How influential is the neighbourhood in which one grows up? Advocate Sultana Kamal, comes from the para I grew up as well. It’s called Tikatuli and she was raised in a sub-para within it called Tarabagh. It was a neighbourhood of shared lives. It had a common value structure that continues on and perhaps provides unknown strength and bonding with people of my generation and a few before me.
Begum Sufia Kamal, Sultana Kamal’s mother was the matriarch of the para. She was a revered person in those days -1950s- and all relationships were familial. A friend of my Nani, she was Nani to us too. My Foku mama was a close to her son Shameem mama, the renowned journalist. There were other brothers- Shabbir and Shoib- my older brother’s friends so bhais too. Lulu apa and Tulu apa were the two sisters and the para was full of them all.
But what made the human landscape unique was that in every house lived a mama, chacha, apa etc. And the relationship was not formal. They were part of a wider, larger family which in that era was very common and not any more. And these “families’ were close and held together by common values of the middle-class professionals – including migrants from 1947 Kolkata- which played such a big role in producing later history.
Cultural activities as a natural way of life
What I remember most was that everyone seemed to live and eat and talk the same way. Too young to understand but on a two-storied house nearby lived poet Sikander Abu Zafar the Editor of “Shamakal” the first serious literary magazine of Bangladesh. Next door lived, artist, Syed Jehangir, his brother in small/tiny artists shed full of paintings, paints, brushes and such lovely smells. We would pass in and out and his paintings were part of our growing up providing simplest notions of colours, images, forms. The most significant memory I have is that Sikander Abu Zafar shot a crow with his air gun and hundreds of them descended and cawed and we went down to see the noise… such fun it was ….
Late actor Bulbul Ahmed was another neighbour but of course he was just another mama who was fond of me. One day fifty years later, he looked at me and laughed. “Just look at him. I once walked all over Tikatuli with this guy on my shoulders. “I remembered the event but not him. And honestly, I wasn’t really 6 feet + in those days. But as we talked the years melted away and he talked with the affection reserved for the very young. Time hadn’t aged the relationship.
Of tolerance and resistance at the neighbourhood level
Just opposite to our home was Qamurunessa High school for girls and I remember the horse carriages coming down to drop the girls. When exam time was close, daughters of family friends would stay overnight and it was the simplest pleasure to be showered with affection by these apus.
Yet that school was also a point of resistance in 1952. It was probably from this school that the voices of rebellion grew and activist Nadira Begum escaped police apprehension. My nani, the archetypal grandma, took to the streets, protesting that students had been shot in February a few days after my birth. Other mothers came out too and every para became a point of resistance. It was not activism but protesting firing at kids. These women gave the shade which allowed the movement to grow.
Sultana apa is now being attacked by Hefazot and other Islamists for her remarks. She has been threatened with violence but as a person from Tikatuli her role is natural. She was born in the vanguard section of the middle class which morphed into the nationalist movement. One incident will illustrate.
At an Eid congregation, the maulvi spoke about Hindus being denied entry into heaven because of their faith. I was quite disturbed by such a statement because nobody talked this way in our family. So, I asked my mother about it. Her response was, “To God, there are only good people and bad people. Good will go to heaven, bad will go to hell. To Allah, only good deeds matter.” Such a simple explanation has freed me from intolerance all my life.
But it was not a personal statement, it was a sentiment shared by all in the para. What my mother said, was what Begum Sufia Kamal also believed, all deeply religious. To them religion was a matter of inclusion, faith and good deeds. It’s not an accident that so many Freedom Fighters and 1971 activists were born in Tikatuli.
But it’s also true that with 1971, the para died and the values held by the residents disappeared in the winds powered by greed and lust. But for someone like her who grew up in Tarabagh, the values she grew up with is what make her take a stand. She has and shown that the voice of tolerance will not be shouted down. The voice she heard first in a distant neighbourhood of her past.