I hadn’t been in Dhaka in nearly 30 years. We left Bangladesh for the US when I was 13, and except for a few short and dizzying visits in the first couple years to attend weddings on my mother’s side, we’d stayed away. In that time, I lost touch with most of the family I’d grown up with and paid little attention to stories about relatives close or distant when my parents would have one of their immersive moments of nostalgia.
My return happened more as a result of circumstances than being propelled by the growing desire I’d nursed for a while to make a trip to write a book about the city of my birth. Since the crash of 2008, my father had been selling off our numerous and lucrative properties back in Bangladesh. He made a trip a couple of times a year, and had begun with half the plot of land connected to the house his father built some 50 years ago. I didn’t pay attention. I was living my own life, and trying to mend the fractures of a decision that had caused some tension with my parents.
Two years earlier, I’d given in both to my mother’s appeals and my own need for steady companionship and let them arrange my marriage. The marriage didn’t last a calendar year. Harsh words flew between the families. The connection went back some three to four generations, mothers who knew mothers, grandmothers who were best of friends, great-grandmothers who grew up together. Deep and complex relations like those do not take slights impersonally. In any event, we, my parents, especially my mother and I, found our way back. My father was far less upset than my mother, but over time, she too made her peace.
Last year, as my father was in the planning throes of another trip to Dhaka, this time to sell off everything, a heart attack stopped him in his tracks. In his seventies he now had to listen to his body more than he would like. His health had always been robust, but the stress he put it through finally made a stand. Doctors forbid travel. My mother stood her ground. I happily volunteered.
I was restless. More than I realised. I think I’d been restive for a while. I no longer felt in the center of anywhere in Chicago. I needed a break from my setting, a release from the heavy slog my life had become. For the last too many years, I’d all but abandoned writing. I considered graduate school for a minute but shuddered at the thought of all that studying. I’d barely made it out the door with an undergraduate degree. Friends I’d had since high school were convinced I’d do better than I gave myself credit, but they were projecting their capabilities onto me. I’ve told my parents often that even part of my time after high school should have been spent doing something other than going to college. I could’ve travelled. Read extensively. Explored my writing with some seriousness. Then maybe, with more of a worldly view on life, consider education. To Bangladeshi parents a suggestion like that was a giant gong announcing my detachment from reality. While they nodded along and considered my thoughts in retrospect, they would have shunned me when it mattered.
I was working that year with a midsize marketing firm writing copy. The job had come to me through a high school friend, and she put in a glowing recommendation to my future boss, a former colleague of hers. It was sedate, undemanding work. The salary made it excellently worthwhile and before long five years had galloped into the past. The day I handed in my notice, my boss and my friend took me out for drinks. They were supportive that I wanted to get back to writing. I’d been doing
esearch and making notes about my possible book on Dhaka, and the thrill of putting words on the page rushed through me like a reviving shot of adrenaline.
I felt restored. I was aware of how lucky I was. To be able to get up and go. To have no money worries, thanks to my father. I’d accepted early on in our new life in America that ours was not the immigrant story of countless others before us. We came here with more than just a dollar in our possession. We came healthily armed with ancestral wealth. My parents were proud of this fact. So much so that we lived in near secrecy from other Bangladeshis during our first couple of years in Chicago.
Flirting with my forties, I’d reached a sort of morally stringent stance about the world. It had to stand upright, it had to pay unflinching heed to what was wrong, and I couldn’t be bothered to understand its wayward, unruly ways, or care about the nuanced tendencies of human nature. Gazi proved the exception. Gazi, whom I wished I could scorn, the kind of person I was raised to see as more a cautionary tale than a subject of emulation, and who it became impossible to dislike. He existed in a kind of beauty that was undeniable. He exemplified the mysterious coexistence of opposing forces in one single being.
He was attuned to the universe as much as to his world like an all-purpose machine, and picked up on the changes that took place miles ahead of others. His state of mind or any impulse toward the creative had nothing to do with it. He went on to prove me wrong on so many fronts, including that of friendship. He was more innocent than the eye at first could see, and this attribute, as it may be assumed, made him prey. He handled what was his with, I thought at times, too romantic an eye, a sensibility forever mired in hope, and a dreamlike faith in the promises of life.
My family on my father’s side, the Chowdhurys, were of Yemeni Arab stock. They’d travelled to Bengal around the 14th century and never looked back. As family history goes, down through the ages they were mystics and scholars, gentry and overlords, officials of the Mughals, and servants of the Raj. My mother’s people were no less distinguished. The Rahmans gave East Bengal, East Pakistan, and eventually independent Bangladesh Members of Parliament and Islamic scholars, communist academics and Muslim League stalwarts, old money elites and new money tycoons, and economic and political advisers to military and civilian regimes. My forebears daw the end of worlds, they witnessed the death of empires. They moved from the shuttered remains of a soon-to-be-forgotten way and launched into their century fresh-faced, trembling and beautifully mad with dreams.
We led a prosperous life in Dhaka, steeped in privilege. We, along with the country, weathered violent coups, two assassinations of heads of state, and a long military dictatorship, at the end of which my father had had enough.
The country he’d envisioned after independence had been a heartbreaking letdown. It pained him to admit that we could no longer live there. My mother agreed. Many of their friends also agreed, some of whom had already taken steps to move away. As was to be expected, being a child, I didn’t have a voice in the decision. The more time passed, the fewer our trips became, until they stopped. My father resumed them to take care of the property sales, then ended them once and for all for his health. My mother never expressed a desire to go again. At the time of my visit, 25 years had passed since I last saw Dhaka.
The week of my departure, my father had me on the phone with Mr Ehsan Kibria, his lawyer and longtime employee, once a day getting up to speed. When I wasn’t doing that, I was getting tutored by my father. Which served my budding research quite well. He talked about Dhaka in a way he hadn’t before. My mother got into the spirit as well soon enough. We stayed up late every night. They reminisced, I listened and learned. They wondered how much the city must have changed. They wouldn’t recognise it anymore. I argued that they would. Places have way of staying imprinted on our minds, places that are more than where we were born or raised or lived and left. Places that don’t go away even when we do.
Excerpted with permission from The Inheritors, Nadeem Zaman, Hachette.