She used to wake up every morning exactly at 4. There were two reasons behind that unorthodox (or may be not) habit. 1. She would say her fajr prayer and 2. She would start making tortillas for more than 20 people who used live in that roof of ours. It was a communal space where she, my grandma, was in charge of cooking for her children and their children. We used to call her Nanu. Sometimes you just hold the letter “u” a little longer, like nanuuuuu, to squeeze little money out of her petticoats to buy mango slices from the street vendors or a tennis ball to play cricket on the alleys. I knew how to manipulate her, mostly because she let me.
A month ago couple of friends from Wyoming visited me in New York. I was interested in their companies, but also in their stories. They were talking about their grandma who is alive and sharing stories. Later, that night I closed my eyes hoping I would be able to recall her voice that says Aya my name or the taste of her rotis. Nothing was coming back. Shame of abandoning my memories with nanu crept in. I reached out for the blunt that I carefully rolled two nights ago right in front of cops at Union Square to calm my nerve down a little.
Next morning I called her daughter, my mother, asking “মা, নানুর কোন ছবি আছে তোমার কাছে?”, Maa do you have any photograph of Nanu that I can use? After hours of searching she found 4–6 of them, including one where she is wearing sari and is standing next to me while I am sitting on her chair. I was probably 7 or 8 around that time and in the photograph like all of her life she put my comfort over hers
After going over those few remaining photographs for hundreds of minutes, little voices of hers starting to appear. It’s enough for me to create a scene inside my head with her playing the lead role that she was never given. In the scenes I sometimes run towards her and hide behind her printed sari from my mother who is looking for me to give a beating for failing the math test. These scenes always bring a tiny smile on the corner my cigarette burnt lips followed by a heavy sigh.
I grew up poor in Dhaka. We didn’t have water to waste, electricity to use, and fare to pay for rickshaws. I was living with 19 other people under the same roof and was sharing a room with my abusive father, abused mother, and my 5 years older brother who was already planning on his escape from that room, that house, and that neighborhood. However, living in that chaos was tolerable because of Nanu. She would slip in 2 taka inside my pockets to buy some Badam to eat. Years later I realized that she got that money after scrubbing dishes at night for someone else.
Nanu, Nana, and I used to share our afternoon teas and biscuits together. At that time, I was old enough to drink tea. Nanu was getting old and the map of elderly slowly took over her body. She would stomp her tiny legs when walking. Sometimes she would ask me to punch her back to flatten it up. Years of unappreciated work at home and humiliating work outside, finally started to take toll on her. Afternoon teas and biscuits was the only thing she would look forward. Her relationship with her Nana always amazed me. I could never understand. There was love and admiration that I didn’t see as a child in that tiny room between Baba and Maa. Probably why I found it difficult to understand the charade Nana and Nanu used to play to spice up their lives.
As I was growing older our tea gatherings slowly started to disappear. Nana passed away soon after left Nanu. Nana’s death triggered the countdown clock that she ignored for years. After moving to United States my relationship with her came to an end. She refused to come with me. I didn’t blame her. I would have done the same thing. After all who will volunteer to come to a foreign land at their elderly stage to become a maid for her family again and get yelled at for spoiling herself a little? At the beginning I will call her to hear her voice. As school, work, American friends, bars, cafes started taking over, our medium of keeping in touch, international phone calls, dissolved into the phrase that I told myself “I am so busy right now”.
Eventually on the eve of January 11, 2017, Nanu passed away. Abandoned and alone. It took me several hours to process, as I was busy consoling her daughter, my mother. It hit me when I was at work that I have no one to call Nanu anymore. No one will unconditionally love me, spoil me, trust me, protect me, and allow me to breathe a little outside that abusive room. In subway carts and in my dreams, she will visit me sometimes with her kind teary eyes, they were always teary. After breakups or a agonizing conversations with my mother, I look for those kind teary eyes to tell me “ভুলে যা ছাগলেরবাচ্চাগুলারে” Forget those children of goats.
She had always been neglected by her loved ones that includes my mother. I do not tell my mother that. I am holding this fact as a leverage over her so that when I abandon her I would say “I am doing what you did to Nanu”. I hope in heaven, a place that you believed in the most, all the angels are taking care of you the way you took care of me.