Dilruba Z. Ara
For various reasons, patriotism is an emotion that becomes very palpable when one lives abroad. This feeling has grown in me too, since I left Bangladesh, my native land. I’ve now spent more than half of my life in Sweden. I’m married to a bona fide Swedish man, I work here, I do my reading and writing here, I inhale Swedish air, I teach Swedish, I speak Swedish in my daily life, but the fact is that the colour of my skin still gives me away as a foreigner even before I open my mouth. In the beginning, this awareness of being conspicuously different used to make me feel very uncomfortable. I would always try to become invisible by becoming both deaf and dumb. But as time went by, I began to accept my status as a foreigner and at the same time began to realize the value of having a country with which I could identify: a country of my own. For sure, my circumstances are better than the refugees, who are country-less. Unlike them, I have a country, into the very core of which I can physically drift regardless of time and situation, a country where, without any effort, I can become one with its people, language and climate.
But what about my mind? After all these years abroad, it must have acquired features that have got nothing to do with Bangladesh. For example, I like to take long promenades in the forest, I enjoy an assortment of cheese, I keep three alarm clocks so as not to miss any appointments, and I have a notebook where I write down my daily agenda. I no longer subscribe to the notion that well-off people deserve more respect than unfortunate ones, I have learned to sport warm clothing to fend off Nordic winters, and I keep my garden trimmed and pruned during summers so as not to annoy the neighbours. In other words, yes, my immigrant mind has acquired some of the basic virtues of a good Swedish citizen. A good Swedish citizen is a conformist, one who follows laws and regulations, who fits into patterns set by other good citizens. A good Swedish citizen fights for her rights, but only within her own social sphere; she avoids exposure to the vulnerability outside it, because a vulnerable situation can expose what one really is like beneath the surface of acknowledged goodness, and she is an aficionado of peace. But then again, it’s not difficult to be peace-loving in a fair country like Sweden, as it is not often that one feels one’s rights being violated. I am not referring to the Swedish labour market or academic world, where things still need to be improved for the benefit of qualified women. Nor am I referring to the rights of refugees, or of unwanted immigrants, or of a citizen with a non-Swedish surname. I am referring to the fairness that average Swedish people strive to practise in their everyday lives. I am referring to the fairness that Sweden has on display.
Bangladesh is different. In Bangladesh, it is not easy to be peace-loving; the society is not even fairly unfair; it is conspicuously unfair! Hence, already after a few days in Bangladesh, my mind, coloured by fair Sweden, begins to voice thoughts that are not compatible with my language or facade. My occidental mind rides on my Eastern tongue, expressing itself both in private and public. I find myself openly distinguishing between justice and injustice, right and wrong, my words rendering an alien aura to my native skin. Yet, I don’t try to be a conformist here. Blinded by my own colour, deafened by the fluency of my tongue, I neither hear nor see the alien mind that both generates my words and lives under my native skin. I only know that I have every right to utter my thoughts in my country. It’s my birthright. It’s my skin colour’s right. It’s the right of the language in which my voice feels most comfortable.
My mother disapproves of my total disrespect for my sybarite relatives. My eight-year-old niece Mita tells me that a wealthy woman like myself shouldn’t be chitchatting with domestic servants the way I do. Our driver Babul gets upset when I make him stop the car to buy clusters of bananas from a roadside fruit vendor only to dole them out to the beggar children by my father’s graveyard. My friends call me European when I criticize them for not being punctual.
Despite this growing air of censure, I have been returning to Bangladesh every year. During my early years in Sweden, I would come because I was homesick. Then I would come for no apparent reason. Once or twice I came to attend my siblings’ weddings or similar family reunions, but mostly I suppose I was coming to experience this feeling of totally belonging to a nation, of effortlessly becoming invisible. In recent years, I came to tend to my father, who was lying on his deathbed. During all these visits, I never paid much heed to the impact of my behaviour on my surroundings, as it never crossed my mind that I was behaving out of Bengali character, and perhaps also because it was only my friends and family who were subjected to my non-standard conduct.
This particular morning as I’m walking towards my father’s grave, I’m not thinking of that either. I’m not thinking at all that I’m about to do something that a woman wouldn’t do in Bangladesh. I’m not thinking that I’m about to do something that might be regarded as an act of transgression. Instead, I’m thinking of death. I’m thinking how now I can feel death breathing down my neck. As long as my father was alive, he was a shield between death and me. Now that he’s gone, death has come closer to me. One day, I too will be gone, making death breathe down my children’s necks. It seems death has an ever-lasting life unlike everything else.
I wonder what happens to the soul: does it have an ever-lasting life, too? Does it leave a body and then wait for the right moment to inhabit another in a woman’s womb? I shake my head—the very thought is profane. There is no such thing as reincarnation in Islam, but at this moment, walking towards my father’s grave, I wish reincarnation were true. Then my father would be around again, maybe as a Swedish child, if not a Bengali one. Maybe as my next-door neighbour’s baby in Sweden. That family is expecting their second child. The thought sends a happy shudder through me.
Babul, the driver, is walking along with me, with a tin of paint and a couple of brushes and scrubbers in his hand. Unlike Swedish graveyards, this graveyard in Banani is remarkably colourful. The graves are rectangular and framed with multicoloured stones or blooming plants. There are shrubs, chirping birds, boughs heavy with flowers, visitors, and grave keepers. As epitaphs there are poems, rhymes, letters, or lines from quranic verses carved on the gravestones or on the squat walls around the graves. Some new graves are still under mounds of freshly turned soil. Some are sparsely covered with incipient grass, a soft shade of green against the dark soil. So is my father’s, he being dead only one month.
His grave is the last one in the last row. As my father was a celebrated author, he was supposed to be buried in the Government Graveyard for the intellectuals in Mirpur, but my mother wanted the grave near our house. From the beginning, the authorities had said that the available piece of land was not sufficient for a tall man like my father, but my architect brother-in-law had taken out his measuring tape to convince them that the piece was just large enough.
I had felt depressed on my first visit to the grave. It not only looked undignified, with its temporary walls of cane, but also small. Small for Abba. It felt as though Abba was lying in an uncomfortable position, his toes digging into the mud wall for want of space. I had trembled with powerlessness. Today too, I tremble. I close my eyes, hold my joined palms close to my heart and whisper some verses from the Quran. It takes a while before my heart calms down. I can’t do anything to expand the size of the grave, but I can do something to improve the cane walls around the grave. And that’s what I have come to do today. I shall paint them white. White and bright.
It has taken me a week to convince Babul to take me to a hardware shop to get the paint and necessary tools for performing the work. He came up with various excuses for not taking me to the shop. First he told me that being a woman, I shouldn’t even be dreaming of painting at the tomb myself in a public burial ground. When I wondered why, as I really didn’t understand him, he got utterly furious and refused to drive me anywhere. The next day when I broached the subject again, he said he was feeling poorly and needed a day off. When he showed up a day later, he said he had no idea where one could get such stuff. He was a driver, not a mason, etc.
I didn’t know what to do, but something, some deep-rooted Bengali instinct, told me that even if I managed to get the stuff myself, I couldn’t visit the graveyard alone and do the job: I needed a male by my side, and Babul was the only available male who could give me the time. After some thinking, I threatened him. I said that I would take the car out myself and drive in Dhaka’s mad traffic, and if something should happen to me it would be his fault. Babul looked into my eyes, and knowing me, figured out that I meant what I said. So, he shook his head like an exasperated father and gave in.
The grave is along the boundary wall on the opposite end of the cemetary, and to reach it we walk along the main pathway dividing the area, and then we take the last causeway on our right and pick our way between two rows of graves. We reach a point where we have to stop and then leave the causeway to walk between two graves on our left — one of which is neat and tidy, the other one illustriously uncared for. As we walk, Babul informs me that the whole family of the latter lives abroad, so the appointed grave minder neglects it.
We climb up to the delta-shaped piece of land along one of the longer sides of Abba’s rectangular sleeping space, and it is just about large enough for us to be able to stand side by side and work. We commence at once. We separate the four frames from around the grave and lean them against the wall that runs along one side of the space to disappear somewhere beyond my sight. I take up a scrubber and instruct Babul in what he should do. Babul does his work, scowling and pouting his bulging dark lips under his moustache. He doesn’t speak a word.
We have the morning sun on our backs. First it feels gently warm and comforting, but after a while I can feel the heat creeping into my flesh through my salwar, kamiz, and dupatta. As time passes it becomes intense. Perspiration breaks out and rolls down my spine, but I keep on working diligently. Having cleaned one of the trellises, I turn to pick up the container of paint. I see a gathering of a few men of various ages, standing on the walkway across the dual graves —the neat and the un-neat one. The men are all bearded and dressed in traditional outfits: punjabi, tupi, and cotton trousers that hang a little above their ankles.
Babul whispers, “The older one is the imam! I’m sure you have angered him.”
I give Babul a murderous glower, and start painting. The brush moves fervently on the slim strips of cane and keeps on sputtering colour on the brick wall behind. I don’t care a fig about the Imam standing only at a grave’s distance behind me, but I care about the wall. It irritates me that I’m tainting the communal wall. I should have brought some plastic to protect it. When I tell Babul what I’m feeling, he simply says that I’m not in Sweden. Behind me the imam walks back and forth with his disciples on the red-bricked aisle. I feel their collective scowl on my back, I hear their whispers, but I keep on painting, sputtering dots of white on the red wall and getting angrier with myself.
Done with one frame, I clean the wall and start on another frame. When I’m through with this one, I discover to my total dismay that the first one has already sucked in much of its new colour and is looking a mishmash of green and white. It doesn’t take me long to realize that the canes are unprocessed and full of sap beneath the coat of paint. I look at Babul and he says that we should leave the trellises after giving each a single coat and then come back tomorrow.
For the first time, I agree with him and start collecting our tools. We pick our way in between the graves and reach the causeway; I climb on it. The Imam separates himself from his followers and stands aside facing me. I arrange the edge of my dupatta correctly on my head as I meet his face. It has been a long time since I met an imam at such close quarters. He reminds me of my childhood, when I used to take Quran lessons in a mosque in Ajimpura. He reminds me of the imam of that mosque. His body is as scrawny and small, he has a slight hunch on his back, and his face has the same kind of confidence. As I read his face, I wonder what gives all imams or preachers this kind of strength! What makes them believe that they are better than us, we who have not devoted our lives to religious vocation? I can see that he wants me to explain myself, but he doesn’t know what to say, as he has never seen a woman grave-painter before. The other men stand in a clump, gazing at me and the imam taking each other in. I don’t smile. Neither does he. I forget that I’m not in Sweden. He remembers that it’s his domain. We both keep our heads high.
The sun is now in my eyes, I can’t keep them from flickering no matter how severely I command them to stay still. The situation begins to both infuriate and embarrass me. I slowly become aware of a dispute in my heart: shall I declare peace by lowering my eyes, or shall I keep on defying him by squinting into his eyes? I know for certain that his mind is intellectually limited, and his behaviour towards me is only underlying what I always have thought of mullahs in general. Fanatically self-righteous. I wonder why he doesn’t
start a commotion, resisting me vocally. Why this quiet disdain? What is he seeing in me? A rebel? An immodest woman? Or just someone who has lost her mind and is not worth his divine words? In that case he should have better things to do than waste his time like this! After a minute’s inner dispute, I decide to walk away without showing any sign of capitulation. I hear myself muttering, “It’s my father’s grave, and no one can stop me from painting it. No one. I have all the right in the world to be here and to honour my father the way I wish—”
Babul’s words penetrate my soliloquy: “That’s the oldest daughter of the family, she lives abroad, you see.”
I know that Babul is giving them excuses for my atypical manners and hoping for the imam’s compassion if not understanding. I walk quickly. I don’t look at the rows of graves on either side to read the epitaphs or to admire their colours. I don’t halt to inhale the scent of seasonal flowers. I don’t lend my ears to birds to let their songs entertain them. I don’t think of the life of the soul. Nor of death. I walk past the narrow trail and get onto the main pathway. The graveyard is big, so it takes me a while to get to the gate. I go out and wait for Babul to come and open the car door for me. When I climb into the car I keep my silence and Babul keeps his. He starts the engine and the car jolts off. I see in the mirror that the Imam is standing in the middle of the gateway to the graveyard, his face as hard as stone, his eyes following the car.
Next morning, when Babul shows up, I ask him to take out the car immediately. I want to have the fences done before the sun gets too hot. Of course I recall the episode from yesterday and feel discouraged. But I have started the work and I will finish it. No one is going to scare me off from doing it. If the imam is not brave enough to voice his displeasure, what can his silence do to me? Without words he is just a puppet. I steel myself and change into my white set of salwar, full-sleeved kamiz, and wrap my head with the dupatta. As I slip my feet into my outdoor sandals, my mother looks at me and says, “You should consider yourself lucky that we live in this area.”
We reach the graveyard. As we are quite early, the usual beggars are not yet there by the gate. The flower-vendors are likewise absent. A couple of pie dogs are sitting leisurely under a tree. A few crows are walking on the dusty ground. As I enter the gate and walk past the small mosque on my left, I see the imam. He sees me, too, and at once gets to his feet, neglecting the crowd sitting around him. He follows Babul and me all the way to the dual graves, where we leave the aisle to approach the trellises leaning against the wall. I resume working and so does Babul.
The imam begins to walk back and forth on the causeway. I wonder what might be passing through his mind. Although I am aware that his behaviour is a reflection of his mind, I can’t help feeling that his mindset is the product of what he has seen and heard since his birth, a mindset which is so different from the Western mindset. A priest in the West would never neglect his own office to pester a daughter trying to honour her deceased father. He would have the civility to maintain his position. He would evoke respect from his parishioner, not disdain. I wish the imam behaved as properly as a priest in a graveyard in the West. Then I would be proud of him. I want to be proud of him, because he is the imam of my father’s eternal resting place. He is the watcher of my father’s grave. And also because he is connected to me, being a Bangladeshi, a full-blooded Bangladeshi, as I am. I wish he could see himself with my eyes. It disquiets me that I can’t hold him in respect. Suddenly he reminds me of those elements of Bengali society which will always embarrass me on behalf of my fellow countrymen. I shake my head, what’s the matter with me? Who am I to misprize this man only because I have sipped in Western air? What do I want? What do I expect of a man from one of the poorest countries in the world? Who has given me the right to judge him? Who can prove that I am better than he is? A feeling of loneliness sweeps over me. I look up and see the hot sky. I feel the hot air. I ask Babul to take out the flask of cold water and the paper cups we brought with us.
The imam is now standing still, just opposite me across the twin graves. The blazing sun shines on him, sweat gleaming on his face. Babul wonders if he can offer him a cup of water. I nod and wipe away the beads of sweat on my forehead and take up the brush again; Babul walks between the graves with the paper cup filled with cool water.
The same scene repeats itself for a few days. Occasionally the imam watches me alone; occasionally he has some people with him. But they no longer scowl, and all of them seem to be waiting for the refrigerator-cool water Babul serves them with a broad smile on his tiny face.
The fourth day, determined to finish off the work, I go to the graveyard very early and work doggedly for a couple of hours. The cool morning turns warm and then hot. Very hot. My clothes get drenched with sweat. I keep on working, ignoring the escalating heat and the alternating hot and cold feeling on my skin. I only give in when I realize that I’m getting a bad headache. Babul collects the things. I take stock of my work: one more coat of paint and then I will be satisfied. When I reach the aisle, I face the imam again. His face seems softer. He stands aside. As usual, we part in silence.
In the evening I come down with a fever. I get laid up for a few days. I feel restless, as I’m not yet done with the frames, and I’m to leave for Sweden shortly. The first morning when I find myself somewhat on the mend, I get ready to go and finish off my work. As the car approaches the graveyard, I find the imam by the gate. Arms stretched out, he is holding the bars of the huge gate, his white clad body pressed flat against the grids, his bearded face sticking out from in-between two black bars. He sends me back to Sweden instantly; he reminds of the scarecrows in the wheat fields. This image irritates me beyond imagination. “God damn it,” I think, “why can’t he act like an awe-inspiring man? He is supposed to be a symbol of Islam in Bangladesh. If he behaves like this, how shall the non-Muslims respect him, when I can’t?” I look away.
He leaves the bars, pushes open the gate and stands aside. It occurs to me that he has been waiting for my return. I wonder why. I give him a nod of recognition and, surprising me, he puts his right palm on his chest and nods. Well-bred Muslim men have greeted me in the same manner on other occasions. I feel shaky. Something melts within me. As I begin walking, I notice that he is not following me, but keeping pace with me. He walks along one edge of the path, I along the other.
Having given the fences the final coat of colour, Babul and I adjust them around Abba’s grave. I attach a sign saying that it’s newly painted. Then we take a step back to take in the sight. The grave now looks nice with its verdant grass in the middle and the white fence around it. Abba would be pleased. He loved beauty. We now pray in silence for his soul. When we are done, we collect our things and pick our way back to the aisle. The imam, who has been standing there, suddenly moves, and before we understand what he is doing, he walks past us and takes the same track back to Abba’s grave. Babul and I now stand in the aisle looking at him in wonder. He roots himself by the head of the grave and takes out a miniature book from his pocket. I mistake it for a copy of the holy Quran, but when he starts reading it aloud, I become petrified with shock. My mind suffers a sudden volte-face. It’s a book of poetry by the renowned Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. The imam is reading a poem in honour of my father, my late father, who was an author himself. The imam’s voice is lovely as he recites the poem with all his passion. All other sounds die away. The grave keepers stop working, grave visitors halt. I listen to him, spellbound. I can’t move. I can’t help feeling that a moment like this is worth a thousand moments of disquiet. I wait for him to come back and talk to me.
He comes, but he doesn’t talk. We walk side by side, first on the causeway and then on the broad bricked path that bisects the graveyard. The sun is on our faces. When I’m about to climb into the car, I look into his eyes and say, “Please forgive me, if I have offended you!”
He shakes his head and speaks a line from Kazi Nazrul Islam: “There is a father sleeping in the mind of every child.”
Dilruba Z. Ara teaches English and Swedish, writes both prose and poetry, translates and paints. Her novel A List of Offences was recently published in Spain and Greece. She translated and edited Selected Short Stories of Shahed Ali from Bengali into English as well as a portion of Pippi Longstocking into Bengali from Swedish. She recently finished a collection of stories and is now working on her next novel. She lives in Lund, Sweden.
Courtesy Shipwrights Review IMER Malmö University Sweden