As a girl of merely four, I experienced a nagging ache upon learning that Amma would be going to the USA for six months. A coveted Fulbright Scholarship was taking her away from us. The pain eased grudgingly when she promised to bring back a walkie-talkie doll for me. True to her word she returned with the doll. A few days later followed a huge black trunk laden with gifts for our entire family. This was way back in the 1960s.
But she had returned with more than just gifts. Living, studying and traveling on her own across the proverbial “seven seas”, at a time when venturing out of the city itself was considered adventurous for women, her independent spirit became further imbued with an intellectual stimulation. She came back with a dream. A dream to live life to the fullest, nourish young minds and to infuse in everyone she knew a hunger to push boundaries. Like herself.
In 1966 Amma was awarded the AID scholarship and was soon off to study at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. She was the first one in her family to obtain a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D). On her return, she became Principal of Dhaka University Laboratory School in 1969. In the five years she worked in this role, she re-invigorated the curriculum, placed high importance on extra-curricular activities and took the school to greater heights. Students, teachers, guardians and the DU authority of that time still speak highly of her rare qualities to energize people around her. Some fondly remember her restlessness, especially when she had a new idea she wanted to implement. Years later, it would be this restlessness that would cause her to suffer a stroke on stage while addressing a Women's Rights gathering.
Later, Amma joined the Institute of Education and Research, where she served till 1994 as Professor.
Born in 1931, Amma, Dr. Noorunnahar Fyzennessa, attended the well-known Sakhawat Memorial Girls School and Victoria Institution in Calcutta. Later, she went to Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta, and completed her post graduation in political science from the University of Dhaka. Amma's inspiration to study and pursue a lifelong career in education could have been partly moulded by her family, itself steeped in academic pursuits over generations.
Her father, Khan Shahib Quazi Sadrul Ola, of Dargahi family of Paanchnoor, West Bengal, was Assistant Secretary to the Bengal Legislative Assembly. Being the family's first Presidency College graduate, he would continually encourage his sons and daughters to aim high. His ancestor, Mirza Sheikh I'teshamuddin, a highly enlightened man, was one of the Omrahs of the Imperial Court of Delhi. He was the first educated Indian Muslim to travel to England and France as an emissary of the Moghul Emperor Shah Alam around 1765. This was decades before Raja Ram Mohon Roy travelled to England. As a man of letters, Sheikh I'teshamuddin was sent to meet the King of England and establish an alliance between him and the Emperor of Delhi. The journey of Mirza I'teshamuddin led to the writing of “Shigarf Nama-e-Vilayet” or “The Wonders of Vilayet” in 1779. I'teshamuddin was requested to become Professor of Persian at Oxford University, which he declined. But that is another story of Amma's ancestral roots.
Interesting that more than a century after her ancestor's mission to the King, the British influence was still strong in the country and Amma was doing her part to cleanse the national psyche of a colonized mindset. As children, we would often gather around Amma as she enlightened us about “brotochari” lessons that she and her sisters had taken at a time when not many families encouraged girls' education. It was the activist and pioneering painter, Potua Quamrul Hassan, who would train the young boys and girls in “brotochari”. This was a form of cultural movement involving physical exercise, art, dance, drama and music designed to raise national awareness at a time of colonial rule. Years later, she put her training to good use when she took up the role of leading Mukul Mela, an organisaiton similar to the Girl Guides.
As in education, Amma refused to take a backseat in sports. My father, Professor Syed Moqsud Ali, an avid cultural enthusiast himself, would fill his scrapbook with newspaper pictures of Amma receiving trophies for winning track and field events in the 1960s. Her mastery of the hurdle race would serve her well in future when her group of teachers and students were attacked by the police with batons. Well into her sixties, and leading a pro-democratic rally in the 1990s, she and Begum Matia Chowdhury had to resort to scaling a five foot wall to lead her colleagues to safety.
She also participated in radio plays, many of which were written by my father. She hosted numerous women's programmes along with the highly popular children's radio show “Khelaghar” for 20 years. Many famous voices, including Sabina Yasmin's, were probably first heard on the airwaves as they performed on her show.
A progressive woman by nature, Amma was involved with several educational, social and cultural institutions such as Radio Bangladesh, Chhayanaut's governing body, Rokeya Sakhawat Alumni Association, Begum Rokeya Prabeen Abash (Old Home) and more. She also took leadership of a number of governing bodies, often as the first women in that particular role such as the first elected member of DU Senate and DU syndicate. She was also involved in national bodies such as member of Pay Commission, Bangladesh Public Administration Centre, Asian Regional Population Association and for many years led the women's rights group, Mahila Parishad, as its President. She also founded the Chhayanir day care centre for the children of working parents at Dhaka University, probably among the first of its kind in the country.
At the twilight of her career she served as Provost of Rokeya Hall. Originally meant to be for an appointment of a few years only, she ultimately served that role for over eight years, not by design, but rather by persuasion from her colleagues. She did not have it in her to say no, to friends and strangers alike.
When I think about Amma, it's difficult to keep my father out of the picture. If Amma had soared as high as she wished to, my father was the wind beneath her wings. Equally progressive in mindset, he was a constant ally, cheering her on to higher altitudes. Together they would travel to the US for higher studies, participate in plays, spend their lives in Dhaka University and entertain friends and family. At work or home, they would draw energy from each other. When Amma was too tired from her work all day, it was often Abba who would read us bedtime stories and tuck us into bed. Despite our parents' hectic schedule, the children were never made to feel alone.
But Amma's tireless efforts towards transforming society was taking its toll. More accustomed to a ready smile and a spring in her steps, years of neglect of her health finally tied her down. As she peacefully went into a coma attached to numerous dialysis machines, she seemed a far different picture from the woman who sprinted 100m races or posed gracefully in front of Niagara Falls. On March 31, 2004, she left us forever on a journey that she alone was to take. No promise of a trunkful of gifts could ease the hurt this time.
Even in her passing, she had in reality presented us with a gift like no other. For, realizing one's dream is never too far away and living life to the fullest must surely be a gift that compares with nothing else.
Sadya Afreen Mallick is Editor, Arts & Entertainment, The Daily Star.