Goodbye to the queen of kindness
The first time I saw Fayza Apa was in the newsroom of the first Daily Star office in Toyenbee Circle, Motijheel. She cut a flamboyant figure – her hair in a smart bob, her rather defiant attitude as she nonchalantly had a 'smoke with the boys'. I have to admit, I was, being the nervous rookie feature writer, a little awed by her, especially when I found out that she had worked in quite a few reputable newspapers including The Daily Sun of Pakistan (in pre-independence times), The Morning Sun (Pakistan), The Bangladesh Observer and The Bangladesh Times, before joining The Daily Star. She was an avid art critic who covered practically every exhibition in town. She also covered music and performing arts and had enviable connections with artistes of all genres. I also realised she was the face I had often seen while growing up during those BTV-only days; I remembered her forceful voice announcing: "This is Fayza Haq with tonight's news headlines…" In fact, in those first few months of my joining The Daily Star, she lived up to that intimidating image, blasting people for silly mistakes in their copies or for asking the wrong question, and was seemingly always a little highly strung.
But that was just a superficial visage. The real Fayza Apa was the most soft-hearted person in the world. She was frustratingly generous and kindhearted. Frustrating, because there was no way you could dissuade her from buying gifts for you – and she bought gifts for practically everyone she knew and even for those she didn't. She earned the name 'Female Santa' for the extravagant presents she gave people, never forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, Eid, Christmas… or just because she felt like it. My room is full of things she gave me – bangles for my anniversary, earrings for my birthday, saris, kameez pieces, a whole stack of assorted books for some occasion or the other. The books, I recall with a smile, were the result of a negotiation – I had made her promise not to buy me expensive saris or jewellery and made a 'compromise' asking her to buy me books instead. The result was a deluge of books – from romance novels to books on renaissance artists to a full set of Sherlock Holmes. But what I cherish the most are the cards and little notes she would leave on my desk when she came by – words full of funny anecdotes or observations, and of course, so much love. She had a funny name for me, in fact she had nicknames for everyone – 'Cabbage Patch Doll', 'Little Princess', 'kid'.
That was what was so remarkable about Fayza Apa. She made each and every person feel so special, loved and cherished. And she made no distinction between people, indulging everyone regardless of their position in the office or society. She was warm and always concerned about other people, forever helping out those in need. In return she never asked for anything, she was happy just to give.
Perhaps it was her guilelessness and generosity that intensified her prolonged illness. Because she never spent any of her money on herself, only on others. She had lost her beloved Australian husband to cancer many years ago and had no children; thus she lavished all her love on other people. Sadly, there were some people who took advantage of her trusting nature, extracting huge sums of her hard-earned money, money that could have treated her acute diabetes and other chronic ailments. She died at age 68, in a small room, paralysed after a stroke, in utter neglect. That is what she got in return for all her kindness and generosity.
Professionally, she was unbelievably hard-working. Rain, hail or storm, whether she was well or not, she would never miss an interview, going to far-flung areas of the city using public transport, diligently recording and transcribing and producing a piece every few days. She was undoubtedly the most prolific art critic of her time, and there was no match for her in terms of her close relationship with the most acclaimed artistes and distinguished personalities – ambassadors, heads of cultural centres, visiting musicians, scholars and so on. She was a huge hit among the expatriate circles, among her compatriots, young and old.
I wonder what her thoughts were in those last moments of her life, early in the morning of July 7. Did she even know how many people would be devastated by her sudden departure, how painful it would be to feel regretful for not being able to lessen the hurt and deprivation she had experienced for so many years? Did she know that she would be missed so acutely and thought of so fondly? Did she know that she would be remembered by all the hundreds of artists she had written about, whose exhibitions she had covered, scores of colleagues at The Daily Star to whom she was like an elder sister, hordes of friends and relatives who had the privilege of being a part of her life, all those children of co-workers and friends who were showered with her affection?
It seems unreal to think she is really gone. All that comes to mind are snapshots of that kindhearted, wonderful soul – joking with us at the magazine section, having coffee at Alliance Française with her fans, that crisp, assertive voice that spoke impeccable English and sometimes a mixture of French, Urdu and Bangla when excited, her quirkiness that led to so many comical situations, that characteristic laughter. True to her nature, our dear Fayza Apa left us without any fuss, any grand farewell. But she has left us with a treasure trove of memories and the knowledge that no one will ever love us the way she did.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.