By Naureen Mowla
Little did I know, on that day I would learn so much. It was just another muggy morning in September, and I was putting on my salwar kameez to go to school. I had been at school in Chittagong, Bangladesh for a year, finishing up my A-levels, which is an equivalent form of high school graduation here. The housemaid was up as usual before anyone else. I sat at the dining table as she made my cup of tea. My aunt, who I was living with, was the only other person at home, but she was getting dressed in a pastel colored cotton saari to go to a ladies’ event at the local convention center. She came out of her room, filling the dining room with the smell of fresh roses. My aunt announced she was heading out and would send the driver back to take me to school.
After my toast with jam and cup of tea, I went back to my bedroom to make sure I had my Biology notebook needed for the day. As I counted my ballpoint pens in the side pocket of my bag, I heard my cousin walking from the end of the house where his room was. He walked into my room and with a blank stare handed me the phone. I can hear those words so clearly today. He said, “Tomar Nana aar nai,” which means, “Your Nana is no more.” My grandfather was gone. On the phone was my grandmother’s brother’s wife who was lived ten minutes away. She must have said more but I certainly couldn’t tell you what it was. It felt like the clocks had all stopped and everything was muted. There was no more noise from the construction crew outside the bedroom balcony or the symphony of car horns. After what I can imagine was a good twenty minutes of laying there in a ball with the phone next to me, I noticed the housemaid walk in with her straw broom. Then, came the sound of heels through the dining room. Left, right, left, right, until they stopped. “Sanjee? Ki hoise,”my aunt said. My aunt was home because there was a rescheduling in the program and asked what was wrong. Before I could stop and from any kind of real answer, my mouth opened and “nothing” came out. So she went to her room and I heard the TV turn on. I slowly got up and walked over to her door and let out what must have been a soft whisper. She jumped out of her bed and asked when, how and who called. Without hearing anything more, she grabbed her cell phone and called the driver. He was told to check for any ticket to Dhaka whether by train or bus. It was already almost 11 o’clock and the morning train had left.
When we got hold of a bus leaving that afternoon at 2:30, my distant grandmother and I made our way to the station. It was my first time travelling without a male family member. My cousin was the one who would take me places, usually, but he couldn’t take off his shift at the hospital for this sudden trip. The bus was, of course, twenty minutes late and packed. The two of us sat in the back, and as I could hear her mumbling verses of prayers, my mind became blank. The physical numbness from that morning returned. I just sat there, staring at the dirty blue valance on the big, light brown glass windows. Typically, a bus from Chittagong to Dhaka takes six hours but, of course, traffic jams that night had to be extra crazy.
We finally arrived at the bus stop in Dhaka at 10:25pm. My uncle was there to take us home. Visions of my always joyful grandfather kept me from the conversation in the front seats between my uncle and his aunt. I could hear his loud laugh that would make everyone in that room giggle. His smile that spread from ear to ear would ridiculously expose his big teeth at the same time, light up the room. You know how people say happiness is contagious? Well for anyone who knew my grandfather, it truly was. He wasn’t just a glass half full kind of guy; he would make you see the upside of every situation as well.
We walked up the stairs into my grandmother’s house and there wasn’t a spot empty. Relatives flooded the hallways and every corner was occupied with someone either sitting or standing as they prayed for the departed soul. As religious customs, the burial was as soon as possible or, in this case, late that afternoon. This was my first encounter with the concept of death and felt sort of incomplete. Not being able to actually see my grandfather made it that much harder to accept that he was gone.
As I inched my way through the crowded corridor into the light green bedroom, the first that caught my eye was the dent on the side of the bed where he laid all day after the prostate cancer had spread. I wanted to pinch myself at that moment and wake up in bed warm under the covers. Just then, I saw from the corner of my eye, my grandmother dragging her body towards me. My body readily stepped forward. We must have hugged for some time because we had soaked each other’s shoulders with tears. What do you say then? No words would console her broken spirit or bring back her best friend of forty-seven years.
I took a seat by the window and felt the cool breeze brush my wet cheeks. All I could do was look around and see the waves of people rushing in and out to pay respects. Many were distant family members, but there were some people I did not recognize. My aunts introduced me to them as my grandfather’s former patients and their families. They had heard the news and travelled as I did, in shock, to pay their respects. Housemaids from decades ago came in tears hardly able to speak and would share stories of what a good man my Nana was. His enormous heart had touched not only his family, but everyone who had an encounter with him.
Growing up in Thailand, and subsequently the US, has taught me many things, but nothing compared to the lessons I learned that day. In such a painful day, I got to see firsthand what life was all about. These cars, houses, jobs, and money will come and go; it’s how you treat each and every person around you that matters. It’s people like my grandfather that make this world a better place for our future generations.
My Nana strangely became my hero even more so after his death. From having the honor of witnessing his contribution to our world, and how greatly he impacted everyone he knew, I only hope to leave such a mark in my lifetime. I hope that when it’s my time, people gather the same way, and won’t have one complaint about me. For that, I have a much greater self-awareness. I’m more conscious of how I speak with others and make sure I don’t hurt anyone in any way. It only takes one ill encounter to leave a bad taste in someone else’s mouth. I make sure that I am as considerate of others as my grandfather was. “Courtesy costs nothing” is something I have repeatedly heard my father say and, with a good heart, I hope to play as great a role model to my children as my Nana did for me.