Departures and arrivals

01THE rooms were clanging with emptiness. The movers had taken away the furniture and stacked it in the garage. Only the cardboard boxes and cartons remained, hundreds and hundreds of them, it seemed to Sabera, neatly lined up around the walls of the living room. The house already felt unfamiliar. No longer her home of years.
Thirty-six years in this city, but not all in this house. The first ten years were spent in two apartments in different parts of suburban Rome. The last twenty-six years, what Sabera felt to be the most eventful and mercurial years of her long married life with Anwar, had been spent in this house.
The earlier establishments and the time spent there — whether in Italy or in Dhaka as a newly married couple — seemed by comparison to have been almost transitional ones such as the hazy adolescent years feel in retrospect to adults in the fullness of their sixties.
Their daughter Rubina, now a mother in her thirties, and son Asef in his twenties, were not born in this house or this city but had grown up here, been teenaged students, then graduated and left to become individuals in that faraway place called ‘their-own-lives’. Rubina lived in London and Asef in Barcelona, but they still had their own cardboard boxes of junk that they had begged their mother never to throw away. Thus even with the house being fast depleted and stripped clean, their old rooms still harboured frayed boxes filled with their comics and books and toys. Asef’s Dylan Dog collections, Rubina’s Little House on the Prairie series, the hefty pile of The Georgian — their St. George’s English School yearbooks — the dusty music cassettes and CDs, the board games. They had promised to come and sort these, but that never happened.
02She knew she was going to take them with her wherever she went, provide the final resting place for these dead objects. Keep them buried yet intact in some new home, in another land, till such a time as her children wanted to unearth forgotten bits and pieces of their childhood, the memorabilia of their dreamlike and unreal early life.
When Sabera and Anwar had first moved into this double-story five-bedroom house, she had earmarked the previous owners’ son’s bedroom to be converted into a guestroom. In a walk-in closet she discovered the name Dario written on the inside of the old door with some indelible ink. During the renovation when she had the beige doors repainted, she had left alone the name of that faceless little boy. When they bought the house from the old Italian couple, he was already an adult, a busy doctor living in Milan. Just touching the name scrawled in a child’s handwriting made her feel that perhaps, the past had a solidity that did not depend on the flimsy lives that merely passed through it, changing then vanishing.
Often, and these days more so, she wondered what happened to the person one had been and later stopped being? Take her children, or Anwar and herself and all the people they had known for years and years, transforming subliminally before one’s eyes. Did the earlier persona, the younger avatars remain in some other dimensions, invisible, unchanged? Was the past an ironclad safe, non-degradable? Or as vulnerable to decay as one’s body, one’s youth and the days of one’s lives?
Her first pregnancy, the baby that had died at childbirth during the turmoil of 1971, she had never forgotten. Newly wedded and pregnant, she had escaped with her in-laws from a city in the grips of military siege to the country, seeking refuge in the overcrowded village homestead of some landowning relatives where others also sought shelter. Anwar left her there and crossed the border to join the freedom fighters. Other young men from the village went with him. When the army attacked nearby, Sabera and her in-laws fled again under cover of darkness. She remembered the quickening, ripping pain, the delivery by lantern light in a hut, the burial of the baby, being carried by her father-in-law and an uncle to a boat, the lapping, lulling anaesthesia of the nocturnal journey, resting on land, then walking through a wooded mango orchard to the border and joining Anwar. It was a torn and crumpled chapter from their life, the history of many Bengali families.
03No, she had never forgotten it, but when asked how many children she had, Sabera said two, a daughter and a son. Only in her heart she knew that she had given birth thrice. Shouldn’t she also count that first baby among her children? Just because death had snatched it away, did that earlier birth never happen, count for nothing? Then why had she never told her children about it, about their lost sibling? In some buried part of her consciousness she had named that phantom baby boy of her past, Dario. She would feel saddest leaving that name behind, painted on the back of a door, which no one entered or saw.
That’s just how she was. A practical and smiling woman to the world, but secretive about her deepest emotions. She had not thought of the baby for years. But now at the thought of leaving this house, this life in Rome, she had started to look back more and more, many things coming to mind as if they were lost objects that rolled out of hidden places, from behind wardrobes or under furniture, as had happened in the last few days. And although she had shed no tears yet, and probably wouldn’t till her plane finally took off a month from today, her heart ached.
The movers would return tomorrow to seal up and transport all those cardboard boxes to the container for shipment to Dhaka. With their home dismantled and sent off into the future, Sabera and Anwar would then move to the Residence Garden Apartments for their last three rootless weeks. The children would come to spend some time with them and they might travel a bit in Italy or just visit with their old friends.
Sabera moved from one hollowed room to another. Now all their belongings that would accompany them by air were loosely piled in suitcases. She still had hanging in the gaping wardrobe a few of the saris that she had worn the week before to all the farewell parties and would wear to the ones in the coming weeks. They, especially Sabera, had a wide social circle and many friends and well-wishers.
She felt, with humility and gratitude, that she was well loved by the younger Bengali couples. Considered a substitute elder sister or sister-in-law, the Apa and Bhabi every Bengali man and woman missed in their expatriate lives. She was the person who gave both the men and women a sense of familial affection without threatening the ladies with too much youth, glamour or beauty. More important, she and Anwar were above the competitive spirit that often crept into the younger generation in their social and political climb up the ladder in the UN agencies.
She was closest to two young couples whom she thought of as Putul-Omar and Naureen-Shafiq. In Sabera’s mind, Putul and Naureen were what Rubina would be in another decade. She had seen these two girls as newly married brides, starting out in Rome, becoming new mothers, raising their families and now gracefully and still youthfully, moving into their fifties. They joked that they needed their Sabera Bhabi to consider them young, since even they were now middle-aged.
Her cell phone rang. It was Naureen.
‘Bhabi, did you know a Mrs Dehelvi? I know a friend of her daughter’s who asked me to inform you. Apparently, she passed away yesterday at a hospice. It’s close by and I thought if you wanted to go see her we could go together. The funeral and her burial will be at Prima Porta, a long way away.’
Mrs Dehelvi must have been in her nineties! She belonged to another generation and was already an elderly person when Sabera and Anwar first arrived in Rome from Dhaka. The Dehelvis were among the first sub-continentals and possibly the first Pakistanis to join FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. They had arrived in Rome in 1959, a dozen years after the cataclysmic Partition of India in 1947. Mrs Dehelvi had been a striking woman, regal looking and speaking a refined Urdu that revealed her roots in some land-owning and cultured Muslim family in the Uttar Pradesh region of undivided India, from which they had migrated to Pakistan. Her husband, too, must have come from some highly educated Urdu-speaking Muslim family in the ancient part of the Indian capital — Old Delhi or Dilli or Deheli, thus the name.
In attitude, she reminded Sabera of a mother of one of her West Pakistani friends in Holy Cross College in the Dhaka of the ’60s. This was probably why she had always found it hard to talk to Mrs Dehelvi — because she had no real understanding of what had happened in 1971. For Sabera, arriving in Rome in 1974 with the trauma of the nine-month struggle and eventual war of Independence in which every Bengali family had suffered some losses, superficial social sympathy was not enough. She wanted understanding at a deeper level from her friends and acquaintances. Mrs Dehelvi, despite her urbane and cultivated compassion for all that the Bangladeshis had undergone, was still a bit patronising to Bengalis, to Sabera, to the new Bangladesh. As if they were still all one family, based on the common religion. As if the violent breakup of Muslim Pakistan had all been a misunderstanding fomented by the Hindu Indians.
But she was a poetry-reciting, cultured lady and an affectionate person, with many friends among the Indians and Bengalis. At some of the coffee mornings at her place, Sabera had met other, younger Pakistanis who became her friends. Some were wary about discussing politics, but many had more accepting and progressive ideas about the inevitability of the rupture between East and West Pakistan, and the need for reconciliation and new ties.
One of them, Rakhshanda, turned out to be the class friend of Sabera’s elder sister and had grown up in East Pakistan, in the shipyard of Khulna before coming to live in Dhaka and attending Holy Cross College. She was ever brimming with nostalgia for a time before politics had riven the country, as she put it. Sabera had laughed. Which world had Rakhshanda lived in? When had politics not wedged the two wings? Everything had always been swept under the carpet during the Ayub regime.
Despite Rakhshanda’s political naiveté they had become close friends.
Together they went to all the United Nations Women’s Guild meetings and coffee mornings and acquired a large acquaintanceship with women of other nationalities. Sabera had become a member of the Welfare Committee of the UNWG, and through that she had met many other Indians and Pakistanis, and they all became a large family of sub-continentals. Once a month they would attend lunches at each other’s homes.
Unfortunately, the spirit had faded as many of the husbands retired and the families left Rome. Anwar and she were one of the few couples that had opted to stay, having bought a home and living in it for many years, before and after retirement. Now Anwar had been asked to be an advisor to the Bangladesh government, and they had decided to return to the motherland.
After hearing about Mrs Dehelvi’s death, Sabera went into the study room and looked among the cartons marked ‘Personal Stuff’ with a marker in her careless scrawl. Anwar’s boxes of papers and documents were carefully labelled with printed stickers and taped shut. Hers were still open. She sifted among boxes filled with photo albums and manila envelopes bursting with loose photos that she had never got around to sorting and pasting. And now with the advent of digital photos, no one looked at photo albums anymore. Still, her whole life was sandwiched between these plastic pages. She picked out some early ones marked by years and topics like ‘Lunch at Rakhshanda’s, May 1982’ or ‘Diwali function at the Malhotra’s’ or ‘My Pohela Boishakh Lunch, 1985,’ ‘Picnic at Bracciano Lake, 1980,’ ‘UNWG Charity Dinner, FAO rooftop, 1978.’
Nowhere could she find a single photograph of Mrs Dehelvi; not even a sliver of a profile in a group photo on occasions where Sabera knew they had both been present. Not only was it strange that Sabera could not unearth any photos to refresh her memory of Mrs Dehelvi’s face, it was stranger still that in all these passing years, with the change and flux in the social circles and moving in different orbits, she had actually forgotten Mrs Dehelvi’s existence, not to mention her first name. It was as if the glue provided by the Pakistani and Indian community of that era that had helped the large group adhere to each other had dried and flaked off and the acquaintanceship of many years ago ceased to exist. But with it a part of her own life had evaporated, Sabera thought, putting away the albums.
And just then the name came back. Rolled out from under the chest of unremembered memories. Razia Dehelvi. The irony of it: Razia apa had by her death come back into existence for Sabera!
She was inspired to call up some other old timers among the remaining Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans who had been part of the UNWG and might have known the deceased, in case they wanted to view the body at the Casa di Cura clinic and hospice or go to the burial. She discovered that there was no one left. With the departed, an era had ended.
Of the Dehelvi’s children, she heard that an unmarried daughter worked in one of the UN agencies in Rome and had looked after the mother since their father died. The son had married an Italian and lived to the north of Rome, in Viterbo. They were known socially to many of the younger generation like Putul-Omar, and Naureen-Shafiq.
An hour later Putul and Naureen arrived to pick her up. Naureen walked into the living room, her heels echoing on the bare floors. She turned around with arms outstretched and said, ‘Oh! My God! All empty. It’s real — you are leaving!’ Putul sat down on the staircase leading upstairs, chin in both hands, elbows on her knees. ‘So many wonderful times we had here!’ She sighed. Sabera laughed to cheer them up, gave them a few odds and ends in boxes and bags that she had kept back for them: plants, books, unused bottles of liquor, a perfectly new table fan, a traditional stone ‘sheel-patta’ to grind spices that she had no need to carry back to Dhaka. There had been much more, larger more cumbersome things that had already been distributed the week before.
The drive to the hospice was filled with chatter, mostly between Putul, who was driving, and Naureen sitting beside her. The evening before, they had all met at the farewell party for Sabera and Anwar hosted by the new economic counsellor Shayla and her husband Ahsan, who was on leave from his job as joint secretary to the Bangladesh government. As they drove, Putul and Naureen discussed the new couple and also the new ambassador and his wife.
Already Sabera felt disassociated from the discussion. She was there and not there. Already in transit. She felt as if she were not in the backseat of a car looking out on the pine-edged road, passing the familiar sign of an Agip petrol station, but in an airplane that was taking off, gaining height while the houses and homes were falling away, becoming smaller and smaller, and the dropping, diminishing gardens, and the streets flying away like dark ribbons and the invisible people with their solid, everyday concerns, slowly becoming toy lives in a toy city.
They parked and walked into the clinic and were directed to the morgue outside and to the left of the large courtyard with a gazebo. It was a lovely spring day, and the courtyard was dotted with what looked like huge drooping birds, resting after a long flight. The pale faces looked up as Putul, Naureen and Sabera passed them. Sabera said, ‘Buon giorno.’ The stagnant bodies in the wheelchairs stared without expression. One looked away, another nodded. Old, faded, misshapen bodies, more absent than present. Sabera realised that she had been mistaken. These were not even birds. Those had flown away a long time ago, leaving behind this: huge piles of feathers waiting for a wind to scatter them. Into infinity, finally.
The room they entered was small. They were met by the daughter sitting with a thick volume of the Qur’an in her lap, distracted and dazed but grateful to see them. They were led to another room, even smaller. A long coffin lay there taking up almost all the space.
Closer up, it was a shallow container frilled with taffeta-like fabric. An empty, oblong gift box waiting to be filled. Then Sabera saw that it was in fact occupied. A barely perceptible fold, all covered in white. A little bump that denoted not just a body but an entire being that had journeyed through life, filled to the brim with events and children and voices and laughter and warmth and pain and pulsating emotions — all echoing behind the woman who lay like the inert contents of a package, waiting to be lidded, sealed with packing tape and shipped. Luggage readied for departure.
Sabera bent forward and the face was uncovered for her. There it lay — not a person, not Razia apa. A waxed representation of her. A symbol of what she was. Sabra recognised the face, though it was clenched shut. She tried to remember some of the things Razia apa used to say, to bring that face to life. With the effort, a stone seemed to lift and a memory flowed back.
In the early years, Sabera had once gone with a tour group organised by the UNWG to the Catacombs. Santa Prisca on the Appia Antica. They descended the narrow stone steps and walked from one cave-like room to another, smaller one. Razia apa suddenly stopped and refused to go any further.
She said, ‘I didn’t know till now that I am claustrophobic. I must be for whatever it is I’m feeling. Bhayee, you all go. I’m turning back.’
Sabera had been feeling uncomfortable too but had not expressed it for fear of ridicule and not wanting to create an annoyance for the others. She volunteered to accompany Razia apa back to the top and wait for the tour to be over. As they started to retrace their steps, Sabera had looked over her shoulder to see the group disappear into the dark. Razia apa leaning on her shoulder said, ‘Peeche mur mur kar mat dekho.’ Don’t look back. Keep looking forward.

AFTER a short prayer and ‘fateha’ they walked out of the morgue and stood looking at the shamelessly gorgeous day outside. The sun exploded around her. The sky, confident in its timeless blue, would be there tomorrow. No matter what. The beauty of the day stunned her with the endless possibilities that lay before the three blinking women.
‘Shall we have a coffee at that old bar we used to go to?’ Naureen said moving to stand under the gazebo.
‘How about trying the new one we saw the other day?’ Sabera said putting on her sunglasses.
Putul brightened: ‘Or you can all come over to my place for some tea. And I could show you, Bhabi, the saris I have painted and got embroidered for Shona and Sheba’s double wedding. Pity, you won’t be here in September for it. But don’t forget you promised to attend the reception we will have in Dhaka in December. After all, you saw them being born at Salvator Mundi. You babysat them. For them you are the real aunt, not my sisters and cousins back home, all their Khalas and Mamis and Phupus and Chachis in Dhaka or anywhere.’
Naureen nodded. ‘True. Even for my Towheed, Bhabi is the real aunt. It’s funny how much my mother and ma-in-law are jealous of you!’
Sabera smiled but said nothing. A breeze rustled in the glimmering trees showering light and shadow around them like newly minted coins — a spring day to be spent right now, beyond the billowing of yesterdays and tomorrows.
Naureen was saying, ‘And remember, Bhabi, you have to visit us every summer. It will be so hot back in Bangladesh. Spend those months here in Italy.’
Putul raised a warning finger, ‘I know Bhai has been telling Omar and the others that whenever you return to Rome you will stay in the Residence Garden Apartments. But I won’t hear a word. You have to stay with us. At least, a few days.’
Sabera’s eyes prickled. She blinked rapidly behind her sunglasses and put her arms around their shoulders. These were her sisters even without blood ties, her unrelated family of years unwilling to let her go, clinging to their mutual past.
She wondered if she could put into words for them the message she had received a while ago. Not just from the unending blue of the sky, the whispering trees, the no-nonsense sunlight, but from revisiting a long-ago subterranean burial place.
Putul and Naureen must be thinking that with Sabera’s departure, some massive lid of insuperable distances would clamp over all of them. But there was nothing that ever clanged shut, leaving one in the dark claustrophobia of finalities. Departing was not descending into an underworld. Moving on was moving forward. It was an intake of breath that entered but never left, and then the ballooning inward and upward and outward into the eternal freedom to be everywhere, at once.
She laughed aloud. ‘Hey! I haven’t even left and you girls are planning my return! One has to depart to come back, to go anywhere. Listen, today we are here, together. Let’s enjoy, go to Ostia, have lunch by the sea. My treat.’
As they walked through the courtyard chattering about which restaurant to go to, Sabera resisted the urge to look back. She knew what she would see if she turned around. The scattered wheelchairs with their reposing, roosting passengers. Winged creatures resting momentarily before their flight. The onward journey of eternal arrivals.

This story is part of Neeman Sobhan’s collection of short fiction titled ‘PIAZZA BANGLADESH’ published by Bengal Publication this year and launched at the Dhaka Hay Festival in November. The book is available at all Bookshops in Dhaka, including Aranya, Jatra, Bookworm, Boi Bichitra etc. and will be at the Dhaka Boyi Mela and the Kolkata Book Fair.

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