In contrast to Father, my mother, Sofia Khatun, was a strong and decisive woman.
She was the disciplinarian of the family, and once she bit her lower lip, we
knew that it was useless to try to change her mind. She wanted us all to be as
methodical as she was. She was probably the strongest influence on me. Full of
compassion and kindness, Mother always put money away for any poor relatives who
visited us from distant villages. It was she, by her concern for the poor and
the disadvantaged, who helped me discover my interest in economics and social
Mother came from a family of minor merchants and traders who bought and sold
goods from Burma. Her father owned land and leased most of it out. He spent most
of his time reading, writing chronicles, and eating good food. It was this last
trait that most endeared him to his grandchildren. In these early years, I
remember my mother often wearing a bright-colored sari with a gold band around
the hem. Her dark black hair was always combed into a thick bun and parted in
the front to the right. I loved her very much and was certainly the one who most
often pulled at her sari and demanded attention. Above all, I remember her
stories and songs, such as the tragic tale of the Karbala. Every year, during
Moharramthe Muslim commemoration of the KarbalaI remember asking my mother,
Mother, why is the sky red on this side of the house and blue on the other
The blue for Hassan, she would answer, and the red for Hussein.
Who are Hassan and Hussein?
They were the grandsons of our prophetpeace be upon himthe gems of his two
And when she finished the story of their murder, she would point to the dusk and
explain that the blue on one side of the house was the poison that killed Hassan
and the red on the other side was the blood of the slain Hussein. To me as a
child, her depiction of this tragedy was no less moving than our great Bengali
epic Bishad Shindhu (The Sea of Sorrow).
Mother dominated my early years. Whenever she would fry her pitha cakes in the
kitchen, we would crowd around her, scrambling for a taste. As soon as she
slipped her first pitha from the frying pan and blew on it to cool it, I would
snatch it from her, for I had the family distinction of being her chief taster.
Mother also worked on some of the jewelry sold in our shop. She often gave a
final touch to earrings and necklaces by adding a bit of velvet ribbon or woolen
pompoms or by attaching braided colored strands. I would watch as her long thin
hands worked away at the beautiful ornaments. It was the money she earned on
these projects that she gave away to the neediest relatives, friends, or
neighbors who came to her for help.
Mother had fourteen children, five of whom died young. My elder sister, Momtaz,
eight years older than me, married when she was still a teenager. We often
visited in her new home at the edge of town, where she served us lavish meals.
Salam, three years older than I, was my closest companion. We played war,
mimicking the sounds of Japanese machine guns. And when the wind was right, we
built colorful kites from diamond-shaped pieces of paper and bamboo sticks. Once
Father bought a few defused Japanese shells in the market and we helped Mother
transform them into plant pots for the roof by standing them on their fins, wide
Salam and I, along with all the boys of our working-class neighborhood, attended
the nearby Lamar Bazar Free Primary School. Bengali schools inculcate good
values in the children. They aim not only for scholastic achievement but also
teach civic pride; the importance of spiritual beliefs; admiration for art,
music, and poetry; and respect for authority and discipline. In the Lamar Bazar
Free Primary School, each classroom had about forty students. Primary and
secondary schools were not coeducational. All of us there, even the teachers,
spoke in Chittagonian dialect. Good students could win scholarships and were
often asked to compete in nationwide exams. But most of my fellow schoolmates
soon dropped out.
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