My father’s temper, moral conduct and my extended family

'In Extreme Need of Guidance', the book being serialised here, captures the first sixteen years of Sultana Nahar's life. "Mercolized Wax" is the second chapter in the book.
Design: Hrishik Roy

My father's incorruptibility meant a life of want for his family. Police officers back then were overwhelmingly corrupt and lined their pockets handsomely with bribes and grafts, but my father was adamant in his refusal to participate. He was well-supported by my mother in this regard, who, on the eve of her wedding, was cautioned by her father to never ask her husband to buy her expensive gifts as that would pressure him to solicit bribes. She took this advice to heart, and for the next 47 years of their marriage (until my father's death) never asked him for anything that wasn't a necessity for the household. This was no small sacrifice for her. She came from a family of means and had had a very comfortable upbringing until her marriage. It was my mother's strength that allowed my father to resist temptation. 

- Arif Anwar, author of The Storm



 His scrupulously honest career had negative impacts beyond the monetary. His refusal to take bribes put his dishonest colleagues in an awkward position, and his disinclination towards showering his bosses with gifts drew their ire. As a result, my father's colleagues conspired with their superiors to transfer him to undesirable posts around the country. It was rare for him to last more than a year at a new post.

     Although these frequent moves strained my parents, they never worried about the impact on my schooling as the children of government officials could transfer from one school to another with minimal fuss, but attending eight or nine schools until matriculation left a mark on me; I never built up the cadre of childhood friends that others have nor possessed a stability of lifestyle to help me focus on my studies. However, this didn't bother me as doing well in examinations was not a priority for me. In fact, each time we received the news that my father would be transferred, I would get excited about seeing new places and meeting new people.

     My father never grumbled or complained when he found out that he would yet again be transferred. He would smile sadly and say something like I will have to go wherever the lord sends me and begin to pack our holdols. He never remonstrated with his superiors to stay at a certain post or lobby to move to another. He inherited this strong sense of ethics from his mother. 

     My father was well-educated. His bachelor's degree from Dhaka University, was a rarity in those days. He received first division in both his matriculation and intermediate and graduated from Dhaka University with distinction. He was also a 'blue' in athletics. 

     But he had a bad temper and of his children I got the worst of it. I don't know if it was an inheritance from his parents or an outgrowth of his career frustrations, but his anger would frequently be volcanic. Standing before him, facing his wrath, one imagined he would begin to destroy everything before him but he never did. As his children we were very scared of him. An example is if we were ever near and he asked for something, say, his glasses. We would immediately line up and the glasses would go from one hand to another until finally to him, like a relay. I got the worst of his beatings. My younger siblings managed to evade him by always staying out of his way and generally doing well in their studies.

     His expectations of my mother were unrealistic given that she was a woman who married at a very young age, before finishing her education. He would become very angry with her when she did not rise to meet them, but he never struck her because he had very particular ideas about moral conduct, and not just towards humans. I remember going somewhere with him during the winter (perhaps the bazaar) when we came across a bridge. There was another man before us with a cow, who for whatever reason was taking the bridge himself while making the cow cross the stream. My father shoved the man in the water and told him to follow his cow if he wouldn't take it on the bridge.

     He was a devout Muslim who never missed his five daily prayers. He would pray with utmost focus. He considered it as much a physical activity as a spiritual one and believed that all concomitant activities around prayers such as wudu were wonderful things as well. Whenever we visited a new place, especially an outdoors setting that was lovely he would find a quiet area to pray and thank god. Despite being devoutly religious however, he did not like the indiscriminate building of mosques. 

     He never failed to fast during Ramadan. I once saw him maintain his fast even though he was suffering from typhoid fever, only medicine passing his lips that day. But he was not doctrinaire about religion, and reluctant to push his beliefs onto others. Prayers aren't enough to get you into heaven, he would say. According to him, the first in line to heaven was the person who discovered quinine, and doctors and scientists, regardless of faith.

     An incident that I remember vividly about my father involved a housemaid who was departing our service. She was an old woman. As she was about to leave it was discovered that she had truly eclectic tastes in thievery as we found in her bags my father's wristwatch, his glasses, some of my mother's cosmetics and one of her earrings. Even some of my father's medicine. When we raised the issue with my father the whole house trembled in anticipation of his legendary temper. He came out to see all the stolen goods laid out on the courtyard, but surprised us by just saying to the maid: go mother, go, and turned away without even trying to reclaim the things she had stolen. I don't remember if the maid had the nerve to still take the stolen goods with her.

     Another time an old woman came to his work to lodge a complaint with the police as her relatives were threatening her for a plot of land of hers that they wished to claim. My father sat down to write the complaint himself instead of relegating it to one of his junior officers. But before she began dictating her complaint the woman fished out a small paper bag from her waist. My father stopped writing as he thought she was about to show him some documented evidence. Rather the bag held money that she offered to my father, thinking that like every other officer he required a bribe as well. My father grew angry and tossed the money back at her. 

     Whenever he tutored us in his studies he was likely to beat us if we made mistakes, but I don't believe that his strict parenting left lasting emotional or mental scars in us. We were afraid of him, yet respectful.  He gave his nine children lessons on religion as well as music and dance. He would often say that the house was a club and we were all members. He loved to play with us and at times he would call the local youngsters to participate in sports and he would buy prizes to distribute afterwards. He had skills in art and his own tricks; he would ask me to name any animal or object and he would draw it using either Arabic numerals or English or Bangla alphabets. Once he asked me to write a capital 'M', and when I did he used the two peaks of the letter as the ears of a cat, drawing the rest of the animal around it.

     He was stern but not cruel; pious but not dogmatic, and scrupulously honest even to the detriment of his family's well-being. He learned frugality from his mother in that he would say that nothing in this world goes unused. His example was the rice plant; the husk was fed to ducks, the plant stalk to cattle and the roots were burned to make the land fertile again.

     While he encouraged a variety of experiences in his children, he disliked the use of cosmetics at a young age. When I was 12 or 13 I would wake up at night, sit in front of the mirror and apply my mother's makeup to my face. I would use expensive, tantalizing products such as Cuticura talc, Mercolized Wax, snow and Brylcreem (my father's). There was no lipstick on the dressing table so I would soak red kite-paper in water until the color leached out and applied it to my lips. Although my father forbade it, my mother recognized the behavior as instinctual for a young girl. 

     Thus made up, I would parade around the house in the middle of the night, the spiders and wall geckoes my only audience. I was careful to always remove my makeup before returning to bed. However, one morning I forgot and my father frowned when he saw the tip on my forehead and when he asked me why my forehead was dirty I ran to the bathroom and quickly washed it off.

     During ramadan my father liked to sit in front of the food, waiting for the call to prayer to begin eating, considering it a sign of patience. During one of his fasts I joined him. It was my first time fasting and I absentmindedly took a single grain of puffed rice and started rubbing it on my tongue. When my father inquired as to what I was doing I said I'm not eating; I'm just rubbing it on my tongue. 

     He was methodical and disciplined in life. When we rode the train he always counted the luggage going in and then again getting out. Coolies in those days all had a metal plaque with their numbers on their shirts. My father would note the numbers of the coolies who carried our luggage so that we could find them again if something went wrong.

     He tutored me in English, taught me the rule of 's' or 'es' after a verb when it was in third person singular present tense, a simple concept but that took me a long time to master. My father would ask me for a simple translation of 'shey jai' in English and I would say 'he go' and he would hit me on the head. I became terrified of these 'lessons', which continued even after I began attending school. Eventually my siblings devised a way to deter him from tutoring them by telling him that they were studying maths, a subject my father was fearful of. Faced with a maths problem he would hem and haw and after some time mutter something about a right angle being ninety degrees before giving up (he was stronger in geometry).

     He had a soft spot for musicians. If one ever came to my father for help he would immediately insist that they become my music teacher. Some would agree reluctantly and for some time go through the motions of giving me music lessons. I would also go through these lessons, too scared to say no. Music lessons were the only bribe my father would accept.

     My father's orderly would polish his shoes everyday. I watched him and eventually took over this duty, which I enjoyed. When I was older and studying at Lahore, I would always have the most resplendent shoes in the dormitory. In fact, I went on a shoe buying spree in Lahore with my generous stipend just so I could polish shoes all night. It brought me much joy and satisfaction.

     Milk products would always be ready in the house as my father received 12 or 15 kgs of ghee from the government, among other milk products. He would always have milk and rice at the end of a meal, and when in season to this combination he would add fruits such as mangoes, jackfruit and palm fruit. He would insist that we have dairy in order to put some meat on my bones. His faith in dairy products making people fatter convinced me. I would force myself to eat these highly buttered and gheed foods and then closely watch my arms to see if I was gaining weight. Conversely, my father would also insist that we eat korola and drink chirota juice, as he believed that bitter foods held immense health benefits.

     He taught me that the particulars of good honey were in its color and smell. That the smoother a chicken's legs, the younger it was, that ripe bananas have thinner skin, and that the flesh of a mango that is ready to eat will not bounce back once pressed, that the stem of a good orange should be firm, as that's where it begins to rot, and that if the leaves of a plant fell off easily it would live, but if it took an effort to pry them off then it was likely dead.

     My paternal grandfather would receive an English newspaper daily, which was very rare indeed in that time. He was respected by the locals in his village (Kaliganj) for his philanthropy. He had an endless appetite for acquiring land and maintained his power by being extremely litigious about his properties and those of others, at one point winning thirty judgments in a row, following which he hired drum beaters to go from the rail station to the village broadcasting his victory all around the town square. 

     Once when my father was posted in Noria, my grandfather visited him. I forget the occasion but it might have been the name-giving ceremony of one of my younger brothers. Accompanying my grandfather was a very handsome young boy perhaps three years younger than me. Later in the day when my father returned from the office he encountered the child roaming about the house, and not recognizing him irately asked him who he was when my grandfather came in and gently informed my father that the young child was actually his younger brother from one of my grandfather's more recent marriages.

     My father was the youngest son of his first wife, named Meherunnessa, a stocky and fair-skinned woman with a deep voice who hated wastage. She was very intelligent and had a fantastic memory. I had a demonstration of this when she visited my father when he was in Faridpur and she recounted the details of every single port her steamer had stopped at on the way. Whenever she met someone for the first time (especially children) she would pose for them a math riddle. It was my grandmother who initially taught my father to read and write and not my grandfather. When she saw that my father was writing on his own on the ground with his finger she insisted that my grandfather send him to school. 

     My grandmother used to provide free lodging to students of great academic promise. Many renowned people including future ministers and high-level government bureaucrats spent time in the early days of their studies at my grandparents' village home. This was all at my grandmother's initiative. 

     When my grandmother saw me playing with one toy and putting it aside when I had grown bored, she joked that this girl won't be satisfied with one husband. I would sleep with her sometimes at night and among the many things she taught me was that if one says kulhu allahu ahad three times in one breath and then claps their hands loudly then no thieves or robbers come within the confines of the sound's reach.

     She had a hookah habit and would give me one anna with which to buy tobacco from the grocer's. This was a modest sum but still sufficient that I could use the change to buy some candy for myself, but at one point this endowment began dwindling until it became just two paisa, barely enough for me to buy candy or a khir sandesh with the leftover money. Then one day my grandmother gave me just one paisa, leaving me too little to buy both her tobacco and candy for myself. I went to grocers dejectedly, but when I stood before the store front I saw an opportunity: the tobacco was in the front, stacked pyramidically in large tins.

     This is a good chance to describe what a mudir dokan looked like when I was a child. They were simple structures. The sundries were stacked in front: the lozenges and candies in glass jars and spices or other granular objects such as tobacco openly in pyramid shape in tin cans, they were measured out using scales with stone weights. Hanging by the side would be a hard and brittle rope made of coconut husk whose end was constantly lit so that passersby could light their cigarettes.

     There would be other items too such as hair pins, lace and other beauty products. People would bring their empty glass bottles with ropes tied at the mouth and the grocer would fill them with oil or kerosene as needed. People would also bring woven bamboo baskets called dula to buy and carry back fish, and these baskets seemed to let the live fish live a little bit longer than metal or clay pots. 

     That day my grandmother gave me the tobacco money, the grocer had just finished cooking rice and was busy draining the water. When I arrived he had his back turned to me. I called out to him and he told me to wait while he finished with his rice. I took this opportunity to grab a great handful of tobacco from the stack before me and smoothed it over to hide the gouge my hand had left. I hid my thieving fist behind my back. When the grocer returned and asked me what I wanted I used my grandmother's money solely to buy lozenges for myself.

     I had three uncles from my father's side. Two of them lived in the village and the other uncle and my father were students at Dhaka University. In fact, both my father and my uncle were the favorite students of the famed linguist Dr. Shahidullah. Later, when my uncle gave up his studies to become an ascetic, Dr Shahidullah relocated to the village for a period of time, regularly visiting with his student, saying that my uncle needed to be nourished spiritually. His life story is fascinating and deserving of a book all its own, but this is not that book.

     My grandfather's house had a pre-existing relationship with a nawab household. He would often come back from his visits with them and ask his wives to recreate the dishes he had encountered there. This required quality ghee, thankfully we happened to have a good supply of that. I have been sensitized to quality cooking thanks to my early childhood experience at my grandfather's house. People of Dhaka division tend to be good cooks, in my opinion.

     My maternal grandfather (my nana) was the first from his village to finish University when he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Kolkata in 1911, securing first division in all his subjects. He was especially adept at English and Mathematics, and took it upon himself to tutor us in these subjects whenever we visited. My parents decided to send two of my brothers to him so that he could prepare them for admission to a better school than the one they attended at the time. It was apparently effective as one of my brothers was subsequently admitted to Jhenaidah Cadet College, admissions to which was highly competitive at that time.

     I would steal money from this grandfather's pockets. He kept change on the front pocket of his achkan. I would take the money and then stay out all day. I was generally quite skilled at stealing. In our defense, we were forced to steal from my nana as they fed us very little and we were constantly hungry. They fed us the bare minimum needed for a child to survive and to ensure that we didn't get more than our allotment, kept their fridge locked.

     My grandfather realized that we were stealing his money and confronted my mother about it. My mother, who was often timid before her family, for once vocally defended her children to her father. She said it was not true that my brother and I were stealing money from him, and that he was always accusing them without proof. She was of course unaware that for once, my grandfather's accusation had merit. 

     One day I got lucky and managed to steal one whole taka from his achkan, which was such an enormous sum of money that I couldn't spend it all in one day. After spending much of it on myself, I decided to buy some lace and hair clips for my mother. I don't recall what her reaction was on being presented with these gifts by me but it likely confirmed to her that I was indeed stealing from my grandfather. Nonetheless, she kept silent and said nothing to me.

     Later my brother confirmed to me that he also stole from my grandparents but that he got his money from under their mattress. He said he only did this because he was hungry and he never stole more than two annas which he needed to buy bread. He claimed that my grandparents also made him do all the unpleasant chores in the household, such as slaughtering chickens. They would tell him that the person holding the chicken's head when it was slaughtered would get the head and the others would get the drumsticks. My brother always ended up holding the head. Later in life my brother would become a District Commissioner.


Read Chapter 3 of this memoir on March 5 on Star Literature.