Call me ‘Sister’

Continued from “Guesthouse Attached”

The Sentimental Terrorist - 27

Amala, Inside a closet, Iftar guesthouse

I’m in this closet with the woman who’s saved my life. My God! I feel like screaming.

‘Are you from India?’ she asks.

I’m often mistaken for North Indian on account of my fair skin.

‘Bangladesh,’ I answer.
‘Oh, do you speak Urdu?’
‘Yes,’ I whisper back in Urdu.
‘I feel like screaming.’
I feel exactly the same. ‘Don’t.’
‘What’s your name?’ she asks.
‘Amala – but call me khuahar.’ I know a few words in Dari and this is one of them. It means ‘sister’.

She is quiet for a few seconds and I feel she is going to burst any minute. My younger sister back home suffered from panic attacks and I know that the best thing to do with such a person is to talk to them, and then get them to talk to you. I’m not an expert, but this is what I decide to do, and I pray that it will work. And work for both of us.

‘Listen,’ I say. ‘I have an idea.’
‘Let’s talk to each other.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You tell me about your life story. And I’ll tell you mine. That will keep us both calm. Okay?’
‘Okay, sister,’ she murmurs. ‘You start.’

So I plan to tell her about the strange chain of circumstances by which I have ended up in this closet with her.

And where there is a great possibility I may now have my life ended.

But let me blank that thought from my mind.

‘So tell me, khuahar,’ she says, ‘about how and why you came to my country.’

I know I’ll have to tell her the most interesting story of my life. Only such a tale will absorb me in the telling, hold the other’s interest, and distract both of us sufficiently from what’s happening outside our small oasis.

Life is so strange. The way things happen.

How I ended up in Kabul. In a job that pays very well, but is full of risk. When I think about it, I believe it all started in school all those years ago.

So I start by asking my closet companion if she has ever studied ‘moral science’ in school. From our brief interaction I’m convinced that she’s educated.

‘No,’ she says. ‘Not “moral science”. But teachings from the Quran, yes.’
‘It’s very similar,’ I tell her. ‘My journey to Kabul seems to have started with those lessons.’

And I begin to tell my story . . .


Growing Up in Dacca

The Sentimental Terrorist - 28

Amala, Inside a closet

Moral science lessons. I hated them, sister. They were full of hypocrisy. And in the real world completely useless. So I thought as a child.

And yet, as children at the school where I studied in Dacca, we didn’t have much choice. The school authorities chose the right person to teach the subject, though: Elisabeth Robertson, an ever-smiling, kindly single woman. We made fun of the teacher behind her back, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She never hit us. Not once. That much has to be said to her credit.

I suppose they couldn’t have given the subject to someone like Shahida Bano, our maths teacher. A sadist like her, who never missed an opportunity to hit or humiliate a girl, could never have taught moral science.

My mother said I was lucky to be studying in a proper school and not at the madrasa. Had it not been for her, that’s where I would have been, knocking my head against the desk, memorising scripture, but learning little else besides. Just like so many youngsters of my age group, who lived in the low-cost apartment block on Shibtala street.

I gained entrance to St Anne’s only because my mother worked there as a cook. School rules provided that employees of the school, no matter if they were teaching or non-teaching staff, could have one child studying free. As the eldest of seven children – more brothers and sisters were still to be born – it was a great piece of luck for me to receive the best school education that was available in the city . . . no, the best in the country.

It has always been difficult for students, even those from rich families, to secure admission to what are euphemistically called ‘missionary schools’. In those days there were few of the new private schools that have now mushroomed all over Dacca to provide some alternative to more traditional ‘beat and teach’ government schooling.

When one of my younger brothers was old enough to go to school, my family planned to have me taken out, and have him substituted in my place, but the school’s headmistress, a grey-haired woman with high-powered glasses, blocked that move.

‘You cannot take out Amala,’ she told my mother. ‘She has a bright future. If you withdraw her, she will lose all hope.’

It’s odd that she should have used that word, for Amala is originally an Arabic word meaning ‘hope’.

But I was telling you about our moral science classes. Our teacher, Miss Robertson, did not speak about religion at all. I suppose as a Christian living in Bangladesh she couldn’t really afford to, for every now and again some of the more fanatically minded mullahs would get together and start speaking against Christians and Hindus. Any excuse was sufficient for them.

‘If you do good,’ Miss Robertson would say at the end of every class, ‘good things will happen to you.’

A story she told us stayed in my mind. Not that I liked it. I thought, like so many of the other girls, that it couldn’t be true.

Anyway, this tale went something like this. In the olden days, one winter an elderly traveller, a slim fellow with a slight build – this detail is important – is climbing down from the higher reaches of the Himalayas when he stumbles and twists his ankle. It is so badly twisted that he cannot walk. Just then, as luck would have it, it starts to snow heavily. There is no one he can call to for help, and the nearest town is miles away.

So, he’s just lying there in agony on the narrow pathway used by travellers. At this time of the year it’s so cold that few people are out of their houses and besides it is snowing.

Then the traveller sees a young man coming his way. He beckons to him.

‘Can you help me?’ he cries out, as the man nears. ‘I will die of the cold, if I stay here much longer.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ says the stranger. ‘I need to reach the nearest town as soon as I can. If I try to carry you, it will slow me down. I will tell the townsfolk to send someone to help you. Sorry.’

And the man rushes away.

After about an hour, another man arrives. This person is neither young nor strong, but he comes to the traveller’s aid. He puts the old man with the slight build on his back and slowly starts to carry him on the long journey to town.

Within the next hour the temperature plummets. The first man, the one who refused to help, freezes to death before he can reach the town. But the second, older, less athletic man survives – owing to the exertion of carrying something heavy, as well as the warmth of the body he has placed on his back. In close proximity, a human body is just like a heater.

And so Miss Robertson ended that day’s lesson with her, to me now, memorable words.

‘If you do good, good things will happen to you.’

To us our moral science teacher appeared odd, but nice; we thought of her as being, like most of our other teachers, essentially foolish. Anyone who believed in moral science, we thought, was stupid. Such were my views and those of my close companions when I was in the eighth standard. We saw how girls and women suffered. I saw how my brothers were given preferential treatment in the family. I saw how my mother was treated by my father. Children in Bangladesh grow up fast. Too fast. It’s because of what we see all around us.

I am reminded today of Chandni, a Hindu girl in my class who always carried a book of the Hindu saint Vivekananda in her satchel. This girl always came to class with white marks on her forehead, signifying something religious, and possessed a fervently moral outlook on life. She was one of the few girls in our class who always listened intently to whatever Miss Robertson had to say.

One day Salma, one of the older girls in our class, took hold of Chandni’s exercise book and started reading from it. A certain saying amused her:

Unselfishness pays better than selfishness; but people do not have the patience to practise it.

Salma began to hoot with laughter, and repeated the line for our benefit. We joined her in collective mirth. Poor Chandni wore a crestfallen expression for the rest of the day. She was made to feel small.

Today, when I’m so much older and should actually be more cynical, life’s lessons have turned me around. I value those classes that Elisabeth Robertson taught; and appreciate the saying in that Hindu girl’s notebook, and even the words of the old maulvi, the religious preacher who came to our house sometimes to read from the Quran. It strikes me now that all these religions are probably expressing the same thing. But in those youthful days, whenever I came home to see a fresh bruise on my mother’s face, I didn’t believe any of it. I hated my father. School was an escape for me, and I took refuge in studies from the troubles of the house. I was cynical about life, but one of the hardest working girls in class.

By the time I was close to finishing my schooling, my mother, who was pregnant every second year, had produced four more children. Life should have become yet worse at this stage, but strangely enough, for some reason I don’t comprehend till now, my father turned over a new leaf. He gave up drinking and became very religious. His quarrels with my mother subsided, and he never ever hit her again. He took up a job as an insurance salesman, did very well at it, and started to contribute to household expenses. The company was so happy with the business he brought in that they gave him a proper job with a monthly salary and benefits and he no longer had to make do with just his commissions. And, although we were still poor because the family was so large, we slowly started to resemble – at least partly – a happy family.

Meanwhile, because I’d worked so hard, I finished school at the top of the class and this helped me gain a scholarship to study economics at Dacca University. Economics interested me and development economics in particular. Bangladesh is well known as one of the poorest countries on earth. The problems of Bangladesh, I told myself, would soon be the problems of the world. There would be a need for people like me. My father wished me to study accounting, but because I had done so well in school he allowed me to study whatever I wished.

After graduating in economics I went on to do a master’s degree, specialising in developmental economics. Although here once again I was one of the highest-ranked students, there seemed to be no job for me anywhere. Not in government, nor in the private sector. I don’t know how much this had to do with my being a woman.

By this time, the family’s finances had become a cause for concern. My father had lost his job with the insurance company and fallen sick with a serious lung infection. My mother’s earnings alone weren’t enough to cover the household expenditure. I was the eldest child with five younger sisters and five younger brothers. My father had kept my mother on a childbearing assembly line, and there were enough of us to have made a cricket team, if only girls were allowed to play. Even though the family expectations were minimal – I just had to get married off somehow – I felt the need to bring home some curry. For, I loved my family and wanted each one of us to have a good life.

I began to write for local newspapers, in Bengali and English, about various developmental issues. I wrote on rural poverty, the problems of over-population and finally I wrote a few pieces on micro-credit and the importance of managing it properly. Micro-credit was the mantra of the day but in my writings I explained how it could end up being a curse unless it was backed up by proper advisory support; there were many instances where people were worse off for having taken small loans. These articles earned me a few takas. I could type, and occasionally took on typing jobs. I did some freelance editing. I applied for various jobs, such as university teaching posts, but you needed to come from an influential family and ‘know someone’. There would still have been some jobs given on merit, it’s true, but nothing came my way.

‘Didn’t I tell you to study accountancy?’ my father would sometimes say at the dinner table, despite my mother’s protests. ‘You’d have had a proper job. Now tell me where are we going to find the money to get you married off?’
‘I don’t want to be married yet,’ I said.
‘So you want to continue to break free bread in my house,’ he said, using the Bengali expression for freeloading.


One day I saw an advertisement in the Bangladesh Chronicle. A six-day training workshop on rural finance – on which I had written papers that approached the issue critically – was being held in Geneva, Switzerland. Participation was invited from professionals in the field. A master’s degree was essential, as was evidence of some publication of work. As I excitedly read the advertisement, my blood began to race. I fulfilled all the qualifications. Somehow I had to manage to attend this workshop, and I was sure that life would open up doors for me.

I spent the next two days filling in an interminably long form, answering each question carefully, and I mailed it off just before the deadline. Four days later I was called for an interview at the office of the Swiss Development Agency. At the end of that week I was notified that I was one of two candidates selected for the training. It was a windy day, as it often is just before the onset of the monsoon, and I was flying like one of the colourful kites in the sky.

There was a catch. While boarding and meals would be taken care of by the organisers of this event, the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, candidates had to pay for and arrange their own flights. At the time I was so hard up that I could only travel if someone lent me the airfare. What with the bills for my father’s treatment, and the family’s household expenses, my own family was in too dire financial straits for me to even think of asking my mother or father for the money. If I spoke to my mother I knew that she might offer to sell her jewellery, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her doing that.

The only person in the world who would give me the money for that was Dadabhai, my mother’s first cousin.

Dadabhai lived on the eighth floor of a high-rise, low-income-group housing estate, just like the one where my own family lived in another part of Dacca. He was tall, balding, and spoke with a slight lisp. In the past he had loaned me money for textbooks, small loans that had been duly returned to him when I made some money from my freelance journalism. It was on account of those repayments that I still had credibility with him. There was no one else in the whole wide world who would lend me 20,000 takas, the cost of the cheapest airfare from Dacca to Geneva.

Anyhow, there was no time to think. If I was leaving for Geneva, I needed to buy my ticket immediately – the travel agent had warned me that the cheaper tickets could run out any minute and he could only hold my reservation for another two days. I printed off the letter from the Swiss Embassy at an internet café, signed it to confirm my acceptance, and went to see Dadabhai the same evening.

‘What’s the use of attending this workshop?’ was the first question he asked. He was eating his dinner when I arrived, and I was seated across the table from him. I had anticipated this enquiry, and had prepared a suitable response.
‘Job prospects with some international organisations, dada. Possibly even with the United Nations. Some of those people lecturing us will be on the lookout for young, hardworking researchers.’ All this was pure supposition on my part: nothing in the invitation letter or the advertisement could lead anyone to such a conclusion.
‘Your parents probably want you to get married,’ he said with a guffaw, ‘and to forget about working.’ He spooned some fish curry into his mouth. ‘But I understand your thinking. Something good is waiting to happen to you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been accepted for this programme.’

Finishing his meal he took my hand and we walked to the balcony away from the fiercely disapproving glances of his wife, who had been listening to our conversation thus far.

‘You know your maasi will kill me if she finds out I’ve lent you this money,’ he said at length, ‘but I’ve decided to help you. If you’ve come this far, you deserve a push.’ He scratched his nose. ‘You know dear duhita, dear daughter, I’m retired and I don’t have much money. We’re still paying the instalments on this apartment. I’ll be able to hold out for six months, but after that I’ll need my money back. One doesn’t take money back from daughters, but here I will have to. Do you understand?’
‘With interest, dada,’ I said eagerly. ‘With interest.’
‘Bah!’ He waved my suggestion aside in mock anger, but I could see that he appreciated my offer as an expression of both my need and my gratitude.

He looked round to see if his wife was anywhere near, eavesdropping on our conversation. Satisfied that she wasn’t, he said in a mock whisper, ‘Come tomorrow at eleven o’clock. Your maashima goes to buy vegetables at that time. I’ll have the money ready for you.’


At this juncture I pause. It is the sound of raised voices, not gunfire, that now intrudes into my consciousness. A man is shouting in Dari. The words are being spoken at too much of a distance and too rapidly for me to mentally translate but I catch the words ‘American’, ‘bombing’ and then ‘sister’.

My companion too is listening intently. Her hands fly up to her open mouth and she lets out a horrified gasp.

‘What are they saying?’ I whisper.
‘He’s shouting at someone. Calling him names. And he’s accusing him of being responsible for the death of his sister and her family.’

The man continues to yell abuse and then I hear a familiar voice in English. It’s K-Jim. My God! He is actually having a shouting match with the terrorist. Scraps of conversation float across to me.

‘. . . fucking know this?’ K-Jim is bellowing. ‘Who gave you . . .? And how do you know I am the . . .?’

The man shouts back something and then I hear a gunshot. No more sounds. What has happened? Oh, God. Surely nothing terrible has happened to K-Jim.

My companion is tugging at my sleeve in the dark.

Khuahar, please continue,’ she begs. ‘Let’s not listen to what’s going on outside.’

She’s right. Already I feel extreme panic rising within me. Taking a deep breath, I continue with my story.

Continued to “From Bangladesh to Switzerland”


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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Comment I can't wait to read more!

14-Aug-2013 08:23 AM

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