I was so excited when my first story – “My American Dream”–appeared in The Daily Star back in 2007 that I quickly emailed the web link to all my friends. And they promptly responded with “What is Tohon?” as if the name was more important than the story itself.
As I kept writing, the readers kept asking “What’s in the name Tohon?” Now the Editor herself is curious. So, I am writing this story and, if she chooses to publish the piece, you can bet, I will email the link to all my friends who have been asking me the question all these years.
Many times, I heard my mother narrating a particular story about me to her friends. As a small child I would cry often and the worse part was that once I started crying, I would not stop. Our family friend, Uncle Baig, my dad’s military colleague from Punjab, used to call me “bichchu” (for bichha or centipede).
It still puzzles me why Uncle Baig would relate a crying child to a dangerous, crawling, poisonous, ugly-looking insect. Maybe he meant scorpion because both scorpions and centipedes come from the same invertebrate family: arthropods. And both of God’s small creatures (“dangerous beasts,” in my view) have the capability of stinging (scorpions) or biting (centipedes) with painful results, even killing the victim.
As I grew up, I came to suspect that perhaps Uncle Baig had X-ray eyes and was able to see my inner demon. As it turns out, deep inside, I have always been violent. I would rather self-destruct than succumb to the control of others, thus emulating a scorpion which kills itself under similar conditions.
Now, getting back to the story, during the period of my incessant crying, my mother must have been a thoughtful woman to start calling me “Tuhin” (a Bengali word for “snow on a mountain peak,” like Everest). She hoped the name “snow” might calm her irritable boy down and transform him into a happy child.
Did her trick work?
It sure did. I am not sure if my mother was aware of the timing of this change. But as a symbol of her love for her happy boy, she fondly started calling me “baba Tohon” – as if “Tohon” – an affectionate name without meaning – was now more fitting than Tuhin.”
I do not recall the first time that I heard her address me with that name, but I do remember the last time she uttered those two words.
It was December 1999. Upon receiving a frantic phone call from my brother, I rushed home from Australia. My mother was gravely ill, bedridden, and had lost her memory as well as her speech. She stared at me with a blank look and I could not be sure if she recognised her favourite son.
My sister-in-law cried, telling me that even the previous weeks she had kept repeating: “Aamar forsha cheleta koi?” meaning “Where is my fair-complexioned boy?”
Except for my mother herself, no one in our family had a fair complexion. By “forsha” I suppose, in her subconscious mind, she implied “beautiful” – like beauty in the eyes of the beholder.
I stayed with her for two weeks and kept praying, “Please God, I want to hear, one last time, the sweetest of all things, “Tohon,” from my mother’s mouth.” God did not fail me. The day I was heading back, I went to her room and held her hand in mine for the last time. She looked at me and, lo and behold, uttered “baba Tohon.”
As far as my memory goes, she always loved me dearly. In her eyes, I was “ideal”: although shy, timid and passive, I was also disciplined and obedient, kind and caring, and always attended happily to household chores. At times, upset with my elder brother, she would say in exasperation, “I would have no problem raising a hundred sons like Tohon.”
“But, Ammu,” my brother would tease her back, “Tohon is your daughter, not a son.”
As it turned out, in one of my dreams I once saw myself as a daughter in our household. I was happy to see myself as a loving and caring girl, but hoped that someday I would also dream of my darker side – a deadly, venomous scorpion.
At nineteen (1969), I went to study engineering and have been away from home since then. A few years after my graduation, I travelled overseas and saw my mother only during my visits. But I would always write her letters. I knew that she eagerly awaited my correspondence and I never failed her.
In early 2000, in her sleep, my mother silently slipped away to another world. I flew to Dhaka. While I was grieving for the loss of my mother, I had one important mission in my mind: to find the letters I wrote to her over the years, for I knew she must have saved them all.
I exhausted myself searching all over her room – the desk and the drawers, the bookshelf and the books, the almirah and the neatly folded clothes and linens, and the suitcases containing some of her favourite belongings – but there were no letters, not a single one of them. Filled with disappointment, I nearly gave up, but then thought of searching one last place: underneath her mattress. And yes, there they were, so many of them. On one hand, I was thrilled to have found this precious treasure, and on the other, tears rolled down my cheeks as the letters resurrected our eternal bond.
The story does not quite finish there. Years later, in an unusual dream, I would experience an afterlife meeting with my mother – two souls reuniting in another world.
So, when my friends ask me, “What’s in the name “‘Tohon’?” I say, “My mother used to call me by that name.”
“What does it mean?” they enquire.
I go silent, “God, help me! How do I explain it?”
“Yes?” They wait for an answer.
I say, “‘Tohon’ means, a timeless bond between two souls.”
Tohon is a short story writer and regular contributor to the Star Literary Page.