When the Ink Dries
“Abbu, tell me what Bangladesh was like when you were a child?”
“Tell me about our country’s politics.”
“Who were your grandparents?”
“What was your mother like? What was your earliest childhood memory?”
“How did you meet Ammu?”
“Abbu, who were you before you came here?”
“Tell me every detail of the journey of how one boy born in the villages of Bangladesh became a university professor in Australia.”
I wish I had asked these questions earlier. I was always an overly inquisitive child, infamously known in high school for asking too many questions for my own good. I formed my world by understanding, digging, and challenging the stories of the people around me. Yet I had neglected the one story that was most integral to my identity — my own story.
For me, my identity is fragmented and remains stagnant with a gaping hole without first tracing back and embracing my origins. It is quite perplexing really, why does it even matter which specific piece of the Earth my parents migrated from or who my ancestors were? We all had to originate from somewhere, so what did it matter if my friend came from Somalia, I from Bangladesh, and you from Britain? How is understanding the story of my mother and father, their mothers and fathers even relevant to me? How does this impact my seemingly distinct life here in Australia? And so, for my entire life, I harnessed this protective mentality to propel forward with a false aura of confidence and certainty. I shoved these questions to the back of my mind, denying the possibility of their existence. Subconsciously, a part of me was embarrassed that I was blatantly brown, that my parents did not speak English the way the teachers at school did or that my ethnic features relentlessly marked me as the foreigner in the sea of white.
It’s funny, my older sister says that despite being a child to immigrant parents and Muslim by faith — she didn’t feel the force of society against her nor the rift of differences from the kids around her as she grew up. Maybe the impacts of 9/11 had not yet accentuated the xenophobic veil over Australian society or maybe she was too immersed in reading books as a child that she didn’t register the world outside as stringently as I did; my experiences were definitely different from hers. I navigated through life happy, but secretly torn — torn between two worlds.
Every second of my life, I am on a battlefield being torn limb by limb. Every moment is a war between something or another. I am enveloped, swallowed, and strangled by clashing interests of which I am in a constant effort to reconcile.
In one way or another, each of us are torn by our choices, from the seemingly insignificant ones to the larger ones that dictate our lives. Milk or orange juice, mascara or no mascara, ignorant bliss or rational decision making, Bengali or Australian, Muslim or Australian?
Who was I? Why couldn’t I brush off the feeling of not being able to connect to the people of Australia when my sister could? Why couldn’t I feel connected to the people of Bangladesh when my parents could? Why couldn’t I answer a single one of the endless questions that crept into my consciousness?
So, I decided to let myself forget them, and watch them fade into the wind, one by one until they were nothing more than faint, inaudible whispers.
But the wind is stubborn and takes its own course.
The older I got, the deeper I longed to understand the blood that ran through my veins and confront the conflicting truth of my roots. I suddenly felt the absence of my identity — a deep panging desire for a connection after years of comfortable, ignorant disconnection. What were these incredible journeys my parents took to be where they are now? What were the stories that formed my homeland? I had to know. I could no longer lie to myself, but where to even start? It was like the detachment and the gulf from a lifetime of neglect had deepened so wide, the attempt of building a bridge now was utterly hopeless.
And yet in a way that I could not explain, my soul was starved and my heart was agitated. So, I did what I knew best — I sincerely invoked my God who had never forsaken me, not even once, with a desperate silent plea for help, guidance, and a path of ease.
I remember the first time God answered my prayer.
My siblings, cousins, and I had just returned from a spontaneous trip to Melbourne and naturally, my parents were excitedly anticipating our return. After genuine smiles and small talk, instead of returning back to my room as I always do, that night one of my brothers and I spoke to my father for hours and hours into the cracks of dawn. It took me 18 years to finally muster the courage and strength to ask the questions that had been on my mind for a lifetime. In awe, anticipation, curiosity, and hope — we listened, only to break the flow of Abbu’s words with more questions.
He told us how India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh came to be what it is today. He told us of our ancestry, genetic history, and family name. Our relatives, village, legacy, and lineage. How he struggled, strived, and succeeded. His travels, adventures, stories, friends, opportunities, and experiences. The perseverance, failures, mentality, hopes, dreams, and fears of a young boy and girl in love, who crossed a sea to a world of opportunity. How this slowly evolved after bringing a minute strip of home into an entirely new, foreign country that looked at them strangely. How they created a new home, how they withered, fought, and rose once more. How our stories were born.
“Abbu, these stories you have passed down to me tonight, I will never forget them. But my children will, their children will.
Just the way you and the children of the village lost the priceless weapons of our warrior ancestors, so too will our heritage be forgotten. But I refuse. Abbu, I refuse. Please, you have to tell your story. Write it in a book to preserve it for our progeny before it’s too late”.
That was the end to the longest conversation I had ever had with my father, and it was by far one of the most valuable ones. It is one that is embedded as an imprint in my mind, it is one that I can never forget and it is one that I will not allow my children to forget.
Several minutes after this perfect moment in time, I came downstairs for a glass of water because sleep would not come. There I heard the slow, nostalgic tapping of a finger of someone who had learnt how to use a keyboard later on in life. I followed the sounds to find Abbu typing slowly and carefully away in the little corner of his new study.
He turned his head towards me, eyes shining. The words he then spoke meant the entire world to me.
“You inspired me”.
The crazy thing is, the moment I tried to explore deeper into my history, was the moment I realised how deep-rooted and complex the experience of being a child of immigrant parents truly was. I can barely touch the surface, do justice to my parent’s stories, and explain what growing up for me was really like. I will never truly be able to understand and completely identify with being a Bengali — because I am not. My parents are Muslim Bengalis, but I am not. I am a Muslim Bengali Australian.
Ammu and Abbu, you are my legends. You are the beginning, middle, and end of my book. Your story colours the pages of all my chapters. But my book is different from yours, we have different settings, plotlines, characters, and zeitgeists. For a long time, my ink was dwindling. And it was only when I took the time to delve into the volumes of the past, did I extract substance once more.
Today, I dip my pen into fresh ink and continue to write my own story.
By Amira Rahman