By Apala Bhowmick
The Temple Road by Fazlur Rahman is a memoir that cracks you up as often as it teaches you something. Rahman writes in a candid, conversational voice that has the ability to immediately establish a relationship of trust between the narrator and the reader. The book is divided into two parts – the first, tracing the author’s life from his village, Porabari in Bangladesh to his medical training at Dhaka, and the second, dealing with his journey to the United States of America as a medical intern, and his eventual career in the country as one of the best oncologists of his time. Rahman writes of spending an idyllic childhood among the pastoral greens of Bangladesh, where he inhabited a distant world heavily tainted by nostalgia and thickly populated with coincidences. He has a non-dogmatic, almost secular upbringing in an old aristocratic Muslim family, and is exposed in equal share to the rituals and festivals observed by both the Hindus and the Muslims of Porabari. He paints his life in rich, careful detail embedded onto a framework of compelling storytelling. One has no difficulty at all picturing the lush, verdure fields of East Pakistan, the cerulean lakes and skies, and its people – simple but stoic, wise and thoughtful, flintily standing by neighbour and friend alike in times of distress. As a precocious, sensitive child, he has to deal with the grief of his mother’s untimely death, his own painful kala-azar, and competition and hostility from various quarters in his school. He does have many friends though, and remains close to his older brother whom he refers to as Mia bhai throughout his childhood and adolescence. “Myth and history came together to affect my boyhood”, writes Rahman, and indeed, the division between the two are richly blurred in the folklore, traditions, and political history that forms the backdrop of his life in Bangladesh.
The author’s childhood is not, however, all schoolwork and domestic affairs. In one instance, he encounters a tiger in flesh and blood albeit in a flash, but it is an incident which terrifies and fascinates him at the same time. His first taste of communal violence arrives in the garb of a street fight his two school friends pick up with a vagrant Muslim over his consuming a Hindu offering distributed freely to the poor at the local Durga Puja. The incident leaves a lasting scar on the young boy, and allows him a deeper insight into the darkness and the violence inherent in human nature, particularly with regards to matters of religion and caste. One of the most difficult choices he has to make growing up, he tells us, is the one between literature and the sciences and settling for a career in one discipline or the other. Throughout his formative years, he remains a voracious reader, translating poems from English to his mother tongue Bangla, devouring novels, and scoring more in the liberal arts subjects in his final exams than in science or mathematics. Perhaps it was practical concerns that prompted him to make the choice he finally did, or else the memory of the mute suffering he went through time and again while witnessing other people’s and his own torment in death and disease. He also constantly reminds us throughout the book that his mother wished him to become a doctor so that lives like hers and her brother’s, who died of malaria, would not have to be lost in vain.