It’s impossible to go back to a place of love without the people you love still there.
I remember my mom found it extremely difficult to call her family in Bangladesh for a long time after her second eldest sister, my Momena Khala, passed away, and then a few short months later, her mother, my Nanu, left us as well. Ammu’s siblings, Boro Khala and Boro Mama, would call us in the states after their passing, but she would not be able to call back enthusiastically right away as she had always done before. A sudden sunset had taken place in her, and she was darkness on most days.
She could not muster the courage or energy it took to physically pick up the phone, use the calling card, and connect the line to Bangladesh — to hear the voices of her relatives, to face the reality of deep loss which can be stifling when you’re already so far and geographically estranged. Calling cards and hand-written letters were her only link between all she had ever known, left behind in the dust, tied to this new country of unfamiliarity and alienation.
When we did return back home the first time, after almost a year and half since both of their deaths, there was a somber quiet and a lull when visiting our extended family; a collective breath was being held. It was almost as though the same wounds of losing our loved ones, came back to greet us, came to crash my mother’s return, so we could all mourn and cry ourselves back to one another.
When we went to Khulna during this trip, my mom and my cousin Mary, held each other on the verandah and wept loudly like the floodgates of desh’s dark Kalboishaki storms had come to drown our pains once more. Their bawling was a balm of sorts, because when it rains madly back home, there is an insane renewed freshness in the air, which strikes your senses into awareness and clarity — an earthy emotion to ground you once again.
What seems like ages ago, on another balcony in the same house in Khulna, connecting the two parts of the puraano apartment, my Nanu had sat on a chair, unable to make sense of the world around her— only a few short months before her own untimely passing, and moments after her daughter’s sudden demise.
Nanu sat on the balcony for hours, the day of Khala’s janaza, besides the shrouded body, wondering: how did her girl tragically leave this world before her — as fate took her away, due to a terribly mangled road accident? How do we bury the same offspring who came from our own body? Were fibers of our soul, our anchor on this earth, pieces of ourselves, testament to our existence? How do we live without them?
When I was younger, I was an angry little girl. Frustrated by my arduous emotional upbringing and growing up so poor in the Bronx, I hoarded years of resentment toward my parents. But this trip did change something about these emotions for me. It reminded me of how loss can debilitate us beyond measure, and anger is fleeting and useless, whereas forgiveness is tender. Not that this realization transformed me initially and I did a full 180 and became a sweet, non-feisty girl, but I did learn to take a step back from the anger and return to most situations with compassion.
My Nanu used to tell me to stop being so angry with my parents. One summer visit, probably one of the first times we had gone back home after immigrating to the Land of the Oppressed in the mid-90s, I threw a tantrum, because, for some reason, I wanted to buy something, but my mom wouldn’t give me money to do so. Nanu was not your typical sweet ol’ granny, but, rather, she kept it real, always. She called me a brat for throwing a tantrum, but then she called me to her room, asked me to go fetch the small tin box she kept next to her paan’er baksho, and pulled out a couple wads of newly minted takas and told me to keep it. She would always receive money from her children when they visited and would keep these crisp, new bills locked away.
I felt embarrassed as she explained how it is useless to become angry over small things such as money, when you can speak normally and ask for whatever you need in a calm manner. Remember, anger does not serve us at all.
I could not tell her then, but I knew these irritated tantrums and abusive spurts from my end were my own acts of release from growing up with parents who always felt they knew best, but simultaneously did not know how to navigate and stay afloat in American society as new immigrants. And so we were constantly living in a feeling of a slowly drowning ship, still heading somewhere but also searching for a firmer shore. We had enough for the time being and for our social conditions, but it never felt like enough for the opulence of what America teaches you to desire. I couldn’t explain the frustration of this confused dichotomy I always felt to Nanu — not belonging here or there — and why I would act out and be a defiant, angry kid as a way to come to terms with my compromised freedom and identity.
All Nanu saw then was her youngest baby daughter, already dealing with a hot-headed husband, and she clearly did not need an evil, tantrum-throwing spawn on top of it while living in a foreign land. My mom’s always been one of her favorites.
In retrospect, I’m glad she had intervened and kept it real with me that day, because this pivotal memory remains deeply etched into my mind — an important life lesson to learn to be kinder and more compassionate to those who are closest to us, and thus, easiest to hurt.
Loss is funny in many ways; it comes back to you decades later, as hiccuped memories, and a sudden slew of sadness. I haven’t thought about Nanu or Khala in a long while; but on some winter mornings, between the months of late September and early April of any year, our small window of immense loss, thinking about all those times as a little girl at my Nani’r bari in Meherpur, or Momena Khala’s house in Khulna, can bring me to tears, as if we are still reliving the moments of their loss today.
The first time returning was impossible for Ammu, but she learned to be herself again throughout the years and to deal with a new relationship to these places and people back home, who lived on beyond the passings. Loss can begin to taste different when you’ve been marinating in it for a long time.
Ammu has found strength in hearing our people’s voices once again; oceans can’t separate us today. And let’s just say — for me, learning to live with less anger has created room for immense love and dedication; gratitude for life.
In loving memory of women from my family who have shaped my feminist, anti-capitalist identity: my delicate Momena Khala and Asia Begum, my fiesty, firecracker Nanu.
About Thahitun Mariam
Thahitun Mariam is a Bangladeshi-American poet, feminist writer, community organizer and activist. She focuses on issues surrounding social justice, global migration, women’s empowerment and diaspora identity. She is a 2018 recipient of the Bronx Recognizes Its Own (BRIO) Award from the Bronx Council on the Arts, participant of the 2017 Immigrant Artist Program: Literary and Performing Arts with New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) and a founding member of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective. Her work has been featured on SubDrift NYC, Roar: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People and Monsoonletters. Lastly, her poem "Balady: Love of One's Country" was featured on Global Citizen's Women Poets series for April 2017 National Poetry Month. Twitter/Instagram: @thahitun