the time, parents and other family elders usually arranged marriages, but sometimes a young guy might mention his interest in someone in particular to his parents to get the ball rolling so to speak. Regardless of how a marriage proposition came to be, both halves of the potential couple had to give consent to make an engagement legal. My parents told me that he was a great candidate for a husband, because he was a brilliant biochemist who was about to leave for England to pursue his PhD. He was also from an upper-class family. I agreed as I didn’t know any better. That was just the way things were done at the time. Besides, I thought this would be a great opportunity to get out of my little world.
My engagement ceremony took place at my house with my family and a few representatives from his family in early April of 1970. In accordance to Islamic law, a prenuptial agreement was agreed upon by both families. The spokesman for my future husband agreed to give me a lump sum “denmahor” (dowry). The amount was determined based on my groom-to-be’s financial ability. It was decided that half that amount would be paid with gold jewelry at the time of the marriage. The rest of it would be paid in the future by assets or by cash. The settling of the payment is obligatory. This was a tradition established early on during the formation of Islamic culture to protect a woman and give her some financial independence should she become divorced or widowed, since most wives at the time were supported financially by their husbands. At the end of this ceremony, my future husband’s grandfather, who had been acting as his representative, gave me the engagement ring and the wedding date was set.
Two days before the wedding, a pre-marriage ritual called “gayeholud” or “yellowing of the body” took place at my home. Fresh turmeric paste was rubbed all over my face and the other few body parts that would be exposed on the wedding day. Bengalis believe that turmeric helps to lighten and refine the skin, giving the bride a wonderful glow. For the gaye holud, my soon-to-be groom's family brought my entire outfit for the ceremony along with the turmeric paste, sweetmeats, and gifts as per tradition. They also brought two large fish decorated as a groom and bride. The same ritual was celebrated at the groom’s house as well. Gifts were sent to him from my family.
On the morning of my wedding day, I took a long bath and washed off all the turmeric which had produced a subtle yellowish tone on my skin. A bride in Bangladesh is not supposed to wear anything old so after my bath, I put on a brand-new sari. After that, I went through a bridal mehndi ceremony, where my friends embellished my hands with freshly pasted henna in all kinds of intricate patterns. Meanwhile, as I was continuing to get pampered during my reign as queen of the day, a huge colorful wedding tent was set up in our front yard. Truckloads of dining tables and chairs arrived and were set up in the tent while caterers got busy preparing for the night’s feast. Professional lighting decorators, who had arrived the day before, finished draping thousands of lights all over my parents’ trees, gates, other buildings on the property, and the tent itself.
My parents invited hundreds of people to attend my wedding, and the celebration began as soon as the sun went down. There was already a festive feel in the air by the time my groom arrived in the evening along with his friends, family, and live marching military band. My husband-to-be and I were seated in different areas, and we took our wedding vows separately in front of three witnesses knowledgeable in Islamic law. A priest facilitated the solemnization of our marriage in the presence of a government official. After which prayers were held for us.
After the marriage was registered, and we were officially wed, that same night, my husband’s family sent me bridal goods in a large suitcase. The goods included a heavily embellished red bridal sari, veil, gold jewelry, shoes as well as other gifts such as makeup, perfume, and several other saris for later occasions. I left the ceremony with my friends to change into my new outfit. After dinner, my new husband and I were seated together for the first time as man and wife. We took part in some of the long-held Bengali wedding traditions including drinking lemonade from the same glass and exchanging garlands made out of fresh flowers. During the latter rituals, I was sobbing on and off. I had been raised in a close-knit family but had to begin living with another family the very next day. My father wouldn’t be with me in the middle of the night to make sure there were no snakes or thieves or bhoot in my bathroom. I wouldn’t be able to demand to have something pretty I had seen at the market. I was married to my new husband on April 27, 1970. But that was just the beginning of another kind of journey — one I would have never imagined for myself.