Begum Sufia Kamal became “Khalamma” in a few swift seconds of her introduction to me the first time I was in her house. Her daughter, Sultana Kamal, familiarly known as Lulu, and I were close friends at the English Department of Dhaka University—a friendship which had already crossed the barrier between the science faculty where I was a student and the arts faculty where Lulu was, at Holy Cross College, and now had taken strong roots with both of us being in the same department at DU.
Their house was unlike any other. You got off the rickshaw at the end of Road 32, Dhanmondi, entered through a bamboo gate into a garden always in flower. The first time I went, it must have been early winter—the garden was alive with a colourful storm of cosmos on top of delicate green-fringed leafy stems. On all my regular visits afterwards, the sheuli, the tuberose, the hasna hena, the gardenia, all marked the various seasons with their scent.
The veranda was the next stop. Usually, Lulu’s father would be sitting on a cane armchair reading. He would look up and nod at our shy salaam. We made our way in between the wicker chairs and stools which dotted the veranda to the living room where the cane bookcases tottered under the weight of the books and where the cane table lamps remained lit sometimes even when it was day.
If Khalamma had not come out to greet us in the veranda in her white cotton sari, the end of it neatly circling her lovely face, she would be found in the inner precincts, always busy. She would be writing or reading or cooking or sewing or saying her prayers or giving instructions or advice to someone or the other. But whatever she was busy with, in a little while she would be with us, listening and talking.
Tea would come—she knew we were always hungry—and the cha would come with muri bhorta or shingara or toast biscuits. Always something delicious. On some occasions, she cooked especially for us. I still remember her creamy firni and fragrant ilish pulao.
I also remember the tribe of cats which weaved in and out between our legs under the table. There were 11 at that time, and each had a name, the latest being Aleya, which made me laugh as much as Lulu was laughing telling me its name. Khalamma didn’t seem to be bothered by the number of them. They were clearly as much a part of her family as the long line of people of all creed, class and age who walked in and out of that unusual house.
From a strict all girls’ convent school and missionary college, I was now in the heady atmosphere of Dhaka University. The ambience was magic. Walking to the British Council to read, to the TSC to rehearse for plays and debates and to eat in the company of friends, to New Market in search of books, to the classrooms through the innumerable corridors—all spelled freedom, the greatest freedom being of course the freedom to spend time as we pleased with whoever we pleased, which meant often with our batchmates of the opposite sex.
Most of us couldn’t take any of this back home—our parents did not want to know and we did not want to tell. But Khalamma was a different story. She was ready to listen and to encourage and to applaud and to scold and to laugh.
We had so much to tell. About the luminaries who taught us: Dr Sajjad Hossain, the Anglophile professor who brought the battlefields of Iliad into the classroom and who also made us don black robes and march through the campus to observe a matriculation ceremony while our friends in the other departments laughed and jeered; Dr Munir Hussain; Dr Serajul Islam Chowdhury; Dr Jyotirmoy Guhathakurtha; Ms Hosne Ara Huq; and Dr Sarwar Murshid, in crisp white kurta pyjamas and his signature dark sunglasses even in the classroom, reading metaphysical poetry and all of us in a state of fevered ecstasy listening to Donne, “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love.”
We could share all this so easily with Sufia Kamal. Not only did she listen, but she also brought out Bangla poems to match the English ones we were reading, read and rated the poems and articles we were writing, commented on the weekly column I wrote for the Morning News, was disappointed if we didn’t speak out in class when we had an opinion different to the one being asserted by the lecturer or by the majority, and never, ever, not one single time did she say that our university days were only a waiting period before we would be married off to live happily ever after. Which was what many of us were hearing at home.
There was another quality I found magical in that house. Everyone was allowed to be what they wanted to be. Lulu’s eldest brother seemed to be a student of various subjects, her second brother had gone to America to work, Lulu was studying English literature and her sister was in Art College. Their future was theirs to plan, enjoy or suffer, whatever, with one condition—that they become independent with education as the base.
With Sufia Kamal, no subject was out of bounds for discussion. She asked us once why Lulu and I didn’t have boyfriends, when we were discussing in a very judgmental way some girls who had them. Struck dumb by this question, I stayed silent wondering if Lulu would be able to answer. Sufia Kamal herself did. Because you two have such sharp tongues, she said.
We wondered whether we would become more loveable if we listened to Donne’s plea and held our tongues. But our friends laughed and said it was too late. They tried to console us listing some of our more attractive qualities but we felt, to quote TS Eliot, “After such knowledge, what apology”, and would not be consoled. For a little while.
I realise as I write that this seems to be more on me and my time then, than about Begum Sufia Kamal. But then, this was her unmatched gift, that she could make you see yourself better, examine yourself and decide that you meant something of value.
She was a true embodiment of the “Spirit of the Age”, showing us the best way to exist when the worst of times was upon us. There will not be a second Sufia Kamal but her lesson was not to be a second anyone, no matter how bright a star. “Be yourself and be the best of yourself” was her lesson.
When young, we admire many people who lose their shine once we grow older and wiser. The truly admirable are the ones for whom the admiration remains and continues to grow. Begum Sufia Kamal is such a person for me and as I write this I am again inspired, enkindled and touched by everything she was.
Zeenat Rezwana Chowdhury is the principal of South Breeze School.
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