In Search of Her Roots

by Sohana Manzoor

The child did not recognise the thin woman in the coarse saree. She clung to her mother. Her mother tried to thrust her towards the woman’s outstretched arms. But the child wailed in protest.

Meghna hugged herself while standing on the other side of the road. The afternoon air was chilly. She was looking at a two-storey red-brick building—one of those old buildings that belonged to the railway. There were a few others in the sprawling green that looked very similar. In this small half-rural vicinity, she had finally tracked her down. But what would Meghna ask her? Now that she was so near, she wondered what to say. The questions seemed so moot and pointless.

How should she approach the woman who goes by the name Rahela Khatun? Rahela has two children—the son is twenty-five and studies at the Chittagong University, and the daughter studies at a local college. She herself is a school teacher who lost her husband some years ago. What could Meghna tell her?

“That is not what I meant at all … that is not it at all.” She sighed. So much for studying literature. In her school days, she was weak in maths. It seemed the sum of her life was going awry too.

* * *

It all started with that one comment at the programme organised by her friend’s NGO. Meghna herself was a university teacher, but she also volunteered with some women’s welfare organisations.

“I know you! You look exactly like your mother.”

Meghna looked up at the elderly woman in front of her. She was perhaps in her late fifties or early sixties, Meghna assumed. She wore an ordinary white saree with wide blue border. Her grey hair was tied neatly into a bun, and there was nothing extraordinary about her. Except her eyes. They were hazel eyes and very clear. The ghost of a smile played about her lips and her forehead was creased with age. She took the saree and other items Meghna had held out, and before she could say anything, the woman walked away and disappeared into the crowd. Meghna narrowed her eyes and peered after the woman. But she seemed to have melted into the room full of similarly attired women.

Meghna tried to concentrate on the next person standing in front of her, another woman wearing a plain cotton saree. But her mind kept returning to the woman who said, “You look exactly like your mother.” She had heard it often, especially from relatives who had known her mother. But how did this stranger know it? Her mother had died when Meghna was barely a toddler. It was a painful story of which Meghna never knew all the details. As a child she would often ask her father. But as she grew older, she realised that the memories caused him tremendous sorrow. He would reminisce about his late wife, and then grow sombre. On one occasion, Meghna felt that she was poking an ulcerous wound, and from that day, she refrained from asking questions about her mother. Her real mother. She had the mother who raised her, of course—her mother’s sister who was married to Meghna’s father for the sake of convenience. 

Meghna’s father was in the civil service. During the liberation war of 1971, he worked as a sub-divisional officer in a small town in north Bengal. Her mother was staying with her parents when the war broke out. Meghna was just over a year old on that fateful night in June when a group of Pakistani soldiers barged into their house, demanding to know the whereabouts of her father, Aminul Bari. They suspected him of aiding and abetting the freedom fighters. Failing to capture Aminul, they instead took his wife, Mirana, and his brother-in-law Minhaz, Mirana’s younger brother. Neither of them ever returned. It was later reported by one of Minhaz’s friends how he was shot, killed, and buried along with a dozen others. Mirana went traceless, assumed to be lost among the countless women who were tortured and killed. Her grandmother once mentioned two women who had been held captive with her, but Meghna never learnt the details of her imprisonment or her assumed death.

On her way back home, Meghna felt disturbed by the comment made by a complete stranger. But what did she know of her mother? All she had left were some blurred black-and-white pictures, some fragmented stories told by her family members, and a few pieces of jewellery. Even her amma—her mother’s sister, Mubina—rarely spoke of her sister. It seemed that the memory was too painful for them to remember. And for the peace of the family, Meghna never raised questions. It often surprised her, though, because even if the memory is painful, shouldn’t they at least have tried to find out where she died? For example, they did learn that Minhaz uncle had spent his last days in a shanty near Demra. But how come nobody knew about her mother?

* * *

That evening, Meghna decided to tell her husband, Asif, about it. Asif was a bit taken aback but not too surprised. He was a journalist by profession, after all.

“It might be painful for your family members, but you’ll have to begin with them. Ask Amma first.”

Mubina’s face turned into a mask when she heard Meghna’s query. “Why do you want to dig up a past that is so painful for all of us?” she whispered. “Your father … he won’t be able to bear it …”

“Because I need to know what happened to my mother.”

“Nobody saw her after she was taken by the Khan shenas.

“But how come nobody knows anything? Nanu had said more than once that two other women who were held captive in the same camp with my mother were saved. Did they say how she died, or what happened to her remains?”

Mubina shook her head, her face stricken with despair. “It’s also shameful, you know! Agonising for your father because he could do nothing to save her.”

“I have to know what happened,” said Meghna stubbornly. “I will leave no stone unturned. And whose shame are you talking about, Amma? Abba was scarred in the war, and so was my mother.”

“Am I not your mother too, Meghna?” asked Mubina in a broken voice.

“Yes, you are,” replied Meghna tenderly. “But I also need to know where she ended up. If there’s a grave or something.”

Mubina wept in silence.

* * *

It did seem very difficult. Almost impossible, actually. Meghna thought about the countless faces she encountered in the process. The different NGOs and social organisations that dealt with women lost in 1971. One lady who had probably seen more than most told her gently, “I understand why you’re looking for her. But please be prepared to find no information at all. There were many who just disappeared. There were also many who chose to disappear.”

“Are you suggesting that my mother might be alive?” Meghna asked in a trembling voice.

Rehnuma Tarannum, the director of Shohayata, shook her head and said, “I’m not suggesting anything. I’m only talking about possibilities. You may also come across something you won’t like at all and wish that you had not started this inquiry.” She paused, and then continued, “Our society did not, I repeat, did not accept these women. Even the ones who did get accepted by their families were forced to go mute. And there were many who died or committed suicide. There were also some who left the country. Your mother might have been any one of them.”

“I know,” Meghna wrung her hands. “But I need to know for my own sake. I feel I had let go of her too easily. I need closure. There’s such a big vacuum inside me, I can’t tell you …”

Rehnuma nodded. “We’ll do the best we can.”

* * *

It was her friend Raquib who took her to the woman she was looking for. Her name was Nasrin. She made her living as an artisan, they said. She was a young woman living in Hazaribag when forcibly taken by the Pakistani army in ’71. Her entire family was killed right in front of her eyes. She survived the hell-camp but had no place to go to after the war was over. With the help of a social welfare NGO, she learnt to knit and weave and could make all kinds of handicrafts. She now lived in Mirpur and had painstakingly built up a life for herself. It was not much, but it was an identity. And she had agreed to meet Meghna.

Meghna immediately recognised the hazel eyes she had seen at the programme. The rest of the face somehow seemed unremarkable and Meghna was sure that she would not have recognised her without that piercing gaze.

Meghna looked at her and wondered if she needed the niceties. “Did you know my mother?” Her whisper was hoarse.

The woman nodded. She was watching Meghna with a kind of alertness that the latter could not understand. “Do you know how she died?”

Nasrin did not say anything.

“Please, I need to know how she died.”

Nasrin kept on watching her as if weighing if she could take it.

“I have spoken to everyone and finally, I learnt that you two were in the same cell during the last days. If anyone knows anything … it must be you. Please … I understand that it was terrible …”

Nasrin’s eyes suddenly became intense. They burned like jewels. Then she got up. “I don’t know how your mother died. I never saw her again.”

“What do you mean—never saw her again?”

“If anyone knows anything, it should be your father.”

“My father? What do you mean? How can he …?”

“Mirana went back home. Her family rejected her.”

For Meghna, the world suddenly seemed to have stopped turning on its axis. She saw a wide expanse of blankness before her.

“She had lost her memory … It took a while for her to remember who she was … She went back home a year after the war was over. Only, she didn’t have a home. Her home was usurped by her own sister …”

* * *

Mubina’s whole body shook in a spasm of grief. Yes, she knew that her sister had not perished in the war. They all knew.

Meghna stood transfixed. Now the tableau started to make sense—the scene that had always haunted her, even though she didn’t know what it meant.

She clung to her mother. Her mother tried to thrust her towards the woman’s outstretched arms. But the child wailed in protest. That’s when her father walked in. His face was pale as if he had seen a ghost. 

Her lips parted. Pale lips that could barely speak, “They took me because of you. But I’m back. I didn’t die… where will I go?”

A voice shrieked from behind him. It was her grandmother. “Why didn’t Minu come back? Why you?”

Amma had started to cry. “Forgive us. Please go away…”

Meghna did not feel anything. Her world, her light was suddenly taken away from her. “You may also come across something you won’t like at all and wish that you had not started this inquiry.”

But once she had started there was no going back. Once she knew that her mother came back and might be still alive, there was no stopping. Meghna went around like a zombie and followed the leads like a hunter on the trail.

* * *

“She goes by the name of Rahela Khatun,” Mrs. Tarannum pushed the file towards Meghna, across her glass-topped table. “She took the job of teaching at the local primary school in Jhinukchhari in the year 1974. Actually, a local NGO helped her relocate and get rehabilitated. She got married to a railway clerk. Had a son and a daughter. A regular lower middle-class family. Her husband died a couple of years ago, I believe. Apparently, he was suffering from kidney problems. They are a quiet lot. And her deceased husband’s colleagues have made arrangements so that they can stay in railway staff quarters until her son gets a job.”

Meghna was flipping through the file. Names. Dates. An old faded picture, blurred with age. Mrs. Tarannum was saying, “I know. That picture is old—taken almost thirty years ago. We had to dig quite a bit even for that.”

She sat like a woman in a trance. There were all sorts of emotions swirling in her mind. One part of her felt happy, another stunned. A part also felt angry and resentful. So, she married again? How could she forget her own daughter so easily? Yes, her family rejected her. But how could she have left Meghna?

Asif talked to her as if she was a child. “Come, Meghna, she had no place to go. And could she have given you the kind of life your father did? You went to the best schools. You went to study abroad. You have a good job. If your mother took you, you wouldn’t have any of this, you know.”

“She married again … had more children …” Meghna whimpered like a lost kitten.

“So she did. But why are you so shocked? Don’t people get married after their loved ones die? Is it so preposterous? You’re acting strange, really.” Asif sounded derisive.

“No, you don’t understand … it’s my mother … not just any woman … And do you know who she married? A mere clerk … a man more than fifteen years older than her.”

“And your father couldn’t wait even a year,” laughed Asif. “Meghna, do you realise what you are saying? If you go on like this, I have to say that you are not the woman I thought you are.”

Then, Asif’s tone became stern. “So, you were ready to be the daughter of a Beerangona? And to show the world the grave of your mother—‘Daughter finds the remains of her mother who died a martyr but was forgotten by history …’ But now you can’t stand the fact that she married and had more children?”

The words hit home. Meghna cringed. She went absolutely quiet. “I … I … want to bring her home,” she whispered. “I want to bring my mother and my siblings home. You’ll see that I’m not a coward. Nor am I heartless.”

* * *

So there she was now, standing in front of her long-lost mother’s house. Darkness was descending and Meghna finally had the courage to cross the street and knock on the door. She had boarded a plane to Chittagong by herself. Asif had offered to come, of course. But Meghna wanted to meet her mother alone. Asif just said, “You may not be able to change anything, Meghna. Life has its own way of flowing just like rivers.” Meghna had nodded unmindfully. Asif would not understand. Nobody would. She had been maintaining some distance from her parents, not knowing what to tell them. She felt flustered, lost, and bereft. What a grave deception it was, the foundational narrative of her life! With the help of Mrs. Tarannum’s connections, she had arrived at this rural town two days earlier but had not found the courage to approach the mother she did not even remember.

She had seen the teenage girl but could not think of her as her sister. She had been wondering all this while what she would tell the woman who had given her birth, the mother whom life had taken away. For the first time, she also wondered if she would be welcomed by her mother and the siblings she was not even aware of a few days ago.

In the dim light, Meghna could discern a young face that was eager and half-smiling. The girl opened the door while talking to someone at the same time. “No, I have homework to do. Tell Nabila I’ll go tomorrow … yes, who are you looking for?” The last part was for Meghna.

Meghna found herself struggling to breathe.

I’m your sister, come back from the dead.

“Um … I’m looking for Mrs. Rahela Khatun,” she said, faltering.

“That’s my mother. Come in, please.”

The girl ushered her to a small sitting area. It was neat but rudimentary. “Please sit down. Ma will be here shortly.” She turned on the light and left.

Meghna looked around. A sofa set made of cane. The seats were somewhat worn and she could not help remembering the plush drawing room of her father’s house. Or, even her own, the sunny, tastefully decorated apartment, full of light and laughter that she shared with Asif. There were a few faded photographs on the bookshelf. Photographs of children. There was a Neamul Quran and a few other books on the top shelf. The second contained some more books. She thought she could detect Garbhadharini among them when she heard a sound from behind. 

A woman of medium height stood before her. She wore a light cotton saree. “My daughter said you’ve come looking for me. Did Alokesh send you?”

Meghna had no idea who Alokesh was. But since she didn’t know what to say, she played along.

“Um … yes …”

“My son isn’t here today. He went to his uncle’s house and will be back tomorrow. Excuse the light in this room. The voltage is running low …”

Meghna looked carefully at the woman who now sat down on the sofa across from her. She was wearing a pale blue or green printed cotton saree. The light was so low it could be anything. She wore glasses, and she had a thin face. Her hair was half-hidden under the achal that was drawn over her head and draped across her shoulder. Meghna noticed a pair of thin gold bangles on her wrists. She could be anybody’s mother. She remembered her amma who shone at the centre of her household. Meghna suddenly felt guilty. Was it wrong to have come here?

“I expected someone older,” Rahela Khatun was saying. “Alokesh said that you wanted to meet my son. He’s studying economics at Chittagong University. He’s a brilliant student,” she said with pride.

I’m brilliant too. I graduated with distinction from the University of Chicago. And her parents went to her graduation. The photograph of the proud family hung in their living room.

“He’s the top student in his class—he always was,” the woman continued. Meghna suddenly blurted out, “And your daughter?”

The woman paused and smiled. “She’s a still a child. Will sit for her higher secondary exams next year. But she’s very bright too. She wants to go to university and study literature, you know!”

Meghna faltered. “So … you’ve only two children?”

Was there a faraway look in her eyes? Her voice suddenly turned forceful. “Yes, I have two children—Rahat and Rimjhim. Both their names start with the first letter of my name.”

My name also starts with the first letter of your name. Your real name. But then, what was real?

“What about their father?” Meghna asked slowly. Somehow she could not think of the man as her husband.

“He died two years ago.”

“So … your son is not at home?” She tried to keep the conversation going.

“He was supposed to arrive today. But he missed the train and will come tomorrow.”

“I guess I should go now and come back another day?” Meghna suddenly wanted to run. She rose from her seat.

“I suppose so. What’s your name you said?”

“I didn’t say anything. But my name is Meghna.” She waited to see some reaction. But the woman only said, “That’s the name of a river.”

“Yes.”

A pause.

Meghna couldn’t bear it any longer. “I … I … am from Dhaka,” she blurted out. “I don’t know anything about Alokesh … I came to see you.” She stopped, not knowing what else to say.

Rahela Khatun tilted her head up to take a good look at the tall woman standing before her. Was there recognition in her eyes? Meghna could not decipher the expression on her face. The lone dim lightbulb did not allow for fine discrimination.

Rahela Khatun slowly stood up. She said abruptly, “You’ve come a long way. Does your father know?”

“Y … yes,” Meghna whispered.

“You’re married?”

Meghna nodded.

“Children?”

“Not yet.”

Rahela Khatun suddenly looked tired. “I have two. That’s all I have.”

Meghna waited to hear more. But nothing more was forthcoming. She hesitated and then asked, “So, I’ll come again tomorrow perhaps?”

There was no reply. The silence was prolonged. A moth fluttered around the lightbulb, its wings flickering. Finally, she heard one word, “Go.”

Suddenly, Meghna felt as if she was outside her own body. She hurried out of the house and started walking at a brisk pace. After taking about twenty steps, she looked back and saw the backlit silhouette standing at the door. One hand seemed to clasp the door frame and the other one hung limp by her side. Her head was inclined slightly to the left, and the pose seemed achingly familiar. Meghna half expected to be called back. But she heard nothing.

She turned around and ran.

* * *

The air was crisp and clear and there was the rich earthy scent of fresh-cut grass all around her. Meghna looked at the red dirt road and waited patiently for the microbus to arrive. Her work here was done. She understood now what Asif meant. She shouldn’t have interfered. Rahela was content with her life and her two children. She had no right to uproot them. How silly she had been, thinking she could somehow save them! They had their own life, and Meghna was not welcome in it.

But then, did she have place for Rahela in her world? Where, in the constellation of her life, would she make space for her birth-mother and the mother who raised her and loved her all these years? Could she just call her father a coward and forget that he loved her and gave her everything a father could? She had taken on the journey to find her lost mother, to find the truth. Now that she found her, she almost wished she hadn’t.

While boarding the plane she rehearsed her line if anybody asked a question: “It was a false trail. It was someone else, not Mirana Bari.”

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