1. THE ARRIVAL
Washington DC is humid in the summer. The humidity reminds the city it was once a wetland. By late August, the rain fills the Potomac River; tourists, sparrows, and extrovert pigeons descend on the white marble of the Jefferson memorial on the tidal basin; the old cherry trees nearby wait for the next spring, comforted by the memories of pink blossoms that faded to white in the sun before touching the ground after the wind and the rain. On an August morning in 2010, my mother arrived in Washington to visit me. Almost as scheduled. 10:54 am. Only 4 minutes late.
I left home at 15, after we moved to our house in Mirpur, built on a land Amma bought in the 1960s with savings from Abba's salary and her wedding jewelry. By the summer of 2010, I had been in the US for twenty years. She had crossed 70, before her descent into dementia. I already had a job, a nucleus family crowded with a daughter, her namesake who had just turned one. Renia's first word was aalo. When Amma entered my apartment, jetlagged but beaming, Eid arrived, fusing anticipation with completeness. Outside, the sky was blue, with puffy clouds that finally stopped moving. Suddenly I was 15 again. That night, I slept well.
She stayed with us for two months and fell in love with the big sky, cheesecakes, and the tall quiet trees. She discovered their bark wrinkles like aging skin, the way a long drought cracks the earth or the winter breeze folds the mighty Padma into small waves near its bank; she found the empty highways generous but sad; the Potomac a miniature of her Padma near Shinepukur. She loved the flags of 182 countries at the IMF bistro, the bends in the Shenandoah River, the art installations at the World Bank's underground cafeteria, the family of monuments in the national mall area, and JFK's bronze bust at the Kennedy Center, installed in 1971 (the year she was carrying me inside and a country was born). The coincidence of the births secretly convinced me that Amma somehow knew I would later work in Washington DC, so she designed the Kennedy Center for me to have a twin nearby.
That fall, the September sun lingered behind the tall trees near my Chevy Chase apartment #926, looking down on treetops, next to a small creek with round pebbles and clear water. The molten shaft of golden light would pass through those trees like stained glass, revealing as x-rays do the spines and veins of the fall leaves. In that fading light, after her Maghrib prayers on a round antique oak table my great grandfather-in-law James Evans won in the 1930s in a poker bet in St Paul, Minnesota, she and I would reminisce.
We would reminisce about the 1970s: Gouripur Raj Bari where I was conceived; Munshiganj where I learned to walk, wondered why the full moon follows us whenever we ride a rickshaw in the evening, saw my father cry for the first time when he learned his youngest brother was slaughtered the night before in a village haat by the Sarbaharas (I internalised this moment only many years later); Manikganj where I fell in love with the coo of a dove, the poetic refrain of Sura Ar-Rahman ("Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?" repeated 31 times in the 78-ayah sura) she recited every dawn; where I ran faster than the Six Million Dollar Man, built paper boats to ply on a nearby pond, coveted the speedboat of the government officer (SDO) who lived in a bungalow with big raintrees with their trunks painted white; first tasted the evening sadness of a departing Eid; became convinced in my fertile fear the Skylab satellite would crash near Manikganj.
Prompted by the insecurities of seeing a frail parent, soon to be depleted by dementia, I rushed during her 2010 trip to know my mother's stories, her memories, the ones never shared or closely listened to. Her stories as a little girl. As a teenager doted on by a stern father and four brothers. Her arranged marriage to a cerebral man with a grand family name but modest means. The happiest moments of her life? The most difficult? How did Abba compliment on her beauty (a question she relished every time I asked, so I asked often)? A pattern emerged: each query started with her but merged with Abba. It became clear we both were still grieving, still unhealed by twenty years.
In those evenings, I discovered I knew so little about the geography of my mother's soul, her interior worlds – her hopes, dreams, grief, fear, loneliness, anguish, faith, determination. Mothers are loving liars – they hide so much, so often, without their children ever knowing or asking what, why or when. Powered by faith, she raised seven children, fighting hardships and griefs after my father's untimely death from health complications throughout the 1980s. Always a son, now a new father, I knew motherhood only in abstract but knew this much: the geography of her soul must have shaped the geology of mine.
Some say our identities come from the stories we tell ourselves. Our memories, often fluid and scaffolded by imagination, embroider those identities. As for me, I had long told myself I am my father's son as I looked for him after his early departure, a reminder that shifted the slope of all my memories and slanted my understanding of my own past. This realization sprouted late, only in my mid-life.
What are my mother's earliest memories? After many trials, she narrowed the two, unsure about the earliest: planes flying in the Bikrampur sky, humming like dragonflies; hungry people and silent dogs queuing up together for bhaater mar. The imam in her family mosque had warned that those angry dragonflies in the sky carried people inside their bellies, could hurl fire on the ground. But, with unaccustomed curiosity and fear, she and my mejo khala would often run out to see those dragonflies during their morning recitations, forgetting in haste to close the Quran.
The youngest among seven, she came from a family of tall men with inherited land and sharp noses who loved spending money. Her short husband with a flatter nose was raised by a quiet young widow, my grandmother, who raised her seven children in the 1940s and 1950s, after my grandfather passed away at the Mitford hospital in the 1930s after a long journey by boat and high fever. Newly married, my father earned a comfortable living in the 1960s, dubbed then the decade of development, working in agricultural credit and rural development. In the 1970s, inflation ate away his salary as prices quadrupled in the young country, our family size doubled and corruption multiplied, not an easy time for a linear man like my father, perhaps far more demanding for my mother, the emotional lender-of-last resort, the consoler-in-chief and the manager of growing financial strains in the family, very much in a fractal echo of the country's strain and disillusionment in the decade after independence. In families, as in countries, traumas ripple across generations through memories, mimicking fractals in mathematics as I imagined many years later during my undergraduate thesis on fractals and chaos theory in a liberal arts college in the middle of cornfields thousands of miles away from home. Same is true for many of our social innovations. I will explain this analogy later. Interestingly but on a peripheral note, statistical analysis carried out at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences found that some of the world's greatest writers like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, regardless of the language they wrote in, in some respects were constructing fractals through words.
For the most part, Amma led a happy life with a man who respected all her decisions, was quiet, serious, tender, honest, periodically funny but worried during the last four years of his life about the hospital bills eating up all the family savings, leaving little for the seven young children. Only in my forties, informed by mid-life, I could trace how my mother's fighting spirit and my father's final worries shaped my own resilience and insecurities. I have sometimes wondered how my parents' insecurities and resilience were in turn shaped by those of the new country. I long suspected without any definitive proof we all somehow transmit the echoes of what we can no longer hear, of our parents, of the time, the people, and the land that produced us.
As I explored my mother's earliest memory, I wondered about mine. It was on a boat on the Ichamati River, my first ocean, sometime in the autumn of 1974 (amid the raging famine, my older siblings confirmed) and on our way to our ancestral home in Nawabganj, unaware that many were starving to death in the villages and in the cities. Ivy, my oldest sister, fed me round rice balls with the dark hilsa meat packed inside, which, she confided in a hushed voice, came from an overconfident deer in the Sundarbans after it lost a sure race to the hilsa. I heard that story many times as a child; every time the story both fascinated and pained me, evoking how much it must have hurt the deer to lose its flesh. Fortunately, throughout, I remained peacefully oblivious that I myself was devouring that flesh, an early, innocent taste that not all guilts or griefs are equal or equally precise.
Perhaps since that boat trip, my fascination with water and boats became a lifelong pregnancy. Growing up, I played with two small wooden boats. My older siblings called them the "Academy" boats, not sure why.
In 1992, homesick and in a summer job in mid-town Manhattan, I would take evening strolls in Central Park amid thin breeze carrying faint conversations and in fading lights that still coloured the joggers' faces but could no longer create any shadows. Those strolls took me to a pond, Conservatory Water, surrounded by landscaped hills dotted with groves of cherry trees, where children with their privileged parents sailed model boats. The almost oval-shaped pond, which used to house water lilies in the 19th century, turns into an ice-skating rink in cold winter. The lights, the sounds, the smell of adult leaves near the pond – all reeked of humid summer and home. Sitting on a bench next to the pond as night fell, I often wondered if the flock of tiny birds flying and murmuring beneath the expanding white vapour trails from the passenger planes in the twilight blue sky were migrating; if they, unperturbed by the sound below of rushing yellow taxis on Fifth Avenue and the pungent air, enjoyed watching the boats from above.
One evening an elderly man with a small puffy white dog that preened like a cat, who seemed to visit the pond every evening, asked where I was from and then said, "Our young Presidential candidate from Hope has promised to open 1,000 branches of a village bank, Grameen bank, from your country if he wins the election. Do you know Hope is in Arkansas?" That evening, puzzled by the poetry of that question, I learned pride can partly cure homesickness. Many years later, in 2018, next to a hospital bed numbered as a palindrome (#6226) in a memory ward, I learned that my father brought those two wooden boats I played with from Comilla after his training at the Pakistan Academy of Rural Development in the mid-1960s, the mystery behind their names was finally revealed.
Those two months in 2010 of my mother's Washington visit passed quickly. I brought her back to Dhaka in October. Back in Washington, as colourful leaves fell on the ground and air cooled, the apartment felt empty, smaller. I longed to return to her.
2. THE RETURN
It took a while. But life finally returned me to her almost twenty-five years after I left Dhaka. 2015. July. The monsoon was midway, Krishnachuras in full bloom, their dark green leaves wafting in humid summer breeze like lover's eyelashes in the rain. I returned with my wife and two daughters, the older, Renia, bearing Amma's name and the younger, Shaila, her smile.
I returned as a middle-aged son to retrieve my teenage years and to work only 200 metres away where my father worked 50 years ago. I returned with the alert-aloof ease of the migratory birds I so loved watching as a teenager behind the Mirpur botanical garden, also at the Jahangirnagar University campus. Those birds could land, then glide quietly on water but were prone to the surprises only a water or a land that is both familiar and unfamiliar can generate. Amma was proud I worked for the Bangladesh Bank, an institution she viewed through my father's eyes, also an institution she had long wanted to lodge a complaint about something deeply personal, in three-quarters anger and one-quarter shame. I have often wondered without a clear answer how much of her shame she borrowed from the country's shame in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Twenty-five years is a long time. I quickly realized I had never left Dhaka and, sadly, I could never return to my Dhaka. Early on, I started spotting my younger self in different parts of the city. Not wholly surprising. Like all migrants, part of me remained stunted, a teenage boy glued to a space without geography, without borders. In my case, since I had left Bangladesh mostly on my own terms, chose to stay abroad in relative comfort, I found my nostalgia mildly insincere and its strength consistently irritating.
The return was well-timed, sprinkled with certain sadness but many newness: Amma was in her twilight years, a time when parents secretly long to reverse roles and be near their children; fighting advanced dementia, she could still walk a few steps without a wheelchair, fold her shari, recognise faces, smile back and finish sentences, on good days even a long paragraph of her past to her granddaughters.
And Bangladesh just became a lower-middle-income country. Millionaires can afford potbellies, treadmills and SUVs that cost in cash more than a house in the US but crawl with the elegance of a turtle; pangas grows in ponds; the young generation grew taller than mine, making me happily jealous; the country, once the biggest village in the world, is swelling into the biggest city (nudging me to coin the term 'density dividend' to tell our story in a TED Talk); all have sandals, all rickshaw pullers the ability to multi-task: drive and use mobile phones.
Before I left for the US, only President Ershad who had a fruity nickname, peyara (guava), had three mobile (satellite) phones, one for his wife, the other for an elegant intimate friend, whom I had seen once at my friend's house, by then older but still elegant. That house, three storey and the third oldest in Banani, still preserved the weather of old Dhaka, offered the best paya from a 150-year-old family recipe and housed a very personal letter from AK Fazlul Huq to Hakim Habibur Rahman complaining about Hussain Suhrawardy. In a poetic twist, the paya is cooked by their German-Scottish descent daughter-in-law from Indiana, whose precedence had helped my mother happily consent to my marrying a woman from a land far away.
In my reincarnated Dhaka, the morning air had grown thick with sound, dust, and change; often with debris of memories but more often with the past that happened without me, the versions of my lives that went unwritten. And the myths all migrants – across class, time, or borders – need to cope with the echoes of their past, with things that did and did not, could and could not happen in their lives – to deal with an end that has no end. All migrant heads are crowded with short stories that do not end. By late evening, the dust in the air would add another layer to a tired Dhaka, the way I remember women in the 1980s breaking bricks had their tired eyebrows painted with the red dust those bricks bled when broken like sad men.
The early days unleashed a disorientation that comes from waking up in the middle of a dream, of when the object of our desire abruptly appears in the middle of our longing. For me, Dhaka has long been a private cemetery (more accurately, a museum) of memories, a cemetery I lived in, then away from but always longed for and finally returned to. The city, a flooded river of humanity, changed in small and big ways, became three degrees hotter in the last 20 years angered by taller buildings, slower cars, narrower lakes, fewer trees and foggier sky slivered by crowded buildings with windows deprived of direct sunlight. That anger made me wonder if all changes are development. If all "developments" are desirable.
The first few weeks also revealed that development changed our units, the units of ambitions, dreams, and corruptions – from thousands to millions, from taka to dollar, occasionally euro. All things and many people came with flexible prices. With swollen balance sheets, many had more, therefore, more to lose. This created both fear and loud sycophancy as side-effects among some of the more ambitious and the successful among us. The most heartening change was in the confidence among those who the urban class that produced me often considered invisible, without names but only descriptions – the rickshaw pullers, the lady who collected alms outside the Banani mosque on Fridays to send her three daughters to complete their masters at the National University, the guard at the ATM booth below Premium Sweet in Gulshan 2 circle who wanted his seven-year-old daughter to study Kompooter first at BUET and then at Halvaad in Amrika.
Amid all the changes, the centre of this bulging city remained unchanged – Amma. She still lived in Mirpur but in a wheelchair-accessible apartment within a walking distance from the house she and Abba built in the 1960s, now inhabited by the five tall aging coconut trees that my father planted in the 1980s, and which is now reluctantly waiting for the real estate developer. I would spend all my Fridays with her.
On most days, Dhaka traffic imitated unhurried lava, made of countably infinite people, vehicles and memories, resembling unhinged letters from an endless sentence without any spaces or punctuations; no commas, no semicolons, no periods, only question marks, with occasional exclamation marks, the kind of sentence that tries to describe a Balinese painting in one go, makes you deliberately forget the beginning by the time you reach its end, a high-density metaphor for life!
But Fridays were special. Dhaka emptied the roads, hushed like a lover in the morning hours. We – Dhaka and I – would find each other in our mutual loneliness and got reacquainted. I could trace a sliver of my old Dhaka in Ramna Park and Suhrawardy Udyan, a space with the highest density of memories for me (perhaps also for the nation). As a teenager I trained there under the raintrees to beat Carl Lewis. One early November morning in 1986, behind Hotel Intercontinental, I saw a 60-some-year-old tallish foreigner jogging, trailed by two taller foreigners ahead of a gaggle of short police officers. That man, I learned I can't now recall how, had successfully changed his career from a peanut farmer to a President. He had a simple name, Jimmy. Jimmy Carter. It rhymed with Lynda Carter, our Wonder Woman, a common interest among our school friends. Her name we tracked down in Bichitra in our younger days of stronger curiosity, unliberated by Google.
On some Fridays I went back to the old raintrees in the park, now much older. Their moss-filled branches, viewed from underneath, cast a wide fishing net in the sky to mimic what we all are: rivers of memories, bequests of our past. When it rained, drenched crows would sit quietly on the branches to rest. I had memorized those trees when my father stayed at the BIRDEM hospital in the 1980s. Why I loved the Central Park in New York in the early 1990s now answered itself under those raintrees that almost covered the sky. Many years later, 34 to be precise, I learned Jimmy Carter visited Dhaka that year to hold talks on establishing a philanthropic center in Bangladesh as the Chairman of Global 2000, an organization dedicated to ''eradicating poverty, injustice and social conflicts that plague the world.'' Poverty rate was 51 percent, an estimate deemed too low then, leaving some in the BIDS and the World Bank unconvinced, inspiring paper titles like 'The Challenging Arithmetic of Poverty in Bangladesh'.
In Dhaka, roads can easily morph into crowded prisons. My work commute ranged from three to five hours. It was during those hours I started memorizing Dhaka, almost in a mutiny against my mother's dementia. As I remember and write about my Dhaka commute sitting in my study far away from Dhaka, crowded but unthreaded memories – rather fragments – rise up like mists: the dignified sweaty face of the rickshaw puller in front of the BG Press who pulled the rickshaw with one leg; the BGMEA building next to Hotel Sonargaon that seemed to mock everyone except its privileged members; the pest control ads (ant, termite, cockroach, bedbug, rat) painted on the walls with bright red seven-digit mobile numbers but no addresses; the meticulously-dressed transgenders asking for donations by tapping fast on the windows, briskly weaving through the thin space between the cars stalled in traffic lights under the Mohakhali flyover – like dolphins in a rush; the tired buses in Gabtoli with their long metallic scratches on their body imitating the pregnancy stretch marks of new mothers; the Qurbani cows shepherded in a daze to their new and last homes; the smell of COSCO soap in Tejgaon reminding me of Eid morning showers before the prayers; the LIHUA laundry store signage at 10 Kemal Ataturk Avenue with both Bangla and English letters mimicking the flows of Chinese calligraphy, only the first part LI decipherable; the crows congregating on the electric wire in front of the Chief Justice Bhaban above an open dustbin; the kites flying over the Banga Bhaban viewed from the Bangladesh Bank's marbled staircase; the shrubs in Hatirjheel with young couples holding hands behind their parked motorbikes; the street bookseller in Gulshan 1 who recognized me in Kakrail and remembered the book I bought six months ago; the fortune teller with parrots in Tejgaon who gave me the statistics of other fortune tellers and parrot keepers in Dhaka; the banyan trees growing through the cracks in old brick walls in Banani; Aamir Khan's Lavano mobile ad next to the Maghbazar flyover flaunting Salvador Dali's mustache; the aging palm trees planted in the 1950s in front GPO and behind the Kakrail mosque; the three hunched pine trees next to the Bangladesh Bank front staircase, which had slightly longer affiliation with the bank than Kazemi Sir; the pigeons near Maghbazar Mor circling in the sky every day around 11am – those pigeons would remind me of a conversation I had with Sir Abed in the basement of Taj hotel in New Delhi in March 2016. I had asked him about the kitchen where he perfected the measurement for Orsaline – tin anguler ek-chimte lobon, ek muth gur. He shared it was at the kitchen of his residence at 3 Eskaton Garden Road. I often imagined those pigeons were circling the sky in memory of that kitchen. Last month, Marty Chen confirmed my memory of that address and shared her memories of spending many hours and days in that house with Sir Abed and her dear friend Ayesha Abed whom she called Bahar. That house was close to the original Brac office in Maghbazar. Marty and her son Greg, who is close to my age, also shared their memories of Manikganj in the 1970s, when we all were within a mile from each other but never met; we learned about that proximity forty years later, making me feel close to them in a way that is hard to define, a relative of coincidence but deep connections, a fellow curator of treasured time and space. A couple of weeks ago, on Brac's 50th anniversary, Marty went back to Manikganj and met four women she had worked with in the 1970s when they were in their 20s. I kept thinking about how much she must have missed her friend Bahar and Sir Abed and their times together in that land of vivid memories.
Amma stayed at the hospital for months at a time for her serial infections. The ride after work from Motijheel to her hospital in Basundhara was long. On days when I could reach the hospital early and the sunlight cooperated, I followed a routine. I would spend the first half hour sitting next to her bed, having a one-way conversion, playing Sura Ar Rahman from my iPhone, then would put her on a wheelchair and go for a "walk" on the corridor. At the end of the corridor, the tall window overlooked Basundhara Avenue. On the other side of the road, a six-storey house had a rooftop garden with solar panels, mango trees, rose and bougainvillea plants. On clear days, I would point out and describe all the birds, the flowers, the mango trees, the Krishnachuras. I could not always tell how much she followed our conversation. But I knew she was happy. She loved gardening. She and my father collected plants to grow in our ancestral village for a retirement home. On rainy days, Basundhara Avenue would suddenly decide to become a river.
In those evenings, facing the tall hospital windows, I had many one-way conversations. I would repeat that I talked to the Governor about her complaint. Amma believed my father was wrongfully deprived of his pension because the technicalities of the application date; that if she had that pension, she won't have to feel the shame of financial struggles that dented her dignity and sell the land and the lives of her children would be easier. Governor Fazle Kabir agreed to stage a fake complaint ceremony for Amma, where she would come to the Bangladesh Bank and complain to the Governor about her being deprived of the pension. Because of her failing health, he even offered to visit Amma to hear the complaint.
Whenever I would mention that Governor Kabir is taking care of Abba's pension, she would smile – with half pride and half relief, completely unaware that she does not need the pension anymore, the deadline had passed 35 years ago, her children are now all grown up. Being able to tell Amma the true part of that blended story of truth and fiction about the complaint – that the Governor knew about it – gave me the deepest satisfaction children feel when they make their parents proud.
In abstract algebra, a group isomorphism is a function between two groups that "precisely" match their elements. They have the same properties and need not be distinguished. Next to Amma in the hospital bed, like a white crane from a lake, a clarity rose in me that airports and hospitals are isomorphic, with arrivals and departures; hellos and goodbyes; colors of the dawn and the dusk; cradles and coffins; tears and smile; memories and imagination.
As dementia advanced, I repeated fewer and fewer sentences to Amma. In her last years, I kept asking the same three questions. How did you raise seven children alone? Did Abba tell you how beautiful you are? Why did Allah answer all your prayers? The questions gave her unadulterated joy and, when she could answer, the answers never changed: "With prayers; All mothers are beautiful; I always remembered Him."
During those years, as her dementia worsened, I steadily increased my lying. Whenever I would call her, I used the same lines: "I am in a meeting with the Governor. I will soon come to the hospital." Those lines worked, gave her a certain comfort. Once after a busy day I was having a late dinner alone at 10pm in a corner table in an almost empty Lucknow (a Banani restaurant). I called Amma and those lines rolled out of my tongue. The waiter nearby heard me and gave a mixed look of confusion, followed by disappointment and final judgment. From my future visits to that restaurant, I knew he remembered but never forgave me.
Amma slowly lost all mobility, became a newborn baby. Nelly, my youngest sister quit her job, became a full-time caregiver, gave Amma daily bath at 11am, changed diapers every two hours, made sure she had no bed sore from lying on her back, cleaned her nose to avoid any injections from the feeding tube that stayed with her for three years. As a son, I felt negligent; I didn't take care of Amma. Nelly did.
I would often look back at Amma's younger years. She spoke in metaphors, aphorisms: "God smiles through nature; beauty and intelligence are not yours, only sweat is; habits are fate's highways." She loved drying her hair in the winter afternoon sun, wristwatch, hot and sour soup, rice with milk and mango, the movie 'Namesake', Padmar ilish, ice cream (vanilla), coke, foochka, French fries, Tracy Chapman's Fast Car (because I loved that song).
Life had conspired me to return to her in 2015. Now it was cooking up another plan by late 2018. My wife and daughters had left Dhaka after the Holey Artisan café attack in 2016. Renia and Shaila were growing up without me. I needed to be in Washington.
In December 2018, I got close to making my decision of leaving the Bangladesh Bank. I wanted to visit Amma's ancestral village in Bikrampur where she grew up as a little girl on the banks of the Padma. It was late December. The dust had covered the trees and the roads. The Padma lost its force. The chars grew like a bulging belly from a silted Padma near Shinepukur.
I went for a walk on a nearby char in the golden hour. A reflection of the sun was floating on the water next to a half-drowned boat, stuck on the silted riverbed, watched over by the tall kans grasses with white flowers that mirrored a blend of shredded clouds and grey hair of an aging parent. The kans grass swayed in breeze, unsure about the direction. In that empty riverbed so close to where Amma grew up, I felt my own childhood somehow converged with that of my mother. She was then at the Apollo hospital CCU fighting yet another lung infection.
Throughout that December, I nurtured a nagging superstition that I would lose my mother as soon as I leave Bangladesh. It did not help knowing that all migrants in one way or another abandon their loved spaces and kill their loved ones. That's why migrants are visited by ghosts when alone. Wahid Sir, Kazemi Sir, they all tried to lighten my sadness compounded by guilt, reminding me how much my mother would want me to be with my daughters. I knew what they were telling me had some truth. But I also knew truth can be incomplete and insincere especially when we customize it for rationalization.
3. A LONG GOODBYE
Dementia is an umbrella of symptoms, can steal the very foundations of our being, our memories, our mobility. That happened to Amma.
Life gradually shrank from a movie to a staged play. As the dialogue shortened, the eyes gradually replaced tongue, words. Amma talked with her eyes, as her tongue slowly forgot how to move, push food, touch her pallet, and control sound. As she lost mobility, speech slowed, sentences became shorter, words shrank to sound, hugs became one way; then just nods, finally blank stares.
For me, the transitions were a long goodbye, punctuated by anticipatory grief. But after the pandemic when so many lost their loved ones and was unable to hold them in their last hours, I realized the long goodbye was also a gift.
The more I learned about dementia and how it was robbing Amma, the more I tried to memorize her, her wrinkles, hair, her sharp nose, thick eyebrows, beautiful shine on her skin that reflected the light of the Basundhara sky trickling through the tall dusty hospital windows; the wrinkles on her paper-thin skin, glinting like the winter waves on the Padma she grew up with.
In vascular dementia, nerves dry up like rivers in a delta. My mother's dementia shrank her space and time but dilated mine. It sharpened my memory and my fear of forgetting her, my childhood, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1971. I memorized Dhaka, the roads, all the hospital bed numbers Amma stayed at, the trees in the Bangladesh Bank, the colors of the patterned marbles in the Bangladesh Bank staircase next to my office. I anxiously stored random observations that did not have any patterns.
I finally left Bangladesh in late January 2019 to return to Washington. Out of Dulles airport, I called Nelly to confirm I arrived safely. I told Amma I am traveling for a work trip and will be back as soon as I am done with the meeting. There was silence on the other end.
In an algebra of shadows and echoes, Andre Aciman once said, exiles see double, feel double, are double. After leaving Bangladesh the second time and unqualified for the somewhat vain, romantic term "exile" I felt quadrupled, with nested shadows and overlapping echoes. In short, I became more suspicious of myself, as I did inside the infinity mirror room of Japanese artist Kusama.
We live in Maryland, right outside of Washington DC in a neighborhood with a biblical name, Bethesda, which felt like an island. Roads, houses, lawns, trees, cars, footpaths, strollers, dogs, all spaced by uncrowded land, manicured distance, and confident inequality. The day I arrived, it had snowed non-stop, everything turned white; the snow brightened the sunlight; the humidity helped the cold reach the bone. Most trees stood without leaves, bent under motivated snow that covered bird nests. Clumps of bamboos bent to the ground in their unaccustomed land. Our house sits on a cul-de-sac surrounded by 60-year-old cherry trees. The backyard has oaks and poplars tilted like men with one short leg.
A week later, I received an email from Governor Fazle Kabir who knew my struggle. He had no advice for me but only memories: "Faisal, in the early 1990's when we lived in Mymensingh, my workplace, I used to pay fortnightly visits to my mother. She stayed with my younger brother in Zigatola. On each occasion while returning after the visit, I remember my mother standing by the open window trying to see me all the way as I walked down the narrow lane till I reached the main road, turned around for one last wave of hand and disappeared from her view altogether. I can swear she stayed on much longer than I could possibly imagine, tears streaming down her face, lips moving rapidly in silent prayers. As for me I would board the North Bengal bound train from Kamalapur braving through the precarious slums where tens of thousands of our own people lived and raised families. Once out of Tongi the train gathers momentum, finds its characteristic rhythm and blazes through the tranquil countryside. Gradually the sadness filled by the image of my mother as we departed started fading and almost seamlessly transforming into the image of my lovely two-year-old impatiently waiting to jump into my welcoming arms. And life goes on. Life has to go on." The last sentence jolted me every time I read it.
At work, I was lucky with my country assignments – I worked on Bhutan and India. Bhutan was special. India was and is the continent of complexity. The two assignments also kept me emotionally in the region and allowed me to visit Amma several times a year after my work trips.
On a late November trip to Bhutan in 2019, I noticed most people live in the river valleys and prayer flags flutter on the mountains. In my last morning there, as I was leaving for Dhaka for a stopover, Thimphu was chilly. Dogs curled up and slept on the road next to the clock tower in the city center, as cars respectfully flowed around them. A few young men wearing the traditional Gho were practicing archery in the stadium near a large Buddha statue. The flight to Dhaka was short. I looked out the window. The mountain range, floating above the clouds, had borrowed their puffy shapelessness. All those clouds came from the rivers in the region and the glaciers that were melting; some, I imagined, from the steams of the hot rice Amma made for us. I spent my two-day stopover in Dhaka. I noticed Amma's hair had thinned like those Bhutanese clouds, floating in the mechanical breeze from the ceiling fan in our Mirpur apartment to dry the wet floor.
Amma chose to suffer another year to unburden me from my superstition, to lighten my guilt. Guilt of leaving her, of leaving Bangladesh; the first guilt was more precise and piercing. A month after my last visit, she departed on a chilly February night in 2020. 2am. I stayed awake after the call from Nelly, unsure about what I was feeling, sitting near my second-floor window and looking out. Rebeca, Renia, Shaila sleeping. The house silent, punctuated by my own breathing. The full moon outside created in the slightly sloped backyard sharp shadows of oak, poplar, and redbud trees, as if a forest of incomplete memories. The moonlight had a certain density and the backyard shimmered like a river. Everything slowed.
That night, I kept imagining Dhaka. An 11-hour time difference. 2am in Washington, 1pm in Dhaka. Street dogs napping under the two coconut trees near Banani Star Kabab; roads clogged with cars, rickshaws, and pedestrians, with life everywhere; buses recovering from the morning hours; traffic lights overwhelmed by the mid-day sun, late winter dust, and wailing honks. Amma lying motionless, her feeding tube and cannula all removed by then, her face covered, inside a quiet hospital freezer at 4°C, waiting for her three sons to arrive. Dhaka blurred. Two days later, Amma went to be with Abba under a young Krishnachura. Reunited. After 30 years. In the same graveyard in the Mirpur Buddhijibi cemetery.
It was late February 2020, past Pahela Falgun. Mango buds had already arrived in Dhaka; the dry air still denied the monsoon was coming. After the burial, on my return flight from Doha, passengers jittered when anyone coughed. Only a few East Asians wore masks.
2. THE YEAR AFTER
A week after I returned from Dhaka, a tiny virus barely 100 nanometers in diameter overpowered the normal life. Like memories, this virus lives in those who are alive and can mutate. True to its royal pedigree and name, the coronavirus ruled the world.
During the pandemic and amid the haze that accompanies grief in a foreign land, I realized I cannot cure myself of Dhaka. As a half cure, I looked for Dhaka in Washington. I also looked for patterns, associations, some real, some tenuous, mostly imagined. For me, imagining patterns brings permanence. I consoled myself by walking, by visiting Washington's old cemeteries, by following birds in flight, by watching the tree buds arrive in the winter. A year later, Bangladesh turned 50, which reminded me of Amma and several beginnings.
In the initial months of the pandemic, I kept waking up sweating from a nightmare – all the pharmacies in Mirpur ran out of masks; we could not find any for Amma. Once awake, I would feel a strange mixture of sadness and relief. In my walks, I would think about Amma's hospital bed #6226, its palindromic symmetry that mimics human helplessness at its both ends, as a child and in the advanced years. I also thought about the palindromic years of the recent centuries and tried to invent common connections: 1991: the year I first left Dhaka for the US; 1881: the year when a passenger liner named "Dacca" was built in Glasgow that later sank near Suez canal in her voyage from London to Queensland, Australia; also the year Hakim Habibur Rahman, a great curator of Dhaka's memories, was born; 1771: the year Bengal famine forced people to migrate from Nasirabad (Mymensingh) and Sudharam (Noakhali) to Dhaka, which Hakim Habibur Rahman wrote about in his book on the cemeteries and the shrines in Dhaka. That the palindromic years were somehow connected through Dhaka and its lovers was an invention of my imagination that comforted me. Interestingly, the DNA in coronavirus has also palindromic sequences.
Chased by the virus, we started working from home from 12 March 2020. The cherry blossoms came early and left quickly. We all shrank as the days unfolded in slow motion, the months crawled by, the year vanished, taking away our parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors, and millions we never met. Summer came and went, with the Black Lives Matter protests, a disturbing growth in tents and homelessness in Washington, a sign of rising inequality; stores were boarded up for the protests and for the Presidential election. Washington emulated Dhaka of the 1980s.
People stayed indoor. As humans shrank, other creatures expanded. Birds sang loudly, deer walked in front of the empty IMF headquarter during the virtual Annual Meeting, rats migrated from restaurant dumpsters to neighborhoods for food. A year later in 2021, during Bangladesh's 50th anniversary, billions of cicadas, a distant cousin of shrimp and lobster, came out after 17 years satiating their predators; male cicadas made loud mating calls, shifted doppler patterns, vanished after four weeks in silence for another 17 years.
In that strange year, birds in flight consoled me. I read up on their migration, their endurance: a sparrow-sized sandpiper flying nonstop from Canada to Venezuela – the equivalent of running 126 consecutive marathons without food, water, or rest – avoiding dehydration by "drinking" moisture from its own muscles and organs, guiding itself using the earth's magnetic field. Some birds cross the Pacific Ocean in nine days of nonstop flight, with little time for sleep; they put half their brains to sleep for a few seconds at a time, alternating sides. The Red Knot makes one of the longest yearly migrations from Northern Canada to Argentina, 15,000km; it may fly the same distance as the Earth to the Moon before its13th birthday.
As I would watch those birds in flight, two memories would visit me: the first, an overheard hospital conversation of my sister Nelly, as she was changing Amma's diaper, telling a nurse about her decision to not have a second child so that she could take better care of Amma; the second of a news piece I read on a young Rohingya man, Mohamed Ayoub, likely in his 30s, who carried his frail mother and father in two baskets on two ends of a lock stick on his shoulder, walked 160 miles barefoot for fifteen days to reach Bangladesh in 2017. He did not leave his mother. After the First World War, soldiers, missing both arms and legs, being carried around like Ayoub's parents gave rise to the term "basket case," although no reported cases of such soldiers exist. That term sat in our national psyche for fifty years like an ugly tattoo.
When I was reading up on the steamer named "Dacca" (1881), I felt the urge to find out more the "dragonfly" Amma watched with wonder as a little girl in Bikrampur. I spent many hours reading up on the Japanese WWII planes that flew over Bengal for the attacks on Calcutta on December 20-22, 1942, and January 15, 1943. It seemed I found a possible resolution on Amma's earliest memory: it was likely the "dragonfly." Her other memory of the long queue of people waiting for bhaater mar might have been later in 1943, when the Bengal famine peaked. The memories of famines in Bengal connect generations in ways we are not even aware of.
In the darker days of the pandemic, I became obsessed with finding Dhaka and Bangladesh in Washington. I walked all over. The walks translated my obsession into meditation. I located the house of Enayet Karim in Washington DC where Mohiuddin Alamgir yelled at the Bengali staff at the Pakistan embassy for not joining the demonstration on 29 March 1971, where Professor Yunus, sitting on the living room floor, drew posters for the demonstration at the steps of the US Capitol that Shamsul Bari led after obtaining the required permits; the posters and the cartoons were designed to move opinions and mock the Pakistani rulers; the house of AMA Muhith on Edgemoor Lane, now a library parking lot and a few blocks from where I live in Bethesda; the Bangladesh Information Center in Capitol Hill, now a green two-storey corner rowhouse in the same block I lived for six years when I first moved to Washington in 2003. In those walks, having read the Bangladesh Newsletter published in 1971, I felt inspired by how closely they worked together and developed an appreciation for how the giants of our social innovations Sir Abed, Zafarullah Chowdhury, Professor Yunus – all in their early 30s and all deeply shaped by their mothers – were the children of 1971. I wonder if they, now in their golden years, have ever reminisced those times together. I don't know how close they remained. (A day after I finished this piece, AMA Muhith passed away.)
I also discovered Frantz Fanon who authored The Wretched of the Earth in 1961 had died the same year at the nearby NIH hospital in Bethesda under the name "Ibrahim" Fanon. That book inspired Paulo Freire who later wrote the 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed'. Fanon had sought treatment for his blood cancer in the US, with help from the CIA, according to some sources. Fanon, himself a doctor, sought initial treatment in Russia. The Russians advised him to seek advanced treatment in the US. He was initially reluctant to visit the "land of lynchers" but, then only 36, wanted to live as we all do. He probably never imagined he would die in that land. The two books – 'The Wretched of the Earth' and the 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' deeply moved Sir Abed and the NGO movements in Bangladesh in the 1970s. I kept working hard to create a tenuous connection between where I am now and where I am from through a neighborhood hospital, Fanon and Freire. Through books, memory, and imagination.
Sometime in late 2020, I made a list of the historical cemeteries in Washington DC and would visit them in the weekend from time to time. In one of Washington's oldest cemeteries, I kept looking for a particular grave in 2021, the year Bangladesh turned 50. That cemetery was the most exclusive burial grounds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with mausoleums of Egyptian tombs, Gothic chapels, and carved statues.
Near a statue named "Grief" by Mark Twain, inspired by the Japanese Buddha and wearing a flowing robe for a wife who committed suicide by drinking cyanide, is the tombstone of U Alexis Johnson. U for Ural. He grew up in rural Kansas. His mother was of Swedish descent and had no connections to the Ural Mountains but wanted to his son to be unique, so named him Ural. I felt drawn to that cemetery and visited several times. Ural is the one who had termed the soon-to-be born Bangladesh as an "international basket case." Henry Kissinger, in his response, only disowned that basket case. In one of my visits on an overcast day, I left a bouquet of red roses on his grave. It was my way of having a conversation with Ural Alexis Johnson, of showing our confidence, and of getting rid of a certain shame in the early years of our nationhood that morphed into anger. I must confess it felt a bit strange to leave that bouquet of six roses. But I wanted to give him a benefit of doubt about his fear in 1971 of an impending famine in Bangladesh. That fear later also occupied the mind of our Father of the Nation, who must have been so sad in the last years of his life to see his people suffer from the famine of 1974.
The visits to the old cemeteries in Washington had a curious effect on me. They made me wonder about all the conversations the dead had and the people they loved. Those visits also reminded me of the things I wish I could and should have asked Amma. I know so little about her.
Why do we know so little about our mothers? Perhaps mothers, like clouds, diffuse aalo, diffracting our understanding of them. In many ways, our proximity to our mothers robs us of ability to imagine their complete stories. In the shadow of their love and certainty, perhaps we can never know them, the way we can never take in the full sky or a river. Or life. Perhaps that's why soldiers in the battlefield cry for their mothers before they die. Before he died, as police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, he called out to his mother, Cissy Floyd, "I can't breathe. Mama." His mother had died a few years earlier. He was buried next to his mother in Houston.
I once tried to imagine motherhood using mathematics. Mocking mathematics, mothers can fuse infinity with fixed points, vastness with certainty. They are where our time began, our universe first unfurled, then expanded. They preceded all our memories. Mothers are our gravitational singularities, life's memories of itself. We must keep our mothers alive.
After Amma left, certain disorientation became strong. While growing up, the only role I tried to focus on is that of a son. What do you do with that role when you lose your last parent? There was another complication. I have long reminded myself I am my father's son after I lost him as a teenager, rarely dwelling on what and, more importantly, how much I inherited from my mother. In the echoes of my memories, I have now become convinced I am more of my mother's son. I wish I could tell her that.
1. EVERYTHING RETURNS
2 October 2021. The Washington monument hosted a Covid-19 memorial. 700,000 plus small white flags, each representing a person who died from the pandemic with personalized messages and memories, were fluttering in the air under a midday sun. The tall monument with the sun behind resembled a candle. Planes were landing every few minutes at the Reagan National Airport on the other side of the Potomac. That installation on the National Mall gave Americans a space to mourn as a nation, a place to reconcile their losses. The pandemic left us all grieving in isolation. In public, together, griefs thinned like fog.
I went there with my family. Standing in front of the Washington monument next to my daughters, I thought of those who lost and those who left. Saiful. Arif. Munawar. Chotu. Munize. Mahrukh. Aref. Raihan. Kazi Iqbal. Adnan Bhai. Hossain Bhai. Awrup. Farheen. Mejda. Mohiuddin Ahmed of UPL. Sir Abed. Allah Malek Kazemi, who helped me navigate in my search of lost time and understood me in a way I am only now beginning to understand. Kazemi Sir passed away four months after Amma.
Since I left Dhaka in early 2019, I have not been able to write. Everything felt stuck in a knot, shapeless like water. As I watched those white memorial flags flutter and the clouds move on that day last October, I wanted to describe the clouds, write again. About water, about time, about Amma. Probably because by describing griefs, we extinguish them. The pandemic drained our ability to describe. Joseph Brodsky once described water as a liquid form of time. I suspect, like the earth's surface, 71 percent of our soul is also covered with water. Perhaps that's why clouds, rains, rivers, floods, humidity, fog, mist carry residues of our memories and imagination.
In that autumn breeze in front of the Washington monument, so much of why and what I observed in recent years and all my life became clear, what Kafka said about love also felt true: Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form. I am beginning to learn and accept that it is in that land of love between memory and imagination I should now look for my mother. We must keep our mothers alive for us to be alive.
Faisal Ahmed was Chief Economist and Senior Advisor to the Governor, Bangladesh Bank during 2015-19. Contact: [email protected]