I feed on bitterness and satiety never comes.
Today sadness has renewed itself.
Let me narrate the story of two souls,
Whose love was struck by the evil eye,
In a twist which Fate had hidden.
Luck won’t smile and Time will scorch.
Only the stars know what is wrong with me.
I almost sense them craning to wipe my tears away.
― Leila Aboulela
She had come down as the moon was sighted for Eid. It was only last year. We spent time together. She had no need to ask why she had come. She knew as certainly as if she had told herself that she was to be where she was. We celebrated Eid with a dinner at the Tipu Sultan Room at Tollygunge Club. We talked of an exhibition on Bengal Artists to be curated by her in an Art Gallery in Dacca. We spoke of my intended “Lecture tour” for the Universities in Bangladesh.
All this was not to be.
My friend Ishrat was brutally tortured and killed by terrorists in a Dhaka restaurant on 1st.of July, when she was there with several Italian Fashion Designers. Most of the Muslim Bangladeshis were spared after they identified themselves and recited lines from the Koran. Ishrat, who was not wearing a Hijab and neither wanted to prove herself, was hacked to death with a machete. Twenty other foreign hostages were also hacked to death with sharp weapons during a dramatic siege at an upmarket Dhaka restaurant, which ended in a bloodbath.
Ishrat was struggling to her feet in the wreckage. Three men grouped on the ground where she fell. She grabbed the chair as she staggered and stumbled over stone and wood. “No – no – no!” Someone was shouting. “No!” Ishrat was shaking; her eyes stared without seeing, the angel of her last laugh still etched upon her face. She always smiled. Whenever I asked her how she was, pat came the reply : I am happy today…
The place of horror turned out to be a beautiful green restaurant: Holey Artisan Bakery, an expatriates’ favourite, sometimes shadowed, sometimes shining with the ixora and grass within it, as if a mouth had opened from which streamed a beam of light. So my friend’s death, which from a distance was an all-consuming tragedy, was also the story of a woman finding release from her pain. Defiant. Defiance to fall in line. A defiance against a forced show of religion.
So much darkness made her uneasy. There was definitely a weight pushing down on the world. Misfortune was always hovering close around shoulders. But she would fight it off, and keep fighting with all her might. Otherwise she would be decapitated by this nameless, all-reaching gloom that she couldn’t figure out or map.
I wish it didn’t happen; so does all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
I wish I’d paid better attention. I didn’t yet think of time as finite. I didn’t fully appreciate the stories she told me about Bangladesh. Now I have to make do with snippets pasted together, a film projected on the back of my mind.
Ishrat contained a good spirit. A loving spirit. A spirit that will not cease to exist. You see, she lives within me now, in all the lessons that she taught. She taught me to love my mother tongue. She used to taunt me of knowing all languages around the world except Bengali. “Bengali is your mother tongue, it is our Nation. You must learn Bengali.” She told me once. I started to learn. Eventually I started teaching in Bengali in my University. Lessons I will never forget. Lessons I will always carry with me.
I am touched by her life, the way it still moves forward, pulses and springs. There is no fragmentation, nothing stunted or wedged.
Yet, I circle back, I regress; the past doesn’t let go. It might as well be a malfunction, a scene repeating itself, a scratched corrupted record, a stutter.
But for Ishrat, words on a page were seductive, free, inviting everyone without distinction. She could not help it when she found words written down, taking them in, following them as if they were moving and she would be in a trance, tagging along.
And then there are those who can bomb bus-loads of tourists, and burn the flags. They are irreversible, having reached the farthest of places already. There is no going back. It is already with them, inside them, what makes them resentful, defensive, what makes them no longer confident of their vision for life.
But yes, we can challenge their ruthlessness with our humanity. Of course we can. We can give away charity in the memory of the deceased and pray for them. The good work will reach Ishrat, and the others who went away with her. The prayers will ease their hardship and loneliness inside their grave. Or it will reach them as bright, beautiful gifts. Gifts to unwrap and enjoy. Its Eid, after all!
I’ve walked my path in the world. I feel I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room for me to move. Most of the times I’m good. I accepted my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me ponder. Routine is ruffled and a new start makes me suddenly conscious of what I’ve become.
Love you Ishrat. Eid Mubarak, wherever you are.