Memories of her father
Lisa had always envisioned Bengal as a land of unsurpassable warmth and beauty. Now that she was here, she thought of all those moments when her mind had done a scene-by-scene play of how she would feel when her flight touched down in Dhaka. Would her first aerial view be of trees lining the airport road, or water bodies caressing the city’s eastern borders? Would the aircraft make a rough landing during a pre-monsoon boishakhi thunderstorm or smooth sail on a crisp, sunny, winter day? Perhaps she would arrive during the monsoons, so that the rain could rejuvenate the tree-lined streets by her grandparents’ house, to their greenest, in anticipation of her arrival.
Lisa had meticulously formulated every step of her homecoming. She would have no carry on, only a handbag to avoid tumbling down the stairs in the sheer excitement of wrapping her arms around baba. What would he be wearing, she had wondered – a white Panjabi, like he did on TV, or a white shirt and jeans as in their old family pictures? She knew that once he met her, he would regret not reaching out to his daughter in all these years.
Now she was due to land in five minutes. And never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that baba would not be there to meet her. It had been a month since his arrest, three weeks since anyone had seen him, and two weeks since the police officially declared him missing. And like a crazed lunatic, armed with nothing but a handful of letters and endless father-daughter moments etched in her memories, Lisa had come home to seek answers.
Lisa thought of her father often, even after two and a half decades. She often closed her eyes and imagined herself back in their dimly lit living room, fragrant with the aroma of coffee – a ‘grown up drink’ that children were not allowed to have – and alive with the conversation of his immaculately dressed friends. They mostly spoke in English, to her a very strange sounding language. She was barely three, and only spoke Bangla but had picked up some melodious English words that they frequently used. Liberation was one, revolution was another. Two pretty, rhyming words – “li-be-ra-tion” and “re-vo-lu-tion”. She tried so hard to remember more. Though intense, her memories were composed of brief snapshots.
These scenes were also informed by somewhat faded photographs. It made her question their authenticity; perhaps some were conjured by her overactive imagination. Her desire to be part of baba’s world, a deep yearning to share his sophistication had accelerated her mastery of the English language, literature and western culture. The older she grew, the more delighted she was at her ability to banter in english during their brief encounters, often interrupted by his busy schedule. She was fascinated by his library; the smell of parchment, the pungent smell of ink and the yellow, antiquated feel of old paper mesmerized her. She wondered if his library still smelt the same.
Lisa’s father was not very rich. But growing up, she remembered walking through many foreign cities holding his hand.
“Baba, where are we going this year?” she would ask him every summer. “Hmm, must we?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Her father denying his daughter anything was unfathomable.
She had lost him once, in Singapore. They were walking around a gift shop and he had asked Lisa to pick whatever she wanted. Lisa had picked a jade elephant her own size, and cried up a storm when her dad said it would cost a fortune. She stormed off – and when she turned around, Alhan was not there. She panicked and grabbed onto the next man who walked by wearing a white shirt – her father’s signature. Clinging to that man’s shirt, she had sobbed and sobbed. How could he have let her out of sight? She soon realized that the man was not her father but a puzzled stranger. Moments later Lisa found her baba, but was too embarrassed to tell him the story. On that day Lisa realized that her heart would break if he ever left her. Within a year of the Singapore trip, Lisa’s mother had taken her and moved to New York.
As the plane spun low over Dhaka city, Lisa glanced out the window. As a child she would look out of airplane windows and try to locate the Parliament building. Countless times baba had reached over from his aisle seat to trace on her window, the silhouette of star-and-crescent that the parliament building’s aerial view depicted. Today Lisa couldn’t see a thing because of the blinding smog.Suddenly, the city loomed beneath, a mammoth rising from a misty ocean. Lisa’s heart did a flip-flop; like the momentary suspense before a long-awaited first kiss. As the streets grew bigger she tried to trace the path from major landmarks to her childhood home. She was disoriented by the confusing hodgepodge of new roadways.And then, buildings appeared. Previously located on the city’s outskirts, the international airport was now engulfed by Dhaka’s growing ambition. Concrete rooftops and construction sites replaced the spans of green and splashes of water that she remembered. Empty shells of houses stood upon bamboo columns; the latter held up new apartment floors made the city look like it was made of matchsticks. Too many people, too little room. The land seemed to suffocate, long for space to breathe. On the nearby highways, cars did not move at all.
She would later find the city to be full of people seeking the urban dream – easy money, begging, mugging, and working in the urban construction, garments, and transportation industries. Instead of occupying a comfortable tin-roofed home in their family homestead, these people now flocked Dhaka, lived in the slums and often, camped out in the streets. It would take her a while to figure out why. Even before Lisa landed in Dhaka she knew that she would be suffocated by this concrete jungle. But somewhere within this madness, she knew existed the Bengal of her father’s dreams.
Now, she does not remember what the landing was like, nor does she now recall walking through the aircraft’s aisles. But she does remember holding on to her handbag – which held her father’s letters – and the explosion in her heart as she stepped outside into the moist, heated summer air. She had finally reached the city of her dreams that her mother had long kept her away from.
Nayma Qayum is a Doctoral Candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a member of the Alalodulal Editorial Board.