Published in CanadaBdNews.com on February 3, 2013
[My grandchildren who were born in North America and are now growing up here are very much interested in hearing stories from the land of their grandparents: Bangladesh. I tell them stories of historical and cultural events, weddings, agricultural work, fishing and the like. I have decided to write down some of these stories that may also be interesting to other second generation Bangladeshis living in North America. I encourage my first generation compatriots to narrate their own stories to their younger relatives as well. I hope that the present story will be interesting and useful for both the young and the old.]
When I look back on my life, I find it difficult to explain how it was possible for me to receive an education. Many of the young people with whom I grew up in my village died a long time ago. The few who have survived are in poor health and live in poverty even by Bangladeshi standards. Most of their children and grandchildren either work in rice fields, pedal rickshaws, or carry bamboo baskets full of vegetables over their head to sell their merchandise at the market. On the other hand, I can hardly begin to count the blessings that Allah has showered on my family and me.
I received the highest education offered by McGill University, a first-rate University of the western world. Our son received his medical education and degrees from some top Universities of North America: McGill University, UCLA Medical Center, and Harvard University, and our grandchildren are now studying at some of the best Universities, high schools and elementary schools of North America.
A couple of years ago while walking on the muddy road of my village I saw two young people at some distance ploughing the land with two sets of oxen (castrated bulls). I walked to the field to find out who and how the two men were. They were surprised that I walked to them through the ploughed fields even before I reached my village home during that visit from Canada. I found out that they were sons of a person who was my classmate in the elementary school some 70 years ago.
This is what passed through my mind at that time: my classmate’s sons are still ploughing the land with oxen, while my son Hamid is now a world-famous kidney specialist, full professor and a director of the Kidney Transplant Department, and Vice-chairman of the entire Medical Faculty of John Hopkins University in Maryland. He has made significant discoveries in the field of medicine, authored more than 350 publications, some of which are used as texts in medical schools all over the world, and is a consulting physician to a number of heads of states and other dignitaries of the world including our prime Minister Sheik Hasina. Hamid is doing something so completely different from what the sons of my classmate at the elementary school are doing. My daughter Shirin and her husband Ali Khan have done very well in another field of endeavour. To my knowledge, they are the most successful business couple among the Bangladeshis living in Canada. Their new project, building a 42-storey sky scraper at the heart of downtown Montreal, recently made big news in the Montreal media. One newspaper wrote about this 100-million-dollar project, “Mr. Ali Khan is making Montreal a Dubai.” Obviously the paper mentioned Dubai because that is the city of many tall skyscrapers. All this became possible because I was fortunate enough to receive an education during the early years of my life. Now the question is this. How was it possible for me to break through all the barriers that appeared insurmountable to me at that time and receive an education? I shall attempt to answer this question in the present article.
I hope that this article will serve four purposes. First, I am sure that my grandchildren will be very happy to read it. They are always eager to hear the story of my life, especially that of the early years of my life in my village in Bangladesh. Now they will have some of the facts of that period of my life in writing. Second, this article may encourage many young people in Bangladesh who, for financial and other reasons, are struggling hard to get an education. I say to them, “Do not give up. If I could get an education, you could do it too.” Third, this article has a message for the young Bangladeshi people growing up in Canada. Many of them drop out of school, or do not take their studies seriously. My message to them is this, “The Canadian governments provide you with all the facilities that you need, and your parents do everything possible to see that you get a good education. Many of your parents work very hard in restaurants, factories and other such businesses to give you and your family a good life. They want to make sure that you do not have to suffer the way they had to. I struggled very hard to get an education, but you have been provided with all the opportunities that you need to achieve the same goal. All that you need to do is to stretch out your hands, grab these opportunities, and use them for YOUR own good. Please do not pass them up. If you do, you will regret it in later life.” Fourth, there are many people in Bangladesh and elsewhere who have never had the experience of Bangladeshi village life, especially of its poverty. I think that my article will give them some idea of how the village people live, and the pangs of poverty that many of them suffer.
Now I come back to the question of how it was possible for me to receive an education. Let us think of a man whose boat sank in a storm at a distance from the Atlantic coast. There was no chance for him to survive the ordeal. Yet somehow he kept himself afloat, and wave after wave of the ocean pushed him towards the shore and at last landed him on the beach.
I am that man who was thrown onto the beach by the waves. As I struggled to continue my education, I was faced with high walls on the road in front of me. It was unthinkable for me to envisage at that time that I could ever scale those high walls. Every time that happened, Allah sent an angel to lift me up and help me scale that wall.
If you visit the living room of my house in Montreal today, you will see a few items placed on the marble fire-place that comes to your view as soon as you enter the room: a gamsa (kind of a native towel made of cheap material), a few tal patas (leaves of royal palm) brought from Barisal, pens made of bamboo sticks, one sun-baked clay bashon (plate) and one clay khora (bowl), and a small bottle containing some sacred soil from the grounds of the Jatiyo Smriti Soudho (National Martyrs’ Memorial) at Shavar and the Shahid Minar ( Martyrs’ Monument) in Dhaka. The writing on a card placed behind the unfired bashon and khora reads:
ও আমার দেশের মাটি, তোমার পরে ঠেকাই মাথা I
(O my Motherland, I bow my head to touch your feet.)
I touch the bottle of the sacred soil and the raw clay bashon and khora from time to time. This act brings peace to my heart. I also ask the Bangladeshi visitors to my house to touch the sacred soil of our motherland. I am very happy to say that many of these visitors feel good after touching those objects.
On the wall above the marble slab are a large picture of the great Bongobondhu at the center, a smaller picture of Sher-e Bangla A. K. Fazlul Haq on the left, and an equally small picture of Kazi Nazrul Islam on the right. On top of these pictures are a flag of Bangladesh on the left, a Canadian flag at the center, and a flag of the province of Quebec on the right. I am sure that the reader understands why I have kept the sacred soil, the pictures of Bongobondhu, Sher-e Bangla A. K. Fazlul Haq, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and three flags at a central place of my living room. The significance of the other objects on the fire-place is personal. Gamsa was the only piece of cloth for me to wear in my early childhood. I used palm leaves to write on, bamboo sticks as pens to write with, and clay plates and bowls to eat from. These objects are very precious to me. They serve me as a constant reminder of my past. I think that the reader now has some idea about the background from which I came.
The small village in which I was born is some five miles from the district town of Barisal in southern Bangladesh. In the 1930’s and 1940’s usually half the Muslim children of our area died before the age of five. Malnutrition was the main cause of this high mortality rate of children. Because of malnutrition, the children’s bodies had little resistance to the bacteria of which there were plenty around. The poor people had no medical care available to them. Moreover, there were outbreaks of deadly epidemic diseases such as smallpox and cholera which sometimes wiped out a large part of the village population. Half of my brothers and sisters also died before the age of five. I was the lucky one; I survived to tell you the story today.
I often fell sick. We never had mosquito curtains. Consequently, mosquitoes had a festival with my blood every night. The result was that from time to time I had high fever associated with shivering of the body. It is now that I realise that I suffered from malarial fever. I was sort of the middle layer of a sandwich on my bed for little creatures at night. The mosquitoes on top of my body constituted the upper layer and the bed bugs the lower layer. The mosquitoes drank my blood from the upper part of my body, and bed bugs from the part of the body close to the hogla (thin mat made of a kind of long leaf-like plants) on which I slept. I do not know if the bed bugs could carry any disease.
I think that you will understand why my heart weeps when I see hundreds of mosquito-bite marks on the bodies of servants of the rich families of Bangladesh. Many of these servants have to sleep in the mosquito-infested areas of the master’s house: dark and damp kitchens, under the staircase, and so on without any mosquito curtains. My heart also weeps when I see servants getting small quantities of leftover food to eat, and sitting on the floor to see TV while the master’s family recline on beautiful couches. The poor 10-year-old servant girl, who worked very hard the whole day since sunrise, now at night, while watching TV with the members of the family of the master, has to massage the legs and feet of the master’s wife. It is difficult for me to watch the sufferings of the poor and the helpless. I know how they feel because I was one of them.
I also had a kind of skin disease called pasra (scabies) in Bangla, especially in the winter months every year. I could not keep my body clean enough to protect myself from that disease. I had no access to soap as long as I lived in my village until the age of 14. One day one young man of the village somehow procured a bar of soap and used it for his bath in the pond. His uncle saw him using soap on his body and cursed him for that in the presence of many of us.
In our area of the country every bari (one or a cluster of houses with a courtyard in the front or at the middle) has at least one pond, which is the source of water supply for many different purposes. Since there was no babysitter around, mothers used to attach bells on a thin string around the waist of their naked children in order to monitor their movements. Mothers were always concerned about their children falling in the ponds and getting drowned. I also had a bell on my waist; yet I fell in our neighbour’s pond and almost drowned. A neighbour’s wife who came to fetch water with a clay pitcher saw me drowning from a distance. She jumped into the water and saved my life. I might have been three years old at that time.
We coexisted with many harmful creatures around us. Most harmful of those creatures were snakes including deadly cobras. These snakes lived around our house in the bushes and ponds covered with water hyacinth. They also lived in the rice fields and bushes near those fields. I was almost bitten by cobras at least a dozen times. Say I was collecting grass for my oxen from the borders between two rice fields where the cobras lived. I was cutting grass with a scythe without realizing that a cobra was lying in the thick, one-and a-half feet long grass. Fortunately I did not step on it or hurt it in any other way. The cobra, having been aware of my presence near it, would make a hissing noise and run away. Or, when I was walking on a muddy road covered with thick shrubs and tall grass. The area on which I could walk was only about ten inches wide. A cobra was waiting for his prey near that opening on the road. As soon as I came close to him, he would make a hissing noise and slither away. I think that you realize how dangerous it was to walk outside in the darkness of the night. If you happen to step on the cobra, you are finished. A snake once bit me. Fortunately the snake that bit me was not a cobra. I survived. Another day, I brought a bundle of hay from a narar pala (hay stack). My father cut the hay of the bundle into small pieces for the oxen with a boti (a serrated steel blade attached to a piece of wood on which one sits). Later we realized that he had also cut a snake into pieces along with the hay.
Most of our houses in the village had a gap of four to six inches between the mud foundation and the tin or thatched walls. Sometimes cobras came into our houses and hid themselves in the attics, especially in the winter when it was cooler outside. Once in a while they entered the houses at night and curled up on the warm kathas (native blankets made of old and torn-off pieces of clothes patched on each other) covering the bodies of the sleeping people. If by any chance a sleeping person turned side while sleeping and hurt the cobra, the consequence could be disastrous.
Our elders told us that if we had hurt a cobra in the fields or bushes, they would come to our house at night and kill us. One day a large cobra was discovered in the library of the University of Dhaka. The whole University was closed for a day or two.
A muddy road passed though our village. In some areas of the village the road was only a flat path between the rows of baris. At his time my father had the highest education among the Muslims of the village. He completed grade four! He also had many educated Hindu friends in the village. Hence he knew the value of education. He sent me to school.
When I was four, one evening a mawlavi shaheb (graduate from a traditional school of Islamic studies) blessed me at a hate khori (initiation to reading and writing) ceremony, and the next morning I started school. I needed a few things for the school: an old jute sack the kind of which is used for carrying rice, onions, etc., tal patas cut to a uniform size and boiled to make it white, six-inch long bamboo sticks sharpened at one end, a clay ink pot, and charcoal powder.
We sat on the jute sack placed on the muddy (very dusty in the winter and summer) path, used the palm leaves to write on, the bamboo sticks as pens , and charcoal powder soaked in water in a clay inkpot as ink. Students sat in rows on two sides of the path facing each other. The mawlavi shaheb was the only teacher of the school.
We faced three problems when the school was in session. First, sometimes chickens and ducks that were loitering around looking for food came very close to us, and we had to scare them away. Second, a cloud of dust was created when the ploughmen passed on the path with their cattle. We were all covered in that dust. Third, since the school was held under the open sky, we all went home when rain started.
At the end of the day all the students stood up in one row, and loudly repeated the multiplication table in a chorus: dui okkhe dui, dui dugune char, dui tin gune chhoy, and so on. After school we remained busy preparing for school the next day: collecting fresh palm leaves, crafting more pens and making charcoal powder. It is needless to say that I went to school bare-feet. Actually I did not have a pair of shoes until the age of fourteen. Since I wore only a gamsa to cover the lower part of my body, the upper part of the body was bare. Now you know why there is a gamsa, palm leaves and bamboo-stick pens on the marble fireplace of my living room. I look at them every day to remind myself where I came from.
The next year at the age of five I joined the elementary school located in the Hindu section of the village. The schoolhouse had a mud foundation and corrugated tin roof standing on a few bamboo poles. It had no walls so that often in the rainy season we got wet when rainwater was blown into the school by a strong wind. The school was one long room, and students of grade one to four sat on benches in different areas of that room. There was only one more Muslim student in my class. The rest of my classmates were Hindus. Each of the two teachers, both Hindus, had a wooden chair and a desk. Students were frequently subjected to corporal punishment. Once, for example, I received severe beating on my legs below the knees with a thin and long cane because I failed to spell the word ‘evening’. The English teacher, a short and bearded man, used the full force of his body to beat me while shouting at me: “Say ‘eve-ning’, ‘eve-ning’.” I never forgot how to spell the word ‘evening’ after that. Another day I laughed because I saw something funny happening on the village path some 50 feet from the school. The headmaster heard me laugh and gave me similar beatings on the palm of my right hand, and kept my body bent with my head under his desk for some time for distraction of attention from studies. I should mention here that later I was also severely beaten by my English teacher and the Headmaster of the High School that I attended. Many times I received beatings from my father with folded ropes that are normally used for tying cows with poles and pillars. I can say that those folded ropes worked like whips.
I completed grade four at the elementary school at the age of eight. Yet my father kept me at the same grade for one more year. He thought that I was too young to go to High School at that age. Next year I was admitted to grade five at the Kashipur High School one-and-a-half miles from our house. There were one or two more Muslim students in my class. Among some 12 teachers of the school a Mawlavi Shaheb was the only Muslim teacher who taught Arabic. I attended that school until I was promoted to grade nine in 1950. I was 14 at that time.
At the elementary school I wore an unstitched lungi on the lower part of my body. My father could not afford to get the lungi stitched. The upper part of my body was bare most of the time. Now at the High School I wore a T-shirt to cover the upper part of my body. I think that my father bought my first shirt, perhaps the least expensive one available at the market, when I was in grade eight. All the students of the school came to school barefoot. One day a Hindu student came to school wearing shoes. That became a topic of jokes and criticism among other students for a long time.
Although the High School was not very far, travelling to and from that school was not always easy. During the rainy season, which lasted three to five months, some parts of the muddy road from our village to the school were washed away. Sometimes I had to walk through waist-deep water. How I did it is best left to the imagination of the reader. If you want a hint, I can state that wearing an unstitched lungi definitely helped. Many areas of the same road had glue-like and almost knee-deep clay. While I pulled up one foot, the other foot went down and got stuck in the clay. Because the bare feet of the villagers remained in the clay during the entire daylight period, bacteria infected one layer of the skin of the sole of the feet and the areas between the toes so that they looked blood-shot all the time. Can you imagine how a person felt when he carried a heavy load of merchandise on his head and walked barefoot a few miles of the city roads made of small brick pieces some of which were almost as sharp as knives? I experienced excruciating pain on the soles of my feet many times when I carried on my head baskets of eggplants and other vegetables for sale at a market in Barisal town.
How did I travel while it was raining? Of course I had no umbrella. Instead, I used a large kochu pata (leaf of a vegetable plant) to protect my head. So often when it rained cats and dogs, Kochu pata could not protect my body from that kind of rain. When it rained hard I arrived at the school or returned home from the school completely soaked. While working in the fields I used what we called a jongra, a device made with bamboo sticks and leaves of trees. Attached to the head, this jongra could protect only the back parts of the head and the body of the person wearing it. It could not protect the front parts of the body at all.
I was never alone when I travelled on the road to the school. There were two enormous dighis (large ponds) on two sides of the muddy road that led to the school. On the bank of the dighi attached to the north side of the road there was a statue of goddess Kali whom the Hindus of the village worshipped. We children were told that if a child passed by the road near the statue of Kali alone, she would break his neck and drink all his blood. Believe it or not, that superstitious belief was so strong in my mind that even today I might be scared to walk on that area of the road alone, especially at sunrise, noon and sun-set.
On the south side of the road across the rice fields was another very large dighi. This dighi was covered with thick weeds. These weeds floated on the surface of water and constituted a kind of a platform on which people could walk. On top of this platform grew five-to-six-feet tall plants somewhat like sugarcanes with long leaves. This dighi actually looked like a thick forest. Many creatures lived in that forest: cobras and many other kinds of snakes, frogs, mosquitoes, and the like.
From time to time Royal Bengal Tigers coming from the Sundorbons on the south of Bangladesh made that dighi their home. I remember how scared I felt when I heard the loud roars of these tigers hiding in the dighi. A tiger once bit a relative of mine on his back. He survived the tiger attack but remained a hunchback all his life. One day a tiger pulled down a neighbour of mine from a betel-nut tree, and left him on the ground. Since that day he often dreamt that the tiger was coming back to attack him again.
I did well in my studies at the elementary school, but my grades at Kashipur High School were not good. I somehow passed the examinations of grades five through eight at that school. My mother died when I was eight years old. She delivered a female baby who died soon after her birth. Two or three days after the delivery my mother stopped talking. My father asked me to go to my Nana (mother’s father) bari to inform our relatives of her condition. I literally ran three mile to my Nana bari. My mother died before I returned home with my Nani (mother’s mother) a few hours later. Nobody knew why she died. There was no doctor and no medicine available to her. She was in her twenties when she died.
Soon after my mother’s death my father remarried. At about the same time my father fell sick so that he could hardly work in the fields. On the other hand our family expanded rapidly. My step mother had a child almost every year. We had only a few plots of land, and my father, unable to do hard work in the field for long hours, sold some of these plots to feed the family. We became a very poor family. Since I was the eldest of my siblings, now a large part of the responsibility of taking care of the family fell on my shoulder. I became a half-time chasha (ploughman) and half-time student.
From the age of five I was taking the cattle to and from the fields and do other small jobs in the rice fields. The burden of my work became very heavy by the time I reached the age of ten. My daily routine from Monday to Saturday will give you an idea about the kind of work I did.
I woke up before sunrise and ate breakfast with panta bhat (wet rice; in the absence of refrigeration the poor people soaked the rice in water to keep it from getting spoiled at night) from a bashon or khora sometimes only with a pora morich (red pepper roasted in rice-husk fire in a tawa or clay pot) and an onion. For eating, I sat on a 12” long, 6” wide and 4” high wooden piri (stool) placed on the mud floor of our kitchen with a thatched roof. Then, I took our pair of oxen (castrated bulls) out of the cowshed, picked up the cow dung with bare hands, collected that in a bamboo basket and carried it on my head to a specified location nearby. As the sun was rising, I put the wooden plough and the yoke on my left shoulder and led the oxen to the field. I ploughed the land until about 9 a.m. at which time my father came to the field to take over the task of ploughing for two to three hours. I came home running, jumped into the pond to wash myself, ate some rice if it was available, and then hurried to the High School.
I returned home from school at about 4:30 p.m. and immediately after that went back to the field. There I did different tasks on different days: broke large and hard chunks of mud of the ploughed fields with a mugur (large wooden hammer), irrigated water out of the rice fields manually with a pail, sowed, transplanted, weeded and harvested rice, carried large bundles of harvested rice paddies on my head from the fields to our house, removed rice from the paddies with my bare feet, picked red pepper, collected grass for the cattle, collected leaves for fuel from the surrounding bush, carried large bundles of firewood on my head from the bush to our house, caught fish for the evening meal, and so on. At sunset I brought the oxen from the fields to the cowshed that was located a few feet from our house. I washed my feet and wore a pair of khorom (wooden sandals) in the house.
To do my homework in the evening I sat on a piri or a bench with a kerosene lamp that had an open flame. I never owned new books during the period of my studies in my country. My elementary and high schools did not have a library from where I could borrow books. Hence I depended on class work, books borrowed from classmates and a couple of second-hand books that my father was able to buy for me.
After the long day’s work, I was so tired that I felt drowsy as soon as I started reading. The dim light of the kerosene lamp also helped to put me to sleep. Yet I had to keep awake in my seat because my father wanted to make sure that I was ‘reading’. I say ‘reading’ because we actually read our books loudly. You can realize how it sounded if two or three young people were reading their books loudly at the same place and at the same time.
I had trouble keeping my eyes open. Often I slept in the sitting position. Almost every evening my father told stories or read some interesting books to gatherings of the village people at different homes. At his time he was the only Muslim in the village who could read and write. Hence the people were eager to listen to him. As soon as I heard his voice of talking to someone at a distance on his way back home, I opened my eyes and started reading loudly.
On Sundays and holidays I worked as a full-time ploughman. I faced a number of problems in my work in the fields. While collecting grass for the cattle from the bush and ils (borders of rice fields), I came face to face with snakes including cobras. I also did not enjoy ploughing the land in three-foot deep water. First, the stagnant and polluted water made my skin very itchy as long as I remained in the field. Second, large and black leaches constantly followed me as I continued ploughing the land under water. Once they started sucking my blood, it was difficult to remove them from my skin. Hence I kept some salt with me. I put a small amount of that salt on the mouth of a leach, and it just fell off my skin. Whether I liked it or not, I had to plough the land covered in water for our survival.
In the early rainy season I sowed rice seeds in soft mud fields to produce rice paddy plants for transplantation. Then torrential rain drowned the entire field in say six inches of water. To save the rice seeds that I sowed I had to irrigate the water of the field out manually with a bucket. That was very hard work and took many hours to complete the job, sometimes a whole day.
We ploughed the land with a wooden plough when the land was soft. The result was that the plough produced large chunks of mud. Strong sunlight made these chunks stone hard. Passing moi (a wooden object that looks somewhat like a ladder) over the ploughed land could not break the large chunks. Hence these chunks had to be manually broken with a mugur (hammer made of a large piece of wood). There were thousands of these chunks in a field. It took me a long time, sometimes days, to break these chunks in one plot of land producing blisters all over my hands.
I found it difficult to work in the fields alone. I was very much scared of aeroplanes, which flew in the sky frequently during the Second World War. If I was alone in the field, I hid myself under a tree when I heard the sound of an approaching aircraft. I thought that a bomb might fall on my head, or the aircraft might crash on me. My idea was that the pilot could not see me under the tree and thus could not drop a bomb on my head, and if the plane crashed, the tree would protect my body. I also recited a verse of the Quran when a plane came. I thought that the recitation of that verse would make the plane go away without causing any harm to me. Incidentally, I have been very much interested in aeroplanes until today. I could sit in the airport the whole day watching planes landing and taking off.
Carrying heavy weights of firewood and large bundles of harvested rice still attached to the paddies created a psychological problem for me. I imagined somehow that the pressure that heavy loads put on my skull would affect my intelligence. Removing the rice (with shell having two sharp ends) from paddy plants by applying force on those plants with bare blood-shot feet in the rainy season was also very painful.
I did not have what is called childhood in the western world. My father never allowed me to do anything for fun. Children of my age played dariabanda and hadudu –two games that the young people of the village played without any equipment. These are competitive sports played in groups on marked fields. Once or twice I asked my father for permission to join other young people in these games for an hour or so. Every time I asked, his answer was, “Poor people have no time to play. They have to work all the time to keep themselves alive.” That is exactly what I did. I worked and worked to keep our family and myself alive. For the information of the reader, 20 percent of the people of Bangladesh still today struggle very hard to keep themselves alive. The number of these struggling Bangladeshis may well exceed that of the entire population of Canada.
Sometimes the villagers held jari gan (a kind of folk song) sessions and dramas such as Amir Shadhu at night. Of course my father, the imam of the village, did not allow me to attend these events. Yet a couple of times I sneaked out of the house at night and managed to watch these events.
In the western world we talk about children’s dreams. Did I have any dreams? Yes, I had dreams. THE MOST important dream of my life was simply to remain alive. I also dreamt of owning a water buffalo. Sometimes I had to walk long distances in waist-deep or deeper water in rice fields especially during flood periods. Some families had a donga, a watercraft dug out of the stem of tal gachh (royal palm tree). My father could never afford to buy a donga. Cows and oxen do not take riders, but water buffaloes do. I dreamt that if only I owned a water buffalo, my journey through the water would have been easier. This dream of mine was never fulfilled.
It was unthinkable for a young boy of our village to own a bicycle. My ten-year-old Altaf mama (maternal uncle) who lived in another village owned a small and very old bicycle. My Nana bought that bicycle for him. Once during my visit to Nana bari, I rode on that bicycle. My experience of riding the bicycle was ecstatic. I was so much overwhelmed by that experience that many nights after that I dreamt that I was riding my very own bicycle. Of course the dream of owning a bicycle remained only a dream for me until I became a teacher at the University. Once, while I was collecting grass from the borders of rice fields for our oxen, I saw a young man riding a nice bicycle on the muddy road at a distance. A neighbour’s son who was also collecting grass nearby told me that the person on the bicycle was a college student. I felt that a young man who had a nice bicycle and was studying at a college as well must have been a superhuman being, perhaps even an angel.
My father’s fupi (aunt), my dadi (grandma), lived in a village called Charbaria 15 miles from our village. My younger brother and I visited her house whenever I had some free time. One reason for which I liked to visit Charbaria was that I could catch plenty of fish in their ponds, canals and the river Kirtonkhola that flowed beside that village. My dadi’s debor (husband’s cousin) Aroj Ali Matubbor, who lived in another house of her bari, was a born genius. He completed grade six education, did the work of a ploughman, and sometimes performed the function of a surveyor. He had two wives and many children. His eldest son Noya was my good friend. I used to help Mr. Matubbor and Noya in their work in rice fields ploughing the land and harvesting rice. I also went fishing with them in the canals and the river nearby. I was very sad to see Mr. Matubbor’s wives fighting with each other from time to time. Both the wives had long hair. The fact that they pulled each other’s hair and screamed at each other was not a pretty sight.
Mr. Matubbor, an ordinary man mostly doing his work as a ploughman, became a scientist and a philosopher. I saw with my own eyes large wooden wheels and other objects in one room of his house. He produced electricity for his use with those wheels. I also saw him gazing at the sky for hours at night to observe the movements of heavenly bodies. If I ask you who the philosopher of Bangladesh is, perhaps you will say, “Dr. G. C. Dev.” Your answer is not correct. Go to the internet and you will find the answer. It is Aroj Ali Matubbor. Later when I visited him during and after the period of my study of philosophy at the University of Dhaka, I used to sit with him for long periods answering many of his philosophical questions. This gentleman, a grade-six graduate, wrote many books on philosophy, which are now considered landmark contributions to the study of philosophy in Bangladesh. It is one of my special students Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam, now the founder-director of the famous Center for the Study of World Regions at the University of Dhaka, who discovered him and brought him to prominence. I should mention here that Mr. Matubbor suffered a great deal in the hands of the ultra-conservative mullahs of the country. Because of his unusual ideas, the mullahs brought charges of apostasy against him. He was not jailed, but the Government of the country at that time banned his first book. It is very sad that I could not see him before he left the world. In the last days of his life he expressed his desire to see me. Nobody communicated his desire to me. I would definitely have travelled from Canada to Barisal to see him. During my visit to Bangladesh in 2009 I went to Charbaria to do ziyarat at his grave. I was very much shocked to see his broken-down house and the locked-up public library that he left behind. His son my friend went to Charbaria with me.
At the age of 14, I faced the most serious crisis of my educational life. 1950 saw a communal riot in our area of Barisal with the result that most of the Hindus left and the High School that I attended was closed. I was sure that my education had ended then and there. There was absolutely no way that I could go to a school in the Barisal town. Now I became a full-time ploughman. Yet Allah had other plans for me. A small incident in our house changed the whole direction of my life.
My stepmother did many wrongs to me and my younger brother since she came to our house six years prior to that. I tried to bring the matter to the attention of my father, but he always dismissed my complaints as the result of evil insinuations of our neighbours. Once my step-mother did something wrong herself, and yet she complained to my father against me. For the first time in years my father saw the truth. He was a man who took decisions instantly. He said to me in the presence of my stepmother, “Leave this house right at this moment. This house is no longer a fit place for you to live.” I obeyed his order. I collected my old exercise books and a couple of second-hand text books, made a gatti (bundle) of these in an old sheet kapor (a piece of cotton cloth that I used to cover my body in the winter), placed it on my head, and left my house lungi-clad, barefoot, bare-body and absolutely penniless. Since that eventful day until today I never slept in the house that I called my own some 60 years ago.
As soon as I came out of my house, reality started setting in. Where could I go? What could I eat to keep me alive? In the 1940’s and 50’s a young boy of 14 could not survive in a Barisali village without the support of others. As I was walking on the muddy road, I was thinking of the next step that I could take. I thought that there were two options before me. I could work as a labourer in the rice fields of the area in return for food and accommodation at a ploughman’s house, or work as a house servant cleaning the house, cooking foods, taking care of the children, etc. in a rich person’s house in the town of Barisal. I considered the second option better because I thought, keeping hope against hope that my master, having realized my interest in studies, might at some point in the future send me to school. Now I needed immediate shelter before I could sort things out for my future. I proceeded south towards the house of my Nana. I left the gatti at someone’s house on the way.
Everyone at my Nana bari thought that I came to visit their house as I did in the past. My Nana was comparatively affluent. He and his family lived in luxury by the standards of the area where they lived. I always loved to visit their house for a number of reasons. My youngest mama (maternal uncle) Altaf Hossain was my good friend; my Nana, uncles and cousins ate good food, wore clean, modern and fashionable clothes, and slept in very clean and comfortable beds. I enjoyed the company of my mama, and loved to eat good food and sleep in clean beds, which did not exist in our own house.
The bed in which Nana slept was placed on one side of the enclosed veranda of his house. During my visit to his home I usually slept on another bed placed on the other side of the same veranda. During every visit my Nana, while lying in bed at night, asked me all kinds of questions about my family and me. The first question that he asked was: “What did you eat rice with at your house?” He always asked me this question because he knew that there was very little food at our house. He asked me similar questions during my present visit too. Just before he was about to fall asleep, I picked up courage to tell him what had happened at our house earlier that day. My body was actually trembling while speaking to him because I did not know how he was going to react to my story. To the greatest surprise of my life, he said the following words that I never expected and will never forget, “I shall send you to school. From tomorrow you will go to the same school that your uncle attends.” I have no words to describe the feelings of relief and joy that I experienced at that time. A tragedy at my home now turned out to be a great boon that shaped my future life. Until the morning of that day there was no hope of continuing my education beyond grade eight. In the evening of the same day an angel came in the form of my Nana, and he set the stage for all the achievements that I have made in my life until today.
From the next day I attended A. K. School at the Barisal town approximately four miles from my Nana bari. My youngest mama and I both were studying in class nine. I travelled to and from school on the back seat of my mama’s bicycle. My Nana bought for me a nice pajama, a shirt and the first pair of shoes of my life. Later I was overwhelmed with joy when my second mama Mr. Akbar Husain bought a second shirt for me. I could not believe that I could ever own two shirts in my life.
Now I attended a good school, could read all the books that my mama owned, had no shortage of time to study, and lived a very comfortable life. I also sat beside my mama when he received instructions from his private tutor Mr. Hiralal Mukerjee at the tutor’s home. My mami, the wife of my second mama, loved and took very special care of me. To my surprise I was placed first in the annual examination of my grade nine class at A. K. School that year. This created big news and some resentment at the school. Being placed first in the class brought a great deal of prestige to a student, and other students always looked up to him. My classmate Israil Mollah was the undisputed First Boy of his class since he joined the school in grade five. That someone, coming out of the blue, displaced the invincible Israil was a great surprise to many.
Another year passed. I wrote the matriculation examination of the Board in 1951. Those days, around the time of the publication of the result of the matriculation examination, you could see a large number of students crowding the Barisal steamer station. The steamer from Dhaka brought the newspapers that published the result. I also went to the station when the result of my examination was published. I could not believe my eyes when I saw that my roll number was among those who were placed in the first class. I read the roll-number several times to make sure that it was actually my number. It was raining very heavily that day, but that did not bother me at all. I ran to the house of our tutor Mr. Hiralal Mukerjee to give him the good news. He saw me in clothes and shoes that were completely soaked in rainwater. Overjoyed at the news, he gave me a long hug. After that I ran to my Nana to give him the news. My Altaf mama also passed the examination.
My Nana admitted my mama and me to B. M. College some three miles from their house. My result at the matriculation examination earned me a small stipend that paid my tuition fees, stationeries, etc. I continued travelling to and from the college behind my uncle on his bicycle. Sometimes we walked through rice fields to make a short cut to the college.
I developed a health problem soon after my admission to the college. I found it difficult to read because I felt a burning sensation in my eyes when I looked at books. Doctors failed to diagnose the problem. An ENT specialist who was also a professor of my college thought that my eye disease was caused by my tonsillitis. He suggested the removal of my tonsils, which was the standard practice at that time. My Nana agreed to pay the expenses of the surgery and stay in the hospital for ten days after the surgery. Yet I faced a difficult problem. I told my father about the situation. He said, “Our relative so and so was going to school. He fell sick. Doctors said that he had cancer of the throat. He stopped studying, and his cancer disappeared. You stop studying. Your eye disease will also disappear.” I did not need his legal consent for the surgery, but the obedient son who never disobeyed him could not go under the knife of a surgeon without the permission of his father. One day I went home. I met my father in the field where he was ploughing the land with oxen. I walked with him and the oxen for quite some time going from one end of the field to the other. Finally I held his legs below his knees and, while crying loudly with tears rolling down my cheeks, begged his permission for my surgery. Finally he accepted my supplication.
The surgery did not do any good. Later someone told me about a doctor who could “cure all diseases”. I saw him at his office. He did not even touch me. He heard my story and said, “I know your problem. Your liver function is not good. That is the source of your eye problem. I shall give you a few injections. You will be all right.” A miracle happened. Before I left his office he pushed an injection on my arm. By nightfall the same day my eyes became completely normal. This doctor had some knowledge of medicine because he completed what we called an LMF degree from an institution. I have been told that LMF program trained people to provide medical care to the people of villages where no better qualified doctor was available.
I would like to mention a few incidents that took place during my stay at my Nana bari. A female cousin of mine reached a marriageable age. One day a young college student named Abdus Subhan and his father came to see her at my mamas’s house. As was the custom in villages, we fed the guests with special foods including sweets from the most famous sweet shop of the town. At the end of the dinner, my mama led his daughter by her hand to the middle of the living room where the guests were sitting. Her face was completely covered with the scarp of her sari. She sat on a small stool. My mama gently removed the veil from her face while her eyes were closed. The guests saw her face. Then Mr. Sobhan’s father touched her hair with his right hand to make sure that the texture of her hair was good. He also asked her to write her name on a piece of paper so that he could see her handwriting. My mama said, “She is shy. She will write her name after she returns to the interior of the house. I shall bring the piece of paper with her writing to you.” Mr. Sobhan’s father agreed. All went well. My cousin was given in marriage to Mr. Sobhan. Later Mr. Sobhan felt that the handwriting that he saw was not hers, and he blamed me for the wrongdoing. His argument to me was this: “You were the educated man around that day. How could you have allowed someone else’s handwriting to pass as your cousin’s?” This couple lived an excellent life together. My cousin could be called an ideal woman. She was gentle, loving, and caring. Mr. Sobhan was also a saintly person. He came to be known to millions of people of Barisal as a noble man and a great Muslim. During his life time a road, a bridge and a mosque of Barisal town have been named after him. Even after he had great grandchildren, he believed that I should have prevented the incident of his wife’s handwriting 60 years ago. During my visit to Bangladesh in 2009, I told him that I had no knowledge of that handwriting of his wife. He said. “OK. I believe you.” I heaved a sigh of relief. That was my last meeting with him before he left the world.
Mr. Sobhan was a wealthy man. Yet, he abandoned the comfort of his beautiful house and moved in the 6X8 feet servant’s hut behind his expensive building. A narrow wooden bed, a stool and a stature filled the hut that had thatched walls. He had a copy of the Qur’an beside his pillow. He kept the stool in his hut for the people to place his body on it for the ritual washing after his death, and the stature to be used for carrying his body to the graveyard. My cousin and her husband were inseparable. Within four weeks of my cousin’s departure from the world, her husband followed her. May Allah give both of them peace.
My khala (mother’s sister) fell in love with her cousin Abdul Barek who lived in another part of the city. The people of my khala’s family knew the fact of their love affair. Hence the young man had no permission to come to my Nana bari. At the request of the lovers I agreed to work as a mailman for them. While I was travelling on the back seat of Altaf mama’s bicycle, Adul Barek pedalled his bicycle very close behind our bicycle to deliver his love letter to my hand. The next day he again pedalled his bicycle close to ours to take from my hand a reply to his letter. Somehow Altaf mama came to know about my involvement in passing letters to the lovers. That enraged him so much that he did not talk to me for many years after that. My khala was married to someone else, and the Pakistani army killed Abdul Barek in 1971.
I would also like to mention some incidents of robbery in villages. Robbery in our part of the country was very common. Robbers came to my father’s bari every night. A stray dog in our courtyard and an older man of our bari coughing the whole night because of his asthma were our only protection. There were two kinds of robbers. Thieves usually opened a hole in the mud foundation to enter houses. They stole whatever valuables they found in the house while the people were sleeping. There was a popular belief that the thieves did some kind of sorcery so that the people sleeping in the houses would not wake up while they would be doing the work of stealing. Our own house was robbed. I still dream that my house is being robbed. My wife knows that when I scream in sleep I have been dreaming of a robbery in our house. Decoits on the other hand are more daring. They are well armed and come in groups. They usually came late at night and forced their way into the houses by breaking a door. They tied up the inmates of the house and assaulted and even killed some people if they did not cooperate with the decoits in getting what they came for.
Once at my Nana bari I was studying for an exam very late at night. All the people were sleeping at that time. I saw through the window a group of people loitering in the courtyard. They were turning on their flashlights from time to time. They were decoits. I silently escaped though the back door, and ran though the snake-infested forest, a ditch and rice fields to alert our neighbours. By the time a large number of people of the neighbourhood came running to my Nana bari with knives and sticks, the robbers disappeared.
Another night while we were all asleep, a neighbour came to say that the Mullah bari was invaded by a large number of decoits. Mullah bari is a quarter km from my Nana bari. The gentleman requested my second mama Akbar Husain to come with his long gun to scare the decoits away. Akbar mama, Altaf mama and I were going to Mullah bari through the ploughed fields. When we reached half-way to our destination Akbar mama decided not to proceed any farther. He was the most nervous person one can ever meet. He was scared to come close to the decoits. He fired his gun in the air a few times and we all came back home. The decoits heard the noise of gun shots nearby and fled away. Akbar mama’s eldest son has also inherited nervousness from his father. He cannot sleep in a house with all the doors and windows closed because there will be no oxygen in the house for him to breathe in. He will not sleep under a ceiling fan because the fan might fall on his body. I do not think that he will ever fly in an aircraft.
I did well at my Intermediate Arts Examination. Again I was placed in the first class, and was awarded a stipend. Now I was faced with another problem. The joint family of my Nana and his sons broke down. My Nana and I remained a part of my second mama’s family. The break-up of the joint family resulted in the loss of prosperity that they enjoyed in the past. I therefore felt that it was wrong of me to become a burden on my second mama. Right at this time angel No. 2 of my life came to my rescue.
One night I dreamt that I met my teacher of Logic, Professor Nurul Huda. I was surprised by this dream. I was always quiet in my classes and paid good attention to what my teachers taught. Hence my teachers always liked me. I think that Professor Huda had another reason for liking me. I knew my logic lessons by heart. If no other student could answer his questions, he asked me the same questions at the end. I never disappointed him. Yet I did not expect to meet him in my dream. He was a terror to students. No student could ever do anything to disrupt his classes. He also became very upset with students who did not prepare their lessons. Tall, thin, fair-skinned and always in Alighari (tight) pajama and sherwani, he inspired awe in the minds of his students. Hardly any student ever went close to him. I was trembling even when I met him in dream. Lo and behold, the next day he sent a message asking me to see him. I had a premonition about what he wanted me to see him for: to ask me to live in his house. To my great surprise my premonition came true. He asked me to move to his house and live with him and his family. I was shocked by what he said to me. He knew nothing about the difficulties that I was facing at my Nana bari at that time. Moreover, I did not understand why the ‘terror’ of the college wanted me to live at his house.
Soon I moved to my professor’s house. My boro mami (the wife of my eldest uncle) gave me a katha which I brought with me to my new residence. I became a live-in tutor of Prof. Huda’s young son Noyon. In Bangladesh this system of tutoring children in return for food and accommodation is called jaigir. Sometimes I did shopping for vegetables, fish, etc. for Prof. Huda’s family. I lived in this house for about a year. Staying at his house gave me a chance to meet many of his educated friends and relatives, most of whom were professors as well. One day the great A. K. Fazlul Haq visited the house of our neighbour Mr. Abdul Wahab Khan, former speaker of the Pakistani parliament and grand-father of the famous Salman Khan of the Khan Academy. It was a great honour for me to meet the ‘Tiger’ of Bengal that day. I was surprised to see him eating a dozen or so roshogollas along with other foods and drinks for his snack. The story goes that one day one of his friends said to him, “So and so has said bad things about you.” Mr. Haq replied, “No. That is not possible. He cannot say bad things about me.” Asked why the person could not say bad things about Mr. Haq, he said, “Because I have not done any good to him.” I have personally realized the truth of his statement many times in my life.
I was studying in the Bachelor’s program of the same college. There seemed no conceivable way in which I could go to Dhaka to enrol myself in the Honours program of the University of Dhaka. I needed two years to complete my B. A. Degree at the B. M. College. In the first year I lived at my professor’s house. In the second year I was faced with serious difficulties. I moved from house to house doing jaigir work: teaching young students in return for food and accommodation. Finally three classmates of mine and I rented a bhuter bari (haunted house), a red and broken-down brick building at the middle of a rice field near the college. The building was built on a raised ground covered with brushes. The pond in front of the building was covered with long and thick water hyacinth. Hence the area around the building became an ideal habitat for many snakes, including cobras.
Nobody could tell us how long that building had remained abandoned. A three-story building, it had a few broken walls on the third floor, but no roof. The two cement floors at the upper levels worked as some sort of a roof preventing too much of rain water from seeping to the first floor. The second floor was completely inaccessible. The staircase to the second floor had broken into pieces long time ago. One could only see a few pieces of wood lying at the base of the old staircase. The doors and windows of the first and second floors were just holes: there was nothing covering those holes. We were told that ghosts lived in that building and nobody went near it at night. Yet we rented the place for a small amount of money from its owner who was an English professor of our college.
We moved to the first floor of the building that had two rooms. We covered the window holes with old jute sacs and the door with a makeshift door made of wooden boards. All four of us slept on the floor of one room and used the second room as a kitchen. The damp walls of both the rooms were covered with green moss. When it rained, we somehow managed to remain half-dry by huddling together in one corner of our bedroom. We never saw a ghost in the building, but there was a great deal of activity in the building at night. Hundreds of bats flew out and flew in from the second floor where they slept during the daylight period, and huge rats ran from one side of the rooms to another on the first floor where we lived. We cleared an 8X10 foot area of the pond and used that area for our bath, and washing dishes and clothes.
Living in the haunted house was the worst experience of my life. First, the place was not at all fit for human habitation. The unhygienic nature of the place could have hurt my health. Second, I was absolutely penniless. I had no money to buy a bowl of rice. Hence many nights I had to sleep with an empty stomach. As a result my health started breaking down, and I found it difficult to concentrate my mind on my studies. Hence I sought help from a distant cousin of my father who lived nearby. My chacha (uncle) Elemuddin Ahmad gladly agreed to offer me food whenever I could visit his house. Since that time, this uncle of mine, my angel No. 3, played the most important role in continuing my education during the next two-and-a-half years.
I would like to mention here that since I left home in early 1950, I continued to go to my village on Sundays and holidays to help my father in his work in the fields. His health deteriorated fast and his financial difficulties became worse.
I completed my Bachelor’s degree at the B. M. College in 1955. There seemed absolutely no hope of going to Dhaka to study at the University for my Master’s degree. My father’s dream was to see me finish High School, get the job of an elementary school teacher, get married, leave my wife with his family in the village, visit them from time to time, and give my father most of the money I earned so that he could use that money for the whole family. With great difficulty, twice I succeeded in persuading him to let me continue my education: once after my graduation from High School, and a second time after I completed my Intermediate Arts program (grade 12). Now, since I reached a landmark by completing a Bachelor’s degree, the highest degree one could receive from an institution in the district town of Barisal, my father insisted that I get a job and help him financially. My neighbour in the village, who now lost his status of being the one with the highest education among Muslims of the area (grade 12), also joined the chorus with my father saying, “Your father desperately needs your help. Now it is your duty to get a job and help him financially.” Yet Allah had other plans for me.
One day my angel No. 3, my chacha, called me to his house and said, “I shall go to Dhaka tomorrow. I would like you to accompany me to the capital city.” I did not understand why he wanted me to go to Dhaka with him. He took me to the house of a famous lyricist, composer and singer of Bangla songs: Mr. Abdul Latif. A cousin of my father, Mr. Abdul Latif lived with his wife and two small children in a one-room apartment on a narrow lane called Chand Khan’s Pool Lane behind Hasina Manzil on Najimuddin Road. My angel No. 3 chacha said to my singer chacha, “Latif, we have no one with higher education among our relatives. Rabb is a bright young person. He will brighten the faces of us all. Let us help him have an education at the University. I would like that you give him food and accommodation, and I shall pay his tuition fees and other expenses.” My chacha Abdul Latif, now my angel No. 4, accepted the proposal gladly.
I think it will be useful to say a few words about chacha Abdul Latif. He earned his livelihood by teaching young people to sing. He moved from house to house on an old bicycle to do the work of tuition. From time to time he sang and conducted children’s programs on Radio Pakistan. This work on the Radio also earned him some money. On the whole he lived from hand to mouth. It is after the independence of Bangladesh that his financial woes were over. In the early days of his administration, the Bangobondhu summoned him and said, “Latif, from tomorrow you will work as the deputy secretary of the Mass Communication Department of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.” Chacha said, “Bongobondhu, how can I do that work? I have no education and training for that job.” Bangobondhu replied, “I am sure that you will do a good job in that position.” This is how the Bongobondhu rewarded the man who did so much for the people of Bangladesh. The Pakistani army tried very hard to kill my uncle because of his anti-Pakistani songs such as ora amar mukher kotha kaira nite chay and other anti-Pakistani activities.
Chacha Abdul Latif was a great man. While at home he talked very little. Often he hummed and from time to time sat down with paper and pencil to write his songs. He wrote 3500 songs. Before his death in 2005 he told me that from time to time he felt that someone squeezed him so hard that he had to sit down and write whatever came to his mind in order to be relieved from that feeling of pressure on his body. He felt that someone was forcing him to write whatever was given to him by this unknown force. No wonder therefore that he wrote, gave tune and sang the famous song “shonna shona bole shona noy toto khati”–all in 30 minutes.
Something that I could never have dreamt, studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Dhaka, came true. Professor Nurul Huda and Professor Ghulam Kadir of B. M. College in Barisal, both professors of Philosophy, had a great influence on me. That is why I decided to study Philosophy at the University. The Chairman of the Philosophy Department, Dr. Ghulam Jilani, a specialist in Psychology from the University of London, refused to accept me for admission to his Department because my grade in Psychology was low. I studied Psychology as one of the three papers for the subject of Philosophy at the Bachelor’s level. I was however accepted for admission at the Departments of Economics and Islamic History. On the last day of selecting the candidates for admission to the Master’s program, Professor Kazimuddin Ahmed, a senior, wise and well-respected professor of Philosophy, pleaded to Dr. Jilani for my admission. He said to Dr. Jilani, “I am sure that Abdur Rabb will do well in his study of Philosophy. I take the responsibility to make sure that he does well.” Dr. Jilani signed my application form for admission to his Department.
As I mentioned previously, I lost my mother when I was young. At my Nana bari, the wife of my second mama took care of me like her son. Now my aunt, the wife of my artist chacha played the role of my mother in Dhaka.
I faced some minor problems at my Chacha’s house. Two adults and two children of my chacha’s family lived in one room. They had no kitchen or living room. My aunt cooked food in the open corridor on a portable hearth made of clay. We sat on a straw mattress on the floor of their bedroom to eat. Now the problem was: where could I stay? There was a small chila kotha, an area of the roof on top of the staircase of the one-floor building leading to its roof. This small area had a roof and three walls. The roofed chila kotha protected the staircase from rain. In the chila kotha on top of the staircase there was an angular area enclosed with railings. One part of this space was 3X4 feet and the longer part 3X6 feet. All the three walls of the chila kotha had holes, and the fourth side at the landing of the staircase on the main roof was bare. I rented this space for seven takas a month. Since I could not buy a 3X6-feet-size choki (bed made of wooden boards), I had a carpenter make one to fit this space. I reached the choki though the 3X4 feet space. I did my studies on the choki and used it as my bed at night. I did not mind the tight space, but I got wet when it rained, especially when torrential rain came accompanied with a strong wind. Rainwater just poured in through the side of the room which was bare and the holes in the walls. Sometimes I had to stay awake the whole night somehow protecting my books and papers by covering them with my body. Someone suggested that I close the holes of the walls with a mixture of clay and cow dung. I did that, but the result was disastrous. Once very late at night while I was asleep, it started raining very hard with the result that all that mud and cow dung melted and fell on my body and the bed.
We also had a problem regarding the use of the toilet. There was only one public toilet for a number of families that lived in the compound. The toilet was housed in a 4X4-feet tin outhouse five feet above the ground. One had to climb a ladder to enter the outhouse. It is needless to say that only one person could use the toilet at a time. From time to time methors (low caste people responsible for cleaning open toilets) emptied the large and open toilet container that was placed on the ground under the outhouse. There was nothing unusual about the toilet that I have just described. What was unusual is that at rush hour times we had to be in a line-up, each with a small container filled with water, to enter the toilet.
The Chand Khan’s Pool Lane was in a low-lying area of the city. It had open drains that contained dirt of all kinds. Sometime during floods we had to walk though knee-deep water of the lane on the surface of which floated human waste.
My stay at chacha’s place also brought me in touch with great singers of his time-Abdul Alim, Bedaruddin Ahmad, Sohrab Hossain and others. Many of them came to his house with the request: Latif bhai, ar ekta gan likhe din; ar ekta gan shikhie din.” People should know that Abdul Alim was the creation of Abdul Latif. Chacha’s contribution to the successes of Ferdausi Rahman is also invaluable. Chacha and Ferdousi had nicknames for each other. Chacha called Ferdousi ‘Gagama’, and Ferdousi called him ‘Locha’, short for Lo-tif Cha-cha.
At the end of a two-year period I was scheduled to write my final M.A. examination in 1957. I wrote the exam in only one paper, Psycholology, and felt that I did not do well enough to place myself first in the first class. Without the first position in the first class one could not expect to get a good teaching job, especially the job of an assistant professor in the University. I therefore decided to drop out of the examinations in the remaining papers with the hope that I could do better in the examinations the following year.
Now I faced another difficult problem. Originally I was supposed to stay at my chacha’s house for two years. At the end of that two-year period I could not complete my Master’s degree. I felt that it was wrong of me to stay at my chacha’s place for another year. I was at a loss as to where I could stay for another year.
Again a miracle happened. One day I received a message from the provost of the Dhaka Hall asking me to see him. I went to see him at his office. He said, “You will have a room in my Hall. Someone has paid the cost of your accommodation in the Hall and food for the next one year. You may move in your room immediately.” I was literally shocked by what he said. Actually what happened was nothing short of a miracle! Nobody knew the difficult situation I was in at that time. Later I found out that Dr. Ghulam Jilani, my angel No. 4, asked one of his rich friends to pay all my expenses for one year. The donor remained anonymous. Later Dr. Gilani, at my recommendation, did the same for other poor students of the Philosophy Department including Dr. Harunur Rashid of Montreal and another young man who later became a famous secretary of the Government of Bangladesh. May Allah give Dr. Jilani’s soul peace!
The next one year I worked hard to prepare for my examinations. At the same time, I did some work which proved very useful to me in my later life. Dr. Jilani used to conduct research projects. He asked me to take a leading role in some of these projects. My work with Dr. Jilani gave me training and experience in research work, and some financial reward. I also worked with Shahid Dr. G.C. Dev taking dictation of his books, getting the material typed, proof-reading the material composed by the press, and so on. The work with Dr. Dev not only gave me experience in various stages of writing books; it also brought me in contact with a great man from whose wisdom and humanitarianism I learned a great deal. My work with Dr.Jilani and Dr. Dev in their projects continued for years even after I Joined the Department as a teacher.
I wrote my M.A. examination in 1958. I did well. Dr. Jilani was very busy with his research work. To free his time from running the Department as its Head, he now gave a great deal of the responsibility of running the Department to me. This was indeed strange because I did not even pass my M. A. Examination at that time. He wrote to the Vice-Chancellor recommending my appointment as an assistant professor (called lecturer at that time). The V.C. rejected Dr. Jilani’s recommendation asking him to wait until the results of my examination were published.
Alhamdu lillah, I was placed first in the first class, and I joined the Department as an assistant professor. Now Dr. Jilani left the entire administration of the Department to me, including admission of students and hiring new teachers. Some readers may know the names of Prof Abdul Hai and Dr. Abdur Rashid. I hired them both as professors of the department. I knew Prof. Hai through one of his students who was my classmate. Professor Hai, then teaching at Eden Girls’ College, lived at Bokshi Bazaar. I visited Professor Hai’s house many times. I found him to be a good scholar and a saintly man. When the position of a teacher in the department fell vacant, I hired him with Dr. Jilani’s consent. Professor Hai proved to be a great asset to the entire University of Dhaka. Dr. Rashid completed his master’s degree with outstanding grades. I hired him too in the same manner. Dr. Rashid later went to a British University with a scholarship for his higher studies. He completed his Ph. D. and CSP in a record time of two years and joined the then Government of Pakistan as an administrator. He served as very competent Secretary to many ministries of the Government of Bangladesh.
Dr. Jilani had absolute trust in me. He wrote to the V.C. that I would have the authority of signing all documents and letters on behalf of the Head of the Department. The V.C. again turned down his proposal. So I prepared all the documents and letters, got those typed, and Dr. Jilani just put his signature on them. Dr. Jilani left Dhaka University in 1962 and Dr. G.C. Dev became the chairman of the Department. Dr. Dev also trusted me the way Dr. Jilani did. Hence I continued to run the Department for Dr. Dev until I left for Canada in 1963.
Life was now going extraordinarily well. I loved my students. I tried my best to fulfil my responsibilities as a teacher. I never missed a class, nor did I go to classes late or without adequate preparation of lectures. Allah has also given me the capacity to make difficult subjects easy to my listeners and readers. I was concerned not only about the academic success of my students but also about their general well-being. Hence I visited them at their residential Halls and their homes. All this earned me respect, appreciation and love of my students, including hundreds of those who took my Philosophy courses as their subsidiary subjects.
I got married in 1959. Aishah was a student Bengali literature at the University where I taught. The day we were married I entered the house of my father-in-law as a ghorjamai , live-in son-in-law. Our son Hamid was born in 1962. That same year we moved into an apartment in the University quarters.
My father too was happy now because I was helping him financially since the day I got a job in the University.
Sometime early in 1962, while I was doing some work in my office, suddenly Dr. Jilani entered my room with a piece of paper in his hand. He said, “Abdur Rabb, while cleaning my filing cabinet I found this sheet of paper. Keep this. Maybe you will be able to use it someday.” That sheet of paper was a flyer of the program of studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. I am very glad that I had preserved that sheet of paper.
Early in 1963 I wrote a two-sentence letter to the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill. I expressed my desire to come to the Institute for my higher studies and asked if financial assistance was available for that purpose. Months passed but I did not receive any response from McGill. Suddenly in June of that year I received a telegram from McGill that said: “If you are still interested in coming to McGill, please see Dr. John Moore who is staying at the Shahbag Hotel (now PG Hospital) in Dhaka.” Dr. Moore, the Chairman of the Department of social work at McGill, was visiting Dhaka in connection with his work with the College of Social Work in Dhaka which he had founded earlier. McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies asked him to interview me during his visit to Dhaka.
Dr. Moore invited me to breakfast at the large dining hall of the hotel. I was surprised to see him cut a banana with a knife before putting the slices in a bowl of Corn Flakes and milk. We had a nice chat together. The same day he talked to my American colleagues Dr. and Mrs. Rouck. Apparently they said good things about me. The next day Dr. Moore sent an urgent telegram to McGill recommending me for acceptance for admission at that institution. Within days I received a letter of acceptance for admission at McGill and an offer of a Ford Foundation scholarship that would pay all my expenses during the period of my studies at McGill, as well as my return plane fare.
I could never dream of going to a prestigious University of the western world for my higher studies with a good scholarship. The reader would perhaps expect me to have accepted the offer of McGill without hesitation. As a matter of fact, I found it difficult to decide what to do. I had such a good life in Dhaka at my work at the University and with my family and friends. I also had some personal difficulties. A Hindu student of mine came to know about my state of indecision. He then suggested that I consult a palmist who might be able to help me arrive at the right decision.
As a Muslim I do not believe in palmistry, and I hope that my readers will not be influenced by what I am going to say. As we know, when people are in a real trouble, they might be willing to receive help from any quarter. I accepted my student’s suggestion. He took me to a Hindu palmist by the name of Mr. Das at the Motijheel Colony. I paid him a handsome fee and he read my palm. He said, “You will receive a good offer to go to a foreign country for higher studies. You will leave this country in three months. You will receive two degrees from a University of that foreign country. The people of that country will love you very much. They will accept you as one of their own. Later you will work at a very high position in life, somewhat like the position of the Vice-Chancellor of a University.” He made some other very specific predictions, e.g., that I would have two children. So far all the predictions were about the good things that were going to happen to me. At the end he said, “You will be blamed for something with which you will have nothing to do. People will spread lies about you out of jealousy. Your palm is very clear on this point. You may try hard to avoid this blame, but you will be unsuccessful in doing anything about it. Some people will keep on spreading these lies.”
The palmist was slightly off when he said that I was going to receive an offer to go abroad. I already received an offer. Apart from that, ALL other predictions came shockingly true. His prediction about getting two degrees from a foreign University sounded ridiculous to me at that time because I already had a Master’s degree, and I was going abroad for my Ph. D. Believe it or not, I did receive a second Master’s and a Ph. D. degrees from McGill University. For years I was concerned about the blame that the palmist predicted. I can tell you now that I have had a good dose of that blame since an evil man of Bangladeshi origin moved to Montreal a few years ago. He manufactured lies against me and spread them among the Bangladeshis of the city. Those lies are what we call daha mittha in Bangla. They are like saying that the prime minister of Bangladesh gave a lecture in Montreal yesterday, while the whole world knows that she did not even visit Canada in months. Many ‘illiterate’ Bangladeshis accepted the rumors spread by that evil man as facts and have been acting accordingly. May Allah forgive them all.
In 1972 I was invited to give a lecture at a gathering of intellectuals in Montreal. On arrival at the venue of the gathering I was told that the organizers took my name off the list of speakers because, according to some organizers of Pakistani origin, I “was the first one to have raised the flag of Bangladesh on the McGill campus in December 1971.” In reality I was working as the director of Iqbal Academy in Pakistan at that time. When people report to me the outrageous lies about me spread by ‘illiterate’ Bangladeshis of Montreal, I narrate to them the Bengali saying, “পাগলে কি না বলে আর ছাগলে কি না খায় I “ (What is it that a crazy man does not say and a goat does not eat?). I also add, “If a crazy man starts shouting nonsense on the street, the people with intelligence do not shout back at him.”
I accepted the offer to go to McGill. Yet it was difficult for me to believe that I would actually be able to go to Canada. I made a vow to offer two goats in sacrifice at the shrine of Sufi Amanat Shah of Chittagong if I succeeded in going to that country. Now I had another problem. I had to keep my plans to go to the west secret. I did not want my father who lived in Barisal to know about it. I worked almost three months to prepare for my departure from Dhaka. The process of getting a visa for Canada was long. With great difficulty I succeeded in making all my preparations in secret. The question is: why did I have to keep the good news from my father? I knew my father very well. If he came to know about it, he would have said ‘No’ to my plans. In case he said ‘No”, I would not have been able to go to Canada. I never disobeyed my father. I was an adult, a professor of a University, and the father of a child; yet it would not have been possible for me to do something against his will. On the other hand, it would have been very wrong of me to leave the country without letting him know about it. Hence, three days before my departure for Canada, I sent a telegram to him, saying, “I am leaving for Canada on such and such date. Please come to Dhaka to see me off.” He came to Dhaka the day before my departure. I saw a patch of dark cloud on his face. I knew exactly what was going on in his mind. The next day we went to the Tejgaon Airport. My relatives, friends and students numbering about three hundred people came to the airport to see me off. Just before I left the visitors’ area for the departure lounge, my father took me to one side of the hall and said, “You did not give me a chance to say ‘No’ to your plans to go to Canada. If you did, I would certainly have said ‘No’ to it”.
You may ask why my father would not want me to avail myself of this great opportunity to go abroad. My father always believed and taught me that this life of ours lasts only for “two days and a half”. It is therefore wrong to keep on chasing more and more successes. We should be content with what we have and prepare ourselves for the inevitable end. Now you know that one of the reasons for his efforts to terminate my education after I finished High School was this philosophy that he lived by.
Before I left for Canada, I moved my wife and son Hamid back to the house of my father-in-law. On the way to Canada I visited my brother-in-law, the eldest brother of my wife, who married a German woman and lived in Dusseldorf, Germany. That was the first time that I set my foot on foreign soil outside the Indian subcontinent. The German people’s hard work, discipline and punctuality, and the way they kept their houses and roads clean and tidy, impressed me very much. My brother-in-law gave me a winter coat and a good camera, which I used for a number of years. After a week’s stay in Dusseldorf I left for Canada on Sept. 12.
I was embarrassed when for the first time I tried to use knife and fork to eat my beefsteak dinner served in the B. O. A. C. (now British Airways) aircraft over the Atlantic. The steak slipped and jumped from my plate and fell on the floor of the aircraft. I was too shy to ask the stewardess for another steak. I remained hungry until the next meal was served a few hours later.
The aircraft landed at the Dorval International Airport of Montreal in the afternoon of the same day. The female secretary of the Islamic Institute picked me up from the airport and drove me to the house of the Abbotts, a very rich family of Westmount, the richest city of Canada. We took almost double the regular amount of time to reach Westmount. Many underpasses were flooded because of record rainfall earlier that day.
Mr. and Mrs Abbott, both graduates of the Law School of McGill, wanted to take care of a foreign student until he/she could get an apartment and make the necessary purchases. I was the lucky one to have been selected by the Abbotts. The next day they drove me to their large and beautiful country home on Lake Magog some 80 miles southeast of Montreal. That part of the province of Quebec is one of the most beautiful in this area. The mountains on two sides of the superb highway were awe-inspiring; the leaves of trees along the highway turned into all different colours, and the houses were beautiful. As soon as we arrived at their country home, the Abbotts gave me the key to their motorboat saying, “Go and have fun in the lake. Do not drive more than three miles to the south. If you do, you will cross over into American waters.” The Abbotts took care of us as members of their own family during the entire period of our stay in Canada until 1970.
In the beginning I was very homesick. Hamid was one year old when I left Dhaka. Often I wept for my family and other relatives. Actually, the idea of returning to Dhaka passed through my mind many times. In 1963 there were only two Bengalis in Montreal who came one year earlier: Syed Faruq who lives in Ottawa at this time, and Mazharul Hannan who passed away. Dr. and Mrs. Rahman who live in Australia now also came to Montreal at the same time as I did. We all became good friends. The fact that I could meet and talk to these Bengali friends was very helpful in adjusting to the new situation of my life. I should note here that many years later I came to know about Prof. Sadat Kazi of Patuakhali who came to Montreal before I did.
Since I was unable to cook, I moved to the male students’ residence on Mount Royal on the slope of which McGill University is located. I lived in the residence for two years until my family came to Montreal. My stay in the residence was very useful. We received three nutritious meals a day 365 days a year. I also met hundreds of students representing various regions and cultures of the world. A Pakistani gentleman named Tariq Ahmedali who came to McGill the same year also lived in the same residence. After completing his studies at McGill he worked as a professor of Geology at the same University until he retired recently. Prof. Ahmedali and his wife Gayle have been close friends and a solid rock of support to my family and me for the last 48 years.
Coming to an industrial country of the west from a third world Muslim country, it was normal that I received cultural shocks. I shall mention only two examples. First, I was overwhelmed by the amount of wealth that the people possessed. Second, I could not believe my eyes when I saw young male and female students of the University doing slow dances in an embracing position. Chances are that these couples did not know each other at all.
I was away from my family for two years. As McGill saw me doing well, they brought Hamid, then three years old, and my wife to Montreal in 1965. We rented a small apartment on the University campus. The building in which this apartment was located belonged to McGill, and was meant for the married graduate students and their families. One of the benefits of living on the campus was that Hamid grew up in an intellectual atmosphere. McGill students and professors surrounded him all the time. Soon after my family arrived, I enrolled Hamid in McGill’s pre-kindergarten school near the Medical School. Once in 1967 he looked at the round medical building of McGill and said, “One day I shall go to that Medical School and become a doctor.” As soon as we came home that day, I interviewed him about his plans to become a doctor. I taped that interview. Thirty-five years later we had a large party for him on his 40th birthday. He was a kidney specialist from Harvard and professor of an American University at that time. Many guests including a number of his doctor friends came from all over the US and Canada to celebrate the occasion. As part of the activities of the evening I played the tape in which at the age of five he expressed his intention to become a doctor. The guests loved to listen to that tape.
I worked very hard at my studies at McGill for almost seven years. Yet I must say that that period of our life in Montreal was the most enjoyable. As time went on, more Bengali students also came to Montreal. Dr. and Mrs. Nurul Islam, Dr. Hedaytullah, Prof. Aftab Ahmad, and Dr. Nasim Ahmad were among them. We were a close-knit group meeting each other frequently and helping each other in whatever way we could. As I have mentioned in my other writings, Dr. and Mrs. Islam went out of their way to help us when we needed help most on our return to Montreal in 1972. They sheltered and fed us for about three months. They had a one-bedroom apartment on University Street. There were three people in their family and, and with the four of us (our daughter Shirin was one year old at that time) added to that number, a total of seven people lived in that small apartment. We shall always remain grateful to the Islam family for the great sacrifice that they made for us.
My family and I were also very lucky to have many Canadian friends. Apart from the Abbott family, we had three Canadian families who also took care of us like the Abbotts. One of these families was that of Dr. Moore who interviewed me in Dhaka and recommended me for admission to McGill. From time to time Dr. Moore invited all the Bengali students of McGill to his house for dinner. Dr. Moore, originally from Missouri, USA, was a saintly man and a great friend of the Bengali people. Now we have many colleges of social work in Bangladesh. Dr. Moore was the one who founded the first one on a location west of the New Market in Dhaka. One of his children was born in Dhaka. His wife, a cancer-survivor for 10 years, used to drive us back and forth from Montreal to their house 20 miles away.
We tried to give Hamid the best education possible. Westmount Elementary School was considered the best public elementary school at that time. The school was far from our house. I took him there by bus. In the first year when he went to the school until noon, I took my books with me. After having dropped him at the school I sat beside the pond of the Westmount Park and did my studies there. At noon I brought him home, again by bus. I had difficulty paying for bus travel four times every day. By staying at the park for the entire period of his school, I saved half the bus fare.
Over the years people have asked us how we raised our children who have become successful. I have a great deal to say in answering that question. For now I can say that it is their mother’s upbringing, her love, care and sacrifice that played a very important role in raising them well. In Montreal she used to take Hamid from library to library whenever he had free time. By the time he was in grade three, he completed reading a majority of the books in the children’s sections of these libraries. Hamid loved to exchange ideas with educated adults. We never accepted an invitation at a public function or a private party if our children could not go with us. I shall take this opportunity to say that my wife has also been greatly responsible for my successes in higher studies at McGill, professional work in later life, and businesses that brought material prosperity.
Because the Canadian winter is long and harsh, the people hibernate in the cold months. Hence in the beautiful summer season people try to spend as much time as possible outside their homes. Very often they travel outside the city and enjoy the lakes and mountains in the countryside. Since most of the foreign students from our part of the world did not own automobiles, they were usually stuck in the city. A missionary group headed by a lady whom we called Miss Weaver realized this need of the foreign students to get out of the city, and arranged trips to the countryside for them. She rented a school bus for this purpose. The bus carried 52 people. She took us to lakes and mountains and organized a picnic for us. There was one condition that we had to accept for participating in these trips. After the picnic we were required to listen to a lecture on Jesus Christ. Obviously the purpose of the group was to convert us to Christianity. We did not mind listening to the lecture. After all, Isa alaihi assalam is one of our own Messengers. We just ignored the part of the lecture that talked about Jesus being the Son of God. Our faith was solid enough to resist the temptation of changing to any other faith.
Since my wife is a good cook and learned how to make Bengali sweets such as roshogolla and shondesh (these and other Bengali foods that we can easily buy today were not available in Montreal in the 1960’s) from her Hindu friends from Calcutta, students, specially bachelors, visited us frequently. We held large parties with Bengali and non-Bengali guests. As we had a small apartment, we could not invite a very large number of people at the same time. Sometimes we invited 50 people for a party at lunchtime, and another 50 people for dinner in the evening. We held very large parties in parks in the summer. Non-Bengali guests also relished our food and enjoyed our parties.
Our apartment was what we call in Montreal a two-and-a-half: one bedroom, one kitchen and one bathroom. We had one double bed, one folding single bed, and two couches in the bedroom. The reader will be surprised to know that we received outstanding people as our guests in that small apartment furnished with second-hand furniture. The legendary Humayun Kabir who was education Minister of India for a long time; Srila Prabhupada, a Bengali gentleman and founder of the International Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishna group); Dr. Hossain Nasr, Vice- Chancellor of an Iranian University, a world-renowned scholar of Islam, and very close to the Shahan Shah of Iran; and Deans, Heads of Departments and renowned people of the city. These guests did not mind the meagre material possessions that we had. I think that it is the warmth of our hearts that brought them to our apartment. By contrast, in 1972 a Bengali colleague of mine at Carleton University came with his wife to buy saris at the apartment across the hall from our apartment in Ottawa. I met them in the hall and asked them to come in our apartment to visit us. The gentleman replied, “We cannot visit you. You live in a rented apartment. You do not own a house.” I am sure my readers will find this unusual. I should mention that our apartment in Ottawa was three times the size of the apartment in which we lived on the McGill campus.
1967 was a special year. Canada celebrated 100 years of founding the Dominion of Canada. The subway system and Decarie expressway were opened that year. This Expo was the best of its kind ever held in the world. Innumerable cultures of the world were showcased at the site. We visited the Expo a few times a week. We had passes for the entire period of the Expo, and we reached the Expo site by the new subway trains in a matter of minutes. I am sure that the experience of the activities of Expo 67 was a great education to 5-year-old Hamid.
Something extraordinary happened in Canada that year. The Liberal Govt. of Mr. Lester Pearson abolished the quota system of immigration and opened the door of immigration to the people with skills. It is because of this change in the immigration policy that we see many people of various cultures, including Bangladeshis, living in Canada today.
As for my academic work at McGill, I had a small problem in the beginning. I had trouble listening to the lectures in the class. We Bengali people speak loudly, but Canadians are soft-spoken people. Gradually I got used to the low voice of teachers. I also sat as close to the teachers as possible.
I took a long time to complete my work. First, I had to do a second Master’s degree because my Master’s degree from Dhaka University was in a field different from that I was studying at McGill. Second, generally speaking, graduate students of North America are required to do a great deal of course work. This system is different from that in British Universities. Dr. Jilani went to a British University, did research on concentration of attention, wrote a dissertation and received a Ph.D. degree. He took a total of two years to complete all his work. At the Islamic Institute of McGill, a graduate student was required to have a good knowledge of various aspects of Islam–its history from Pre-Islamic Arabian time till the present day, thought (philosophy, theology and Sufism), institutions, and modern developments. I also needed to master the Arabic language because most of the source material for my research was available only in Arabic. I was required to learn two more new languages at a higher level: Persian and French. I needed five years to complete all the prerequisites for permission to start working on my doctoral dissertation. My exam at the end of the five-year period was the most rigorous that one could ever imagine. I took one full day to write one examination. After I completed four such examinations in four days, I had an oral examination in which I had to answer questions on all the four areas of Islamic studies. Once I received permission to proceed with my work for a degree of Doctor of Philosophy, I worked a little over a year-and-a-half to do my research and write my doctoral dissertation on the Persian Sufi Abu Yazid al-Bistami (known as Bayazid Bostami in Iran and the Indian subcontinent). For those not familiar with doctoral degrees in western universities, I would like to say that the research findings of which dissertations are written documents must add to the totality of human knowledge. That is to say, a candidate, in order to get a Ph. D. degree, must be able to say something that the world did not know before. Years before completing my doctoral dissertation, I wrote my Master’s thesis on Junayed al-Baghdadi. I defended my Doctoral dissertation in early 1970 and left for Dhaka to join my position as a teacher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Dhaka.
I have a message for the students who wish to come to McGill. Please do not feel scared by what I have just said. Different departments have different requirements. Even the Islamic Institute has now changed its requirements and made it easier for student to complete those requirements.
I was lucky to have had some outstanding world scholars as my teachers. Dr. Charles Adams, the Director, taught me about Islam on the Indian subcontinent, Dr. Abdur Rahman Barker (an American convert to Islam) Arabic, Dr. Mehdi Muhaqqeq of Iran Persian language and Shi’ah theology, Dr. Niazi Berkes modern islam, Dr. Herman Landolt Sufism, and Dr. Izustu Muslim Philosophy. Dr. Landolt was my supervisor of both Master’s thesis on Junayed al Baghdadi and doctoral dissertation on Abu Yazid al-Bislami. Incidentally, Dr. Landlot received his own doctorate degree a few years after I received mine!
I encountered a small problem while I was writing my dissertation. I needed some extra time to complete this work. According to our contract, my scholarship was not going to pay our expenses for that extra time. The Dean had the provision of providing funds to students for meeting this kind of situation. I applied to the Dean, and he granted some funds for me. In the meantime, I also got a summer teaching job at Concordia University in Montreal. At that time one professor of the Institute was acting as its director in the absence of Dr. Adams who was away on sabbatical leave. The acting director came to know about my work at Concordia. He then wrote a letter to the Dean asking him to cancel my grant. The acting director also came to know that I was planning to order a refrigerator to be shipped to Dhaka for our personal use after our return to that city. He then decided not to pay the cost our tickets for our return journey to Dhaka. His argument was that if I could buy a refrigerator, I could also pay the cost of our tickets. This last decision was definitely a matter of worry for us. We did not have the money to buy tickets for three of us.
I was very lucky. The Dean ignored the acting director’s letter. In the mean time Dr. Adams returned from his sabbatical leave. I asked him about our tickets. He said, “The tickets are waiting for you in the filing cabinet. You can take those tickets whenever you wish.”
Since we did not have plans to come back to the west, we visited as many countries of Europe and Asia as possible on our way back to Dhaka.
Our experience in Canada was most enjoyable and rewarding. I learned the western method of research and was exposed to many people and cultures of the world. I was very much involved in interfaith and intercultural activities in Quebec. I had the opportunity of working with a great man named Dr. Jacque Langlais. Under his leadership we founded an intercultural center 45 years ago. This center is still playing an important role in promoting understanding and appreciation among the people of various cultural backgrounds in Quebec. Later in 1975 I myself founded an intercultural center in Montreal and worked as its director for almost 25 years.
I also kept my eyes and ears open during the period of our stay in Canada. I learned the French language and a great deal of the laws, manners, and customs of the people of this great country. What I learned in and outside McGill University constituted a foundation of our success in later life. We not only enjoyed the generosity, love and care of the Canadian people, but our interactions with them also made us better human beings. I am sure that our son Hamid would not have been able to achieve successes in his life if he had not spent five years of his early life in Canada.
I said in the beginning of this article that Allah bestowed on us countless blessings. By now the reader has come to know a many of those blessings. I would like to mention a few more of the blessing that I consider important.
It is not only that I am the son of a ploughman; I was a ploughman myself. I also enjoyed western kind of prosperity. Alhamdu lillah, my children have prospered immensely in North America. I have also done reasonably well. As a professor in Canada I had a comfortable life with my family. I also started a business 30 years ago. Alhamdu lillah my business has done well. You now realize that I have experienced two extremes: Bangladeshi poverty and Canadian prosperity. What is important however is that prosperity could never change me. At heart I always remained a ploughman. Our life-style is simple and our needs are very limited. We are contented with the minimum that life can offer. What I think is most important is that I never felt that I am someone great. I always considered myself equal to others whether they are my servants, cleaners, janitors, drivers, painters or carpenters. The fact that my driver ate food on the dining table with me and I carried the heavy shopping bags from the New Market while the young servant boy walked with me empty handed created problems for me with my relatives in Dhaka. They threatened to shun my family and me for my dealings with my “inferiors”. I did not care. I always tried to do what is right. In spite of great efforts I failed to persuade our servant girl to eat with us on the same dining table. Fortunately I do not face this kind of problems in the western world.
My experience as a ploughman has been useful in my gardening work in Canada. People often wonder why my vegetables grow so well. Many people stop at the sidewalk beside the garden to look at my amazing pui shak plants and kochu gachh. These people do not know that I had long experience in agricultural work in Bangladesh. I said before that I caught fish for evening meals. I became an expert fisherman. My fishing experience in Bangladesh has also made me a passionate and successful fisherman in North America. Fishing is still an important hobby of mine. I do fishing wherever I go, whether it is the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Bangladesh to name a few. I spend a great deal of time fishing in Montreal. My motorised pontoon (a flat house boat) is always ready at a marina for fishing at Lake Champlain. I go fishing in that lake with my family and friends. I catch a lot of hilsha (shad) fish in the spring. In February I drive my car to the middle of frozen rivers and lakes and do ice fishing. Car-full’s of my friends come from Boston to join me in ice fishing in the lakes around Montreal. It is a great deal of fun being in the fresh air over large bodies of water and ice, catching fish and distributing it to relatives and friends. We also have fun having picnic in the boat or in a small shack over ice at the middle of a large lake. My large van is meant primarily for transporting a large number of people for fishing, picnics, prayers in the mosques and other events.
I was born small and lived the life of a small man all my life. I would also like to die as a small man. For 12 years I had the smallest house in the Bangladeshi community of Montreal. I do live in an expensive house now not because I bought an expensive place but because the value of the house shot up more than 10 times in the last 30 years. The meaning of a car to me is that it is made up of four wheels that take us from one place to another. My cars are also the least expensive vehicles available in the market. Why do I own two automobiles? One car is for my business and the van for my family and friends. I do not show off because I have nothing to prove to anybody. Boastfulness is a sin anyway.
I love all human beings. However I believe that mere expression of love in words is not enough. If we genuinely love somebody, we have to DO something for that person. Hence I have been trying to do whatever I can to help people. I devote a great deal of my time, energy and resources that Allah has given me to help the people of my adopted country Canada, and especially those in genuine need of help in Bangladesh.
In conclusion, I shall highlight a few important events of my life that I have described in the present article. I do not believe in miracles, but I find it difficult to explain these events rationally. First, the fact that I survived so many odds– malnutrition, diseases, drowning and snakes– is almost a miracle. Second, how was it possible that so many angels of my life came to help me out of the situations that looked absolutely hopeless at that time? Third, how did two angels of my life–Prof. Nurul Huda and Dr. Ghulam Jilani–know about the difficult situations I was in? I am also surprised that my dream in sleep about meeting Prof. Nurul Huda came literally true the next day. Fourth, how could the palmist foretell many of the events that have actually taken place during the last 48 years of my life?
I think that the single most important event of my educational life was that I was thrown out of my house at the age of 14. If that did not happen, I might have been dead a long time ago like many other people with whom I grew up, or would live a life of poverty and poor health in my village. What seemed to have been a great tragedy at that time became the greatest blessing of my life.
I thank Allah for His kindness to my family and me. I also thank all those whom Allah used as an instrument to help us in times of need.
Note: The peasant who does the work of ploughing land is called by different names in Bangla: chasha, chashi and krishok. Although he produces food without which nobody can survive, many so-called educated elite use the word chasha as a curse word. They call someone chasha to mean that he is illiterate, and uncivilized. The word chashi also has similar connotation. In polite language the peasant is called krishok. I have been noticing that more and more people are using the word krishok since the recent shortage of foods in Bangladesh. They needed a national crisis to change their attitude a little to the peasant. As I said before, I was a chasha. I am very proud that I was a chasha. I do not think that I am or ever was illiterate and uncivilized. Last summer I received four hate messages from a Bangladeshi man living in Scarborough, Ontario. Many times he addressed me as chasha and cursed me in an unspeakable language. I have preserved the messages for my record. I know the name, address and telephone number of the caller. My friends asked me to file a defamation suit of $100,000- against that man. I have no intention of doing anything like that. I ask Allah to forgive the evil-doer.
[Editor’s note: Dr. Abdur Rabb is one of the Bangladeshi pioneers in Canada. He was a professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Dhaka for five years from 1958 to 1963. In 1963 he came to Canada where he studied and taught Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Sufism for more than forty years. Dr. Rabb also writes and delivers public lectures specially on the need for self-purification, Islam as a religion of moderation, and the necessity of making adjustments in the teaching of Islam in some of its details, not in its fundamentals, to make Islam more relevant and attractive to the young Muslims in the west]