I LOVED THE smell of the cotton cloth measured out from bolts that made a soft, slapping sound as they were unrolled: white for half-sleeved shirts, navy blue gabardine for shorts. I enjoyed being measured out for two sets of the uniform at the tailor’s. It was fun trying on the black Naughty Boy shoes at Bata, with white cotton socks; picking up a navy blue silk tie fastened with a rubber band; filling a brown canvas satchel with books and copies, and pencil, eraser, ruler. How sweet the bouquet of the new books, how exotic the coloured illustrations, how musical the crisp rustle of paper at the stationer’s. None of the other boys in our locality were experiencing such exquisite delights; I was the only one who had been admitted into an English-medium school. Looking back, I identify it as the defining moment in my life.
It hadn’t been a simple, straightforward business. There had been opposition from Father’s elder brother, head of our joint family. Uncle had loyally served the Empire, had received a Coronation Medal on Princess Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne; but he knew the times were a-changing, not least in the field of education. Both he and Father had had a colonial schooling, Western as opposed to Islamic: Bengali-medium primary schools followed by high English secondary schools. Further and higher education, needless to add, was in English, unless one studied for a degree in an Oriental language. With the demise of the Raj, and with Partition, all but a few Catholic missionary high schools in the two major cities of our province, Dhaka and Chittagong, switched to Bengali-medium. A few kindergartens served as feeder institutions to these schools. English was retained for post-secondary education, but who could be sure it wouldn’t be replaced there as well? English-medium schools were considerably more expensive than Bengali-medium schools. Why invest in English-medium schooling when it might turn out to be a handicap rather than an asset?
Father too had also loyally served the Empire, and was an Anglophile to boot – but this he combined with nationalist fervor. He saw independence from Britain as an opportunity for Brown Sahibs to come into their own.
NEWS OF THE controversy soon reached an aunt living next door. She toddled over with her knitting; it was early autumn, time to stock up on DIY woollies. She was the queen of local gossip and mistress of sharp talk. Father was her best sparring partner.
‘I hear you’re planning to turn your son into a Sahib? Isn’t he too dark skinned for that?’
‘What does an ignoramus like you know about proper education?’
I was within earshot, inwardly fuming. Who was Auntie to set limits to what I could be? Citizen of a free country, I could be whatever took my fancy. A Pukka Sahib if I wished. Why couldn’t I have a fairytale life? Perhaps I would marry my coeval, Princess Anne, and become a prince!
Father was determined to give me, his first-born, a thorough English-medium education – from day one, so to speak. Uncle – mild-mannered, soft-spoken – gave in to his stubborn brother after extracting a promise that other offspring (a mewling second son already there; a number of other children to follow) would be spared such a risky gamble.
SCHOOL WAS SCHEDULED to begin a couple of weeks before my fourth birthday. In preparation, I modelled the uniform, eliciting approving looks; but when the momentous day dawned I baulked. The thought of facing a host of strangers in an unfamiliar situation was daunting. I burst into tears, I bawled, I refused to budge. Mother roundly scolded me, Uncle tried to coax, to no avail. Father, ever understanding, said it was quite alright if I didn’t go the very first day, and suggested we go to school so that he could tell the principal I wasn’t coming. I’d wait in the rickshaw while he went in. For the sake of realism I should be in my school outfit, complete with loaded satchel. Who could refuse such a joyride?
As I waited for Father I watched with commiseration as student after student disappeared through the school gates. Then my gaze wandered to the nearby trees and the cawing crows on their branches. Suddenly, I found myself hanging in mid-air, kicking my legs like a bicyclist, and flying through the school gates while Father emerged smiling inanely. The school ayah, in uniform white sari with blue border, who had effected my capture, deposited me on a bench in a classroom full of bemused fellow pupils.
Mother says I cried a lot in that first year in ‘baby class’. I don’t remember. But I do remember that I got used to the routine of walking to school before classes started at eight in the morning and walking home by lunchtime. At first I was escorted by a servant; then I went by myself. One route went past a tiny shop beneath a venerable banyan tree. The shopkeeper caught my eye and pointed at my tie.
‘A dog’s tongue is hanging from your neck,’ he said laughing. I quickened my steps.
The following day I took the same route.
‘Where’s the dog’s tongue?’ asked the shopkeeper.
I had taken the precaution of taking off the tie and putting it in my pocket.
‘Fried it in ghee and had it for breakfast.’
Both of us had a good laugh.
FEW MEMORIES SURVIVE of my five years at Don’s Kindergarten. A nondescript two-storey building on a half-acre plot, it sported two signboards, one for the school, another for ‘Hotel Airline and Bar’; the latter occupied a mysterious space on the upper floor to which we had no access. The only evidence that it was functional was the tea and biscuits that came from its kitchen for the teachers in the tiffin break. I too used to take a few biscuits for my tiffin. One day I took a banana, but when I took it out of my satchel it was unrecognisable: a limp black thing. The teacher crinkled her nose and said I should have taken a nicely ripe yellow banana. I was too shocked by the transformation to explain that it was a beautiful, ripe yellow when I put it in a couple of hours back. I should hasten to add that the anecdote has no symbolic bearing on the effect the kindergarten had on me.
The school was co-educational. Boys and girls sat on different sides; the distance lent perspective, heightening the interest aroused by the opposite sex. One girl in particular attracted me (and all the other boys): a pale beauty with gentle, soft-lidded eyes, who was one of the brightest students in the class. My grades weren’t too bad, but I didn’t exactly shine; but that could be no obstacle to my fantasies of smooching in the buff behind the bushes in the vacant lot beside the school.
Don’s KG, as my first alma mater was affectionately called, was run by Eurasians. This relatively tiny community scattered over the urban centres of South Asia have been torch bearers of modern, Anglophone schooling in the region, a role that has not received the recognition it deserves. In Bangladesh, the community has dwindled into virtual non-existence. There is no one I could say thank you to for my five years at Don’s KG, where I picked up my three R’s and a love for the English language. The school closed down in the ’60s, and has left no trace; it isn’t even commemorated with an online entry or Facebook page.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of Don’s KG on me personally has been in helping me fashion my self-image as an English-medium boy. Best captured by a studio portrait, now in my possession. Father took me to Doss & Co., Professional Photographers, on Nawabpur Road, where I posed saluting before a tripod-mounted Rolleiflex camera. I would be the first to admit that there’s something undeniably comic about it. For a child, a uniform was as irksome as armour, physically as well as psychologically.
One day, on my way home from school, I was caught short and shat my shorts. Mercifully, it was the hottest hour of a summer day; I didn’t run into anyone I knew and gave passersby a wide berth. At home, I was disrobed unceremoniously by the gathered elders and washed at the well in the middle of our yard. Mother’s younger brother, who lived with us, was surprised I didn’t get off the path to crap and wash my bottom in the roadside canal. I listened with mounting rage. An English-medium boy crapping by the roadside like any loitering ragamuffin? The thought of it!
The salute in the photograph was Father’s idea; it alluded to his five-year stint as a clerk in the Royal Corps of Engineers. He had travelled with his unit to Pune, Bombay, Lahore, Madras, and then as a member of the British Occupation Forces to Japan. He came back a veritable Sinbad who loved to regale friends with tales of distant lands, colourful, romantic, piquant and, when he came to atom-devastated Hiroshima, unbearably tragic. Father got a job in the government’s textbook-publishing outfit, resumed his interrupted studies as an evening student at Saint Gregory’s College, an extension of the missionary school of the same name that I went to after Don’s KG, and completed his degree when I was one year old.
SCHOOL WAS ONE world alongside others. Home, just half a mile from Don’s KG, was another; and a third world was my holiday retreat, Mother’s ancestral village. The reference to the elders gathered around the well should give an inkling of the world of my home. Though barely a mile from the city centre, our locality of Nayapaltan was semi-rural, and during my kindergarten days our home on a small elongated plot was just like a village home: four tin-roofed bamboo huts – three for accommodation, the fourth for a kitchen and dining space – arranged around a tiny courtyard, where a well had been dug. In time, the well was replaced by a tube well, then by running water. The bamboo huts were replaced by a sturdy tin cottage, followed by two sturdier brick rooms with a wide veranda, and finally a second floor and a single room on the roof (by then I was at university). We had no electricity till I was seven or so. Every afternoon I’d come home from play, all dusty, and wash at the well. The servant would clean and trim the hurricane lanterns and light them one by one in the gathering dusk. Adjusting the flame by twirling a knob, he’d hand me one; I’d take it to the bedroom and, placing it in a safe place, take out my homework. When electricity came we were quite overwhelmed by the abundant light. A visiting village aunt exclaimed, ‘What a lot of light! It must take an enormous quantity of kerosene; do you have a storehouse filled with oil?’
Fields and ponds and canals and paddies occupied spaces around houses. At play, I was no different from other boys: barefooted and bare-torsoed at football or kabaddi. When the monsoon rains brought inundation, trading boats came laden with supplies of firewood and jute-pith kindling, and angling became a popular pastime.
Our neighbours were mostly like us, (lower) middle-class families with strong links to ancestral villages. Different in this regard were our non-Bengali neighbours: a family of Anglophone Eurasians and a fairly large number of Urdu-speaking Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan, whose jamatkhana, the local religious and social centre of the community, was a stone’s throw away. An Ismaili family with two daughters who were close to me in age lived, for some time, in rooms rented from next-door Aunty. The daughters would come over to play with me and one or two other neighbourhood children. I was attracted to the elder of the two sisters; she had a quiet demeanour and pleasant smooth-skinned features. The younger one was blowsy but a better mixer; one day, finding ourselves alone in our tiny living room, we began smooching quite spontaneously. I felt an onrush of warm saline saliva in my mouth, a strange experience for which I know no explanation; I think of it as a pre-pubertal orgasm substitute. This became a regular escapade until I broke it off, no doubt fearing discovery and reprimands.
One could, with a liberal dash of poetic fancy, turn our escapade into a Romeo-and-Juliet-style tragedy, for the Bengali and Urdu speakers were on opposite sides on the question of choosing a national language. The government favoured the Urdu, provoking agitation by Bengali students who wanted their mother tongue to be recognised as a state language. The government took a hard line, and ordered police to shoot pro-Bengali demonstrators, killing seven. The movement spread, and eventually both Urdu and Bengali were recognised as state languages. But the crack that had developed would grow into a chasm and break up Pakistan. One of my childhood pastimes was to improvise a megaphone out of a rolled-up piece of cardboard and broadcast blood-curdling Language Movement slogans.
SOMETHING DRAMATIC HAPPENED in my first year at Saint Gregory’s High School. In the first-term examination I stood twenty-second in a class of forty-plus students. Father took matters in hand and gave me some tips. In the second-term examination I came second. I was henceforth known as a good student. Mr PD Costa dominates my early classroom memories. He was the teacher in charge of my class in my first year in the new school. A squat, taciturn man of indeterminate age, he had a style all his own. He would hold his red-and-blue pencil like a dagger, stab our class-work copies and in one flowing movement inscribe his initials over the entire page. Slackers and mischief-makers would be punished in a unique manner. ‘Chootar, up!’ he would command, and taking the hapless scamp by the neck would thrust his head under the desk before applying the wooden side of the blackboard duster with resounding force on his bottom. I was one of the lucky ones who was promoted to the next class without having experienced this piquant form of punishment.
THE THIRD SIGNIFICANT world in my childhood, Mother’s ancestral village, was where we headed every school holiday – that is, three times a year. Barely a dozen miles by road, including a boat ride across a broad river, it seemed an epic journey even in those days before ubiquitous traffic jams. A mile to walk after we got off the bus – or, in the rainy season, a boat ride – and we were finally there. Something strange happened every time I got to the village. The imaginary compass seemed to lurch ninety degrees anticlockwise, and what should have been north became west. It was an illusion of course, disappearing as I walked out of the village; everyone else was proof against it. But I rather enjoyed it; I took it as a sign that we had entered a charmed space. If I slept with grandfather I’d be woken up in the small hours by the sound of his voice reciting sacred verses for a special prayer. His broad accent and clear enunciation were soothing to the ear, and for many years the verses remained engraved in my memory. I’d doze off and wake up again to the excited twitter of hundreds of birds. It seemed I was ensconced in a gigantic balloon of quasi-musical sounds that went on and on before dissipating in the growing light. Only the doves kept up a musical accompaniment to the day’s activities. As at home, I was a barefoot ragamuffin, a Dylan Thomas-esque romantic playing on house-high hay, climbing branches, running through dew-wet grass, delighting in the rainbow colours of weavers’ yarn stretched out around vertical sticks planted in series in the ground. At dusk, if the owl atop the palmyra palm hooted, we heated an iron object and plunged it sizzling into water – to ward off evil. I listened to folk tales, of which my favourite was the one about the snake goddess Manasa.
IN OUR SENIOR years at Greg’s (as we affectionately abbreviated the name of our high school), socialism was a hot topic among some of us. Once, a friend brought cyclostyled copies of an excerpt from Gorky’s Mother, which begins with the rousing declaration ‘We are socialists’, and passed them round. Surreptitiously, we put up one copy on the school notice board. We stood at a distance during tiffin break and watched as students went up to consult the board and read our broadside with growing astonishment. The word spread. The headmaster appeared, and without a word took down the curious document. Wisely, the school authorities did not make a fuss over the matter. Brother Hobart, who taught us English literature, commented obliquely that youthful idealism was usually short-lived. My socialist friend would also later lend me Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism. I devoured it over a weekend and declared myself an existentialist, and only secondarily a fellow-traveller. Socialism of the revolutionary variety has turned out to be a pipe dream; existentialism has stayed with me, and saw me through the Bangladesh independence war in which I commanded a company. But it is literature and writing, of poetry in particular, that is central to my mental life.
Though I had always loved reading, I came late to poetry, and vice versa. Our charismatic Brother Hobart, taking the class through the practical criticism of Robert Herrick’s ‘Daffodils’, Thomas Moore’s ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ and, above all, DH Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, literally turned me on. The poem’s supple rhythms, clear images and colloquial diction demonstrated the force of modern free verse. I attempted experiments in this mode of versifying. I browsed promiscuously in anthologies of modern poetry, strolled in parks in the evening, smoking and playing with words in my head. ‘Park, Nature on a leash’: the words came to me out of nowhere, a gift from the muses. Friends started calling me a poet.
BEING AN ENGLISH-MEDIUM boy has had much to do with my use of English as literary language. There is also an element of existential choice involved, for I could have cultivated Bengali as my creative medium, as some of my friends have done. My choice has made me something of a pariah (incidentally, my most recent collection is titled Pariah) in a country where the dominant native language is seen as the mainstay of national identity; but it can’t be helped. Paradoxically, despite the cultural establishment’s discomfiture with creative writing in English, there is more of it now, largely because the world is becoming increasingly transnational.
Contrary to what some might think, I am not alienated from my native culture, for part of my writing life is concerned with translation. I have started delving into our folk legends, and my recent book The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard, 2015) is a composite prose retelling of the Manasa story; more are in the works.
It is important to keep writing, without caring much about labels. Few are happy with the label ‘Commonwealth’, but it will remain, if only for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps I should call myself post-commonwealth; and also, of course, postcolonial and Bangladeshi South Asian.