Madan Shahu, dear friend and wise man, mingled with the elements a few years ago. His ashes are today scattered all around, in the air or perhaps in the waters of a flowing river. If there is a soul, if there is life after death, perhaps he is somewhere up there, with his inimitable smile, with his humour, with his penchant for music, looking down on the planet where we yet happen to be.
Madan da is but one of the many friends, among those I have held in great love and in huge esteem, who have passed on. The world gets to be lonelier as my friends, my loved ones, my heroes succumb to mortality one after the other. It all began way back in school, when my friend Akbar Qazi crashed to death in his speeding car on a cold November day in Quetta. He was at the wheels. A day earlier, he was laughing and joking his way through on the school playground. Barely twenty four hours later, he was dead.
Every death is for me, as the poet put it so well centuries ago, a tolling of the bell announcing the coming of the end for me, for all of us. When I said goodbye to Madan da's mortal remains at the hospital before they were taken away for cremation, I whispered to myself, 'I am in the departure lounge now'. It is pain which gathers in me, drop by drop, when I reflect on all those good people I have seen departing over time in all the finality of death. The day Madan da died was also the anniversary of the passing of my beautiful friend Khadija Shahjahan. She was a poet, had a zest for life, was full of humour and wrote wonderful poetry. She died in London. For the last eleven years, she has lain, through rain and sun, in her grave in her paternal village in Patuakhali.
Death, when it comes to the young and comes unexpectedly, leaves us with the feeling that life is no more than a pointless affair, an unreality. When my friend Kabiruddin Chandan --- he was a good biology teacher, a poet and my vibrant colleague when we both taught at Scholastica --- closed his eyes on the world, it was shock that left me and everyone else around me reeling. He did not know he had leukaemia. It was only in the final stages of his life that a visit to the doctor revealed his malady. On his last day of life, he told my brother Sadrul he wished to have some soup. My brother was swift in fulfilling his wish. Early the following morning, Chandan was gone. It was the second anniversary of my marriage to Zakia. We buried Chandan in the afternoon. But for me, that smile, those songs --- he was in love with Pink Floyd --- have lived on.
My friend Chowdhury Akhtar Anwar, with whom I established a strong bonding when both of us took admission at Notre Dame College way back in 1973, is today a sad memory for me, for all our friends still living. He and his wife had a charming daughter he named, in his poetic flourish, Noirita. He loved laughter, wrote purposeful poetry and had, like me, a fondness for good food, especially sweets. Ten years ago, having returned home from a trip to London, I called him on his mobile number. Noirita picked up the call. Through her tears, she told me Akhtar had died three months earlier. I have not been to his grave, but I have kept him, his smile, his sense of romance, his idealism safe in my heart. Did the gods have to take him away?
On a late February morning eleven years ago, as the sounds of gunfire and the sight of smoke from Peelkhana came alive on television, I dialled the mobile phone number of my friend Shakil Ahmed. He did not pick up the call. I tried a second time. The result was the same. On my third try, someone did pick it up but said nothing, before cutting me off. Not much later, I knew that Shakil had been murdered by the BDR mutineers. I have had reason all these years to think that the person who picked up my call on the third try may have been one of his killers. I have not been to Shakil's grave and I do not think I will go there. It is just that I mean to keep in my imagination the schoolmate I knew in the early 1970s, the senior army officer I interacted with once we had reconnected in the late 1990s.
There are other good souls I have not forgotten, for it is hard to forget. Besides, the war in the soul is always one of memory against forgetting. Which is why for me Syed Khwaja Moinul Hasan, my teacher in whom burned a fiercely poetic spirit and lived a revolutionary being, has not died. He was a lonely, heart-broken man when he passed away in New York years ago. His grave, in New York, must have developed weeds; the grass must have grown tall and unkempt. Beneath that soil only his bones remain as a reminder of the magnetic force he exemplified in life --- as a brilliant student, as a remarkable teacher, as a poet beyond compare.
I have recreated, all the time but especially in the season of rains, the long rickshaw rides Waheedul Haque, our Waheed Bhai, took all the way from the New Nation office at R.K. Mission Road through the Dhaka University campus through Lalmatia and beyond. A polymath, he was forever enlightening me with ideas, with the names of trees and the position of the stars in their heavenly constellation. Much of what I know of Rabindranath Tagore today is what I gleaned from his vast bank of knowledge. Waheed Bhai passed into the ages thirteen years ago. Life has not been the same since.
Mohammad Badrul Ahsan died suddenly two months ago. The heart simply stopped in him. A few years ago, Syed Fahim Munaim, our Tipu bhai, had the life going out of his vibrant being on a morning when he needed to be with us. A few days ago, my good friend Raushan Zaman passed on.
On visits to my village with my siblings and the rest of the family, I stand beside the graves of my parents, recreating in my thoughts the difficult youth they spent rearing their babies. They did not have an easy life. Endless worries about making ends meet assailed them and yet they kept their noses above the water. They died, on separate October days fourteen years apart. October is also the season when they met and married. These days, a soft breeze rustles through the leaves and branches of the trees forming a canopy over their graves. After a spell of rain, the soil over their remains gives off a sweet scent.
I walk, through the churchyard at Leytonstone in London, communing with the dead. I stroll through the cemetery holding the bones of my ancestors in the sleepy village of Noagaon. I trek through ancient churchyards in Wales expecting to hear men and women buried centuries ago to speak to me from their graves. I stroll through the Christian cemeteries in Calcutta and lose myself in times gone by, relishing the company of souls fallen silent in a long-ago past. I spend afternoons in Highgate cemetery in London, reading all those fading words of love on crumbling tombstones as bitter winter winds whistle through the tall trees.
The spectre of death keeps me company.