“Tanveer Ahmed is a great Australian citizen, commentator, practitioner and now memoirist. His serious intent operates in combination with an enviable geniality of soul to make him a welcome voice in public discourse in our country. But now he will delight us in the intimacy of this superbly written and engrossing memoir, a memoir both so entertaining but also so important and therapeutic for this country now.” – Thomas Keneally
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist and a foreign affairs journalist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald.
He grew up in an immigrant Bangladeshi family in Sydney’s west and his new memoir, The Exotic Rissole tells of his adventures.
He joined a cricket team that was mistaken for a terrorist group, had a stint as a Bollywood-style game show host and discovered an aversion to dead bodies as a medical student.
Tanveer, quite inevitably, decided to become a psychiatrist.
In The Exotic Rissole cultures collide and identities mix, all held together loosely with breadcrumbs and egg. ” ‘Yes, I married your father. Of course, love is a myth.’ my mother once said.” In this extract from his memoir, Tanveer tells of his parents’ courtship in Bangladesh.
EXTRACT: ROMANTIC MISMATCH
I could never see what my parents had in common. My mother was a highly social, anxious, literature-obsessed woman who was raised to have a suspicion of both religion and money. She walked around the house quoting from the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, while carrying dried fish and mango pickles to the kitchen.
“Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf,” she once said, before urging Tania and I never to experiment with drugs. I wasn’t sure of the relevance. “The dew is on the tip of the leaf, not eating or smoking it.” she replied, fresh after a discussion about children and drugs with her Tax Office colleagues, where she had acquired the nickname Queen Latifa.
My father was the prodigy from a dirt poor village called Bijoyrampur who was interested in matters practical – money, machines and charity. His skills were in mathematics and DIY handyman work. He seemed restless and unable to sit comfortably with company, either loitering around in the garden tilling the soil or fixing the carburettor in our decades old, beige Toyota Corolla. When we walked in a group, he was often alone ten metres in front holding his hands behind his back. He seemed inaccessible, an advertisement for men as emotional islands.
I didn’t see it as a problem. The message I had received from my parents and family friends while growing up was that in spite of the movies, romantic love was a dangerous concept borne in modernity, one that led to flickers of passion but was destined to end in tatters.
“Yes, I married your father. Of course, love is a myth.” my mother once said.
It was not the environment in which to raise children. Whether it occurred in a Bangladeshi village or within the English Royal family, marriage was about renewing status or social climbing, depending on where one sat on the social ladder, and then transmitting quality genetic code.
I knew they were the views of the Old World, one which my parents were struggling to maintain amid the assault of television, rock music and Coca Cola.
But they were able to relent occasionally, such as the time when they bought me an electric guitar for my sixteenth birthday during a phase when I was obsessed with Bon Jovi and randomly sang lines of “Livin’ On A Prayer.” The neighbours complained that the amplifier was too loud, consigning me to the garage.
“Tommy used to work on the docks… union’s been on strike, he’s down on”
“Acha, please, maths homework first, rock music later,” my father responded, pointing me to my room.
My parents first met in a tin roofed room of my mother’s village, Dihi. My father, Afsar, had a stellar reputation as an university academic in statistics. He was also fair skinned, ‘forsha’ in Bengali, which was highly prized. He was in his mid twenties and came with only a small entourage, unusual for a man of his billing. Just one man, my mother’s uncle, who was more of an interlocutor than Afsar’s direct companion. The uncle was known as the ‘ghatak’, those who arranged marriages, agents of matrimony.
“Please, no bhaja food please?” Afsar began, lifting a palm as if to stop oncoming traffic, attempting to indicate his sophistication by communicating a distaste for fried food. “I am very health conscious.”
The word quickly spread into the kitchen, where my grandmother was preparing furiously with a lone servant, squatting over a pot on a fire, making a feast to please the potential suitor.
“Shudu shidho?” my grandmother said, confused about his desire for boiled food. “Strange man.”
My mother, Minu, was the eldest daughter of the Khan family. She had just finished Year 10 at a Hindu, boarding school, Mirzapur, one of the very few women in her region to have completed secondary studies. My grandfather, Nana, did not care for the Hindu background of the school, concerned only for its renowned reputation for producing bright, independent girls. But in spite of her exceptional education, a quality that had attracted her new suitor, she readied herself in a neighbouring room lacking crucial knowledge about the urgently important discipline of make up and fashion.
“Ore baba, should I wear a necklace or ear rings?” she asked her teenage sister Bulu, who was entrusted to oversee my mother’s appearance on entrance. “With my plain face, he will think I have just walked out of jail or a funeral.”
After a period of dedicated attention, while Afsar was met by my mother’s father, siblings and nearby eavesdroppers, Minu strode in with her sister, greeted my future father with the Islamic “Salam alaykum”, before taking a seat on the other side of the room on a wooden chair. Afsar peered at her while sitting on the bed, leaning back slightly with his hands resting on the springy mattress, occasionally dusting his cream coloured shirt. He admired her red sari with a gold trim. She also wore a black bindi on her forehead.
“So you have almost completed your schooling now.” my father began. “What subjects did you study for your class ten certificate?”
There was no pretence that marriage discussions were anything other than the most important version of the job interview.
My mother answered speedily that she studied history, English, economics and Bengali literature.
“Can you tell me the name of a famous economist?” my father asked matter of factly, without a hint of playfulness.
My mother was dumbstruck and looked around the room, making strained eye contact with her father and eldest brother who were also present. After a brief pause, her sister Bulu broke the silence by offering some sweets to Afsar.
“Tich ache.” said Afsar. “No problem. Can you do the namaj?” he then asked, assessing her religious credentials.
“Of course, nischoi,” my mother squeaked, hoping to regain some ground. She knew how to pray, although never did unless somebody died. Her father did not encourage religious practice among his children, focusing instead on a worldly education. But there was no way this ambivalence towards religion could be revealed now.
“I can read the Koran too,” my mother added, lying through her teeth, desperately hoping that she wouldn’t be asked to prove it.
“One more question, tik ache?” Afsar said, to then see my mother nod anxiously.
“What is eight times seven?” he asked.
There was a brief pause while nervous glances were exchanged again among Minu’s family. More sweets were offered in desperation. But my mother feigned confidence, made direct eye contact with Afsar, before offering her response.
“Fifty four,” she said, her pulse quickening but without a bat from her eyelids.
There was an audible gasp in the room from the ghatak uncle and brother Badu.
Afsar smiled, watching my mother go red faced, realising that the answer was wrong. Her eyes were downcast.
“It’s OK. Abar- let’s try again,” my father made an attempt to console. “What is three times seven?”
“Twenty one,” my mother answered promptly with a light tilt of her head. My father nodded, grinned and asked for a rasagullah sweet to celebrate.
He left the household impressed with the display, while not overwhelmed by my mother’s knowledge of economics and mathematics.
He had already searched long and hard with little success. His qualifications meant he was in high demand and had even attracted the interests of a wealthy, city industrialist eager to marry off his only daughter, only to baulk when he saw the meagre, deprived nature of my father’s village and its inhabitants, living in mud huts without power or electricity.
On another occasion, my father ventured to an adjacent village to consider a possible candidate, only to find he was being ambushed. The suitor family had planned the event to begin as a simple meeting, but to be upgraded at short notice to a full blown wedding. When my father arrived, within minutes the prospective fiance arrived as a bride, in a bright, red sari and a garland of flowers around her neck. He was informed that the marriage would occur then and there, forcing my father to jump out through a window in the mud brick room and frantically run several kilometres home.
After meeting my mother, Afsar expressed his interest through the fixer uncle, but regretfully added that any marriage with my mother would have to wait because of an opportunity that arose for him in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan. It was the summer of 1969 and there was no Bangladesh. It was still called East Pakistan, the two bits of east and west split by the meandering mass of India.
“I have been offered a job at a prestigious insurance company in Karachi, Federal Life, with the promise of future study and a position in England. My bosses said I could go to the London School of Economics!” my father wrote to Minu, days before he boarded a Pakistan International Airways flight to Karachi.
Afsar moved to the other end of his fragile, cobbled together country with three other colleagues – Jainal, Mrinal and Dhash. They were studying to become actuaries, receiving course notes and directions from a centralised body based in London.
My mother returned to the boarding school, Mirzapur, to complete her final year of high school, with a view to attend university. She would receive the occasional letter from my father, signed off as an uncle to avoid arousing the suspicion of the college mistresses who dispensed with letters of any romantic nature.
I am settling into a flat with my housemates, Mrinal, Dhash and Jainal. I try to cook for them, but sometimes there is only the chapati bread. Karachi is very hot and the people have wide shoulders. I am applying probability ratios to extract a good premium for the company. Good luck in your studies.
Your uncle Afsar.
My mother would dilligently reply, lying on her dormitory bed in the evenings with an old fountain pen.
Dear Afsar Uncle,
The shapla flower floats in our pond and reminds me of nature’s Beauty. It is there that I find my God. I feel the winter’s breeze on my skin and think of Tagore’s words: “Beauty is truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror.” I hope to study English at Dhaka University next year.
Your niece, Minu.
The backdrop to their innocent, burgeoning romance was growing political tumult. The Pakistani leaders in the west wanted to impose their language, Urdu, as the state language in east, where the people spoke Bengali. For leverage, the government was denying resources – money, food and arms – to the neglected, eastern part.
My father had spent a year in Pakistan and was readying himself for a possible stint in London. My mother had finished her schooling and had gained entry to study English at Dhaka university. They continued to exchange letters but my father, not one to make hasty decisions that may have a financial impact, had not made firm plans.
On the verge of war in the early part of 1971 my father and his colleagues were asked to return home immediately. Tanks rolled in, the military stormed key centres such as banks, water depots and government buildings, and the massacres began. Chaos ensued as everybody ran for cover, searching for safety in their homes.
My mother returned to her family in their village. Another brother, the youngest of all eight children, was born soon afterwards, his delivery occurring in broad daylight while gunfire could be heard in the background. He was named Bullet.
My mother and her younger sister, Bulu, were both likely targets for rape amid the disinhibited rage of their masters. They dressed only in burkas if they went outside, the only time in their lives that they ever wore religious garments. On other occasions, they lay under blankets if soldiers came knocking.
“Please sir, leave them alone,” my grandparents would say. “They are sick, old ladies trying to recover.”
Soon after my father returned, a list of local intellectuals, professionals and industrialists were drawn up by army generals. Those that could be found were lined up in the centre of town and maimed symbolically – the eye surgeon having his eyeballs poked out, the writer’s hands slit with a bayonet and the architect’s bones crushed with bricks.
My father’s name appeared on a similar list, unknown to him, until a family friend arrived in his village in the dead of night to take him into hiding, boarding a bus at dawn to be smuggled into lodgings located in the nearby district town of Jessore. He stayed there in virtual isolation for weeks, until one afternoon a neatly dressed, muscular soldier with a curly black moustache knocked loudly on his door and strode inside.
“So Mister, Bhaiya, your time has come,” he shouted in Urdu, revealing a shimmering bayonet atop a smoking rifle, freshly fired. “You think you can hide forever?”
My father stood frozen, his time in Karachi allowing him to understand. He raised his arms as if to surrender, until a neighbour walked in to assist.
“Sir, please, he is not the traitor,” the balding, middle aged man with a limp said, referring to the haphazard group of freedom fighters that resisted the military brutality. “He is a good man and prays to Allah.”
The solider stared at my father again, momentarily relaxing his grip on the rifle. My father sensed his chance.
“I lived in Karachi for one year and worked in insurance. I hope to return. I am not a traitor and fear God the Almighty,” he said in fluent Urdu, taking the soldier by surprise.
A heavy silence ensued while the soldier locked eyes with his prey, surveyed the bare surroundings of the single room dwelling and then lifted his rifle again. He flung the bayonet towards my father’s throat, pressed the sides of the blade against his neck and turned it from side to side.
“You were lucky this time Bhaiya,” the soldier snarled before charging out to battle once again. My father’s eyes were closed, fearing his end, before he caught wind of escape, hugging his neighbour in thanks.
Several months later, after almost three million people died, the war came to an abrupt end. The Indians joined the battle to avert a mammoth refugee crisis on their border, just kilometres away from my mother’s village. Their superior forces brought the Pakistanis to their knees within weeks.
Amid the death, rape and destruction a new country called Bangladesh was born. Radio Australia was the first English language service to announce it. A new leader, Sheikh Mujib, was hailed as the land’s saviour.
The euphoria settled. It was 1972. Famine arrived soon afterwards. The country was bankrupt and Henry Kissinger announced Bangladesh as a basket case. But lives began afresh.
My mother’s family had organised another potential suitor, frustrated at my father’s indecision. All plans were ready for an alternate husband, a learned man also living in Karachi, when the end of the war grounded all flights to Bangladesh and stopped him from returning home.
Not having made contact through the conflict, my father renewed a wedding proposal, but was met with resistance by his immediate family who wanted a big dowry. My grandfather refused, offering only to pay for the gold and jewellery at the wedding. A row erupted and my father sat on the sidelines caught in the peacetime crossfire. He still visited my mother on the university campus, occasionally holding a rose brought at a nearby street stall.
The attitude among his parents and siblings was that for such a rare find from what were humble beginnings even in Bangladesh, a gargantuan payment was appropriate, an entitlement even. They demanded a motorcycle, several goats and cows, an allotment of land and a typewriter. The gold jewellery was a given.
There was a stalemate and a tense stand off. The marriage looked doomed, until my father finally stepped in.
“I want to marry Minu,” he said, demanding that the metrics of the dowry payment be modified.
His siblings and parents relented, realising the wheels of motion had progressed too far to be thwarted. They married weeks later in a simple ceremony without any fanfare at a university dormitory room, my uncle Badu carrying the wedding ring to the city from my mother’s village.