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 reform.
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 side?
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 holy eyes.
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 end up.
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.
Excerpted from Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus Copyright © 1998 by Muhammad Yunus. Excerpted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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