Ever since the doctors told him, “Mr. Saleh, you have bad cells”, his fate was sealed. A perfectly honest and seemingly healthy man has been given a death sentence. The doctors gave him three months time or less. The phone rang at three thirty AM in New York in mid October. My sister, Lopa, called from North Carolina crying. My mother had just called her from Bangkok telling her about this death sentence. My head started spinning. How can this be possible? I just saw him off in New York two weeks ago – saw off a perfectly healthy man, telling him that I would see him again in Dhaka in two months. How can this be possible? I picked up the phone and called Bangkok. My mother was calm as steal. “Your father is crying”, she said. The doctor had just told him the news – “Mr. Saleh, you have bad cells.” My mother gave the phone to him. I tried to be calm and composite and was getting ready to say “Bapi, don’t be afraid, you have fought so many times before. You will fight again.” But letting a voice out of my choked up throat became the hardest thing to do. I gave the phone to my wife Eeshita. All she could say was “Hello”. I don’t know if she heard the muffled voice of my father or whether she heard him cry but she could not speak anymore either. Thus we received the news that our father only has a few days left as cancer had spread all over his body.
Two days later, we found ourselves in the plane. I moved up my relocation to London by a couple of weeks. I took those two weeks off from work to spend time with my father in Bangladesh. My wife and daughter parted with me in London. I was going home after 5 years. My mother really wanted me to visit home. I could finally come. But the circumstances surrounding could have been so much better.
So I came. I came to an airport where there was no one to receive me other than our driver. I wasn’t greeted by the usual smile of my father. I didn’t see his anxious face looking out to find me among the arriving passengers. I tried to stop thinking about it. Driver Abdul bhai was crying. He cried all the way while driving me home. I was determined to keep a cheerful face. I called home from the mobile phone. My father picked up the phone –that ever familiar voice, the voice of love and affection, the voice of our dependence, that voice of our joy. I was so pleasantly surprised that he picked up the phone that I elated in joy, “Bapi , you sound so good! You’ll be fine in no time.” I came home and Bapi greeted me. He looked so normal! It was impossible to tell that things had changed so much from the last time I saw him only three weeks before. We talked about his life in Kaptai, his childhood. It was wonderful. I took some pictures of him. That in the end turned out to be the best day of my visit. From that day onwards, it was all downhill. Things changed at an unbelievable pace and his condition worsened little by little every single day. Eventually, we had to move him to a hospital.
Next few days became the worst days of our lives. My sister, Lopa, arrived from the US; so did my brother, Imon. We were together as a family again. Bapi greeted them both with warm hugs from the bed. Imon and I would swap days to stay at the hospital at night. It was so painful to see him suffer every night! One such night Bapi could not sleep. I asked him if he wanted me to sing. I remembered the days when I returned from my music school, Bapi would make me sing the new song I learned that day. I would get annoyed but he would say, “Please baba tinta line shonao”. I would then sing the song half heartedly in a grudging voice. When once I was singing at the Shahid Minar with maestro Kalim Sharafi, he was there as proud as a father can be. Today I was singing for him again. All those memories came flushing by right in front of me. I could not sing in a choked voice. For the first time, I broke down in front of him. I hugged him and cried. So did he. It was perhaps the last time I was singing for him.
“ganer bhelay bela abelay, pranero asha, bhola moner srote bhasha paler haowa bhorsha tomar, korish ne bhoy, pother kori na jodi roy, shonge ache badhon nasha, bhola moner srote bhasha.”
(“গানের ভেলায় বেলা অবেলায়, প্রাণেরো আশা, ভোলা মনের শ্রোতে ভাসা পালের হাওয়া ভরসা তোমার, করিসনে ভয়, পথের করি না যদি রয়, সঙ্গে আছে বাঁধন নাশা, ভোলা মনের শ্রোতে ভাসা…”)
With the help of this wind of the sail, slowly my father’s lifeboat started its journey towards the unknown. The first few days, he cried. You could tell that he was having trouble coming to grip with the finality of the whole matter. After a few days he stopped crying. He accepted his fate. We all said good bye one by one. Relatives came, his friends came by the scores, and workers from his factory came in buses – all left with weeping goodbye. At the end, he did not want to see anyone. He just wanted to have his children and his wife to be around him. He saw the old photographs of his wedding, the early pictures of his first child, Lopa. He listened to Rabindra Sangeet by her niece, Shama, who came every single day to sing for her dearest Kabu (Kakababu in short).
Then one day, I had to leave and say good bye for the final time. I left for London. I started my new life and new career. I was greeted by my one year old daughter Anahita who called me Bapi. As one Bapi was getting ready to leave, another Bapi had arrived. Two days after my arrival, I woke up unusually early in the morning seeing a dream. I called Dhaka right away. Lopa was on the phone with a shaking voice, “I think Bapi is leaving us as we speak”. Although I was not there in person, by some strange coincidence, I was with my family at the exact time when my Bapi was saying his final good bye.
Thus the life of Mr. Abul Khair Saleh came to an end on the 11th November, 2003. He led a simple life – a life that was not grand in nature, but a life which was full of love and affection. A life that was bound by principle. Being a government officer for a long time, we were always very proud to say that he never took any bribe from anyone. In stead, he helped so many people to stand up on their feet! He always told me that it takes so little to make a difference, why should one not do it. Unassuming person as he was, amazingly, he never told anyone about his acts of charity. Only before his death, I learned that he single-handedly rehabilitated all the families who were affected by the liberation war of Bangladesh in Kaptai, where he served as a government officer. He miraculously survived the bullets of Pakistani army in 1971 and later, helped the family of those who were not as lucky as he was.
Two years before his death, he created a school near his factory seeing the need of his factory workers’ kids’ education. That school now boasts three hundred student with full recognition from the government. As a civil engineer from BUET (then Ahsanullah engineering college), he worked at Kaptai, Chittagong Hill Tracts as a government officer since the building of Kaptai dam. Later he joined private business firms. He did not earn a lot of wealth – just about enough to give his children good education and good life. He wasn’t a towering success in business. He was not the biggest crowd puller in a party. Yet his unassuming, modest character left an impression and became an inspiration to many people’s lives who he touched. And he didn’t even know it.
Never one to boast about his family heritage, he was, however, really proud of all his three children where he invested all his energy, love, passion and affection. All of us, his children, can say without a blink, that he was the greatest father a child could ever have had. His affection and love for us was so abundant that we were always fulfilled in our lives. A man of a few words in front of outsiders, he would never have any problem expressing his love for us — whether it was over the phone or whether it was in person.
And that is what that makes it so difficult to deal with this loss. I try to remember his voice everyday so that I do not ever forget that loving voice that greeted me all the time. I miss him so very much. A friend who lost his father a few years ago wrote, “This is a loss, I am afraid, one can never get over with.” I hope he is true. I don’t want to get over with the loss. There is one little corner in my heart that I want to keep tucked away for him where I will keep all my sorrows for losing him. Along with that, I will keep all the wonderful memories that we created together.
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Asif Saleh is a Bangladeshi author, a contributor at Uttorshuri and founder of the Bangladeshi expatriates based human rights and social activist organization Drishtipat. This article was first published in November 3, 2003.