Essay: The Recliner by Zeenat Khan
Inspired by a visit to her ancestral home in the late nineties, Zeenat Khan shares this personal essay dipped in nostalgia.
I had seen photos of the new house in Ghorashal* sent to me by my nephew Rupak. The ancestral home on the outskirts of Dhaka was built in the early nineties. It is a Victorian-looking, modern house. It has an open car porch and the veranda is covered with mosaic tiles, on which wicker chairs are set up for sitting in the evenings. The old abandoned pond has apparently been renovated and was complete with wide steps and a pathway, with flower bushes on both sides. From looking at the photos, the house seemed to be caught between two worlds; a mix of old and new. But it appeared to be a happy and inviting place.
One summer, in the late nineties, I was preparing for my visit home after fifteen years. I still can distinctly remember that I started to have mixed feelings about the visit for a multitude of reasons. My sentiments could be best described as similar to feeling very anxious. Looking back now, I know that the anxiety had a lot to do with my long absence, and my fear of facing all that was new in Bangladesh. By that I mean how everyone in the extended family will look, new births, new additions, and more importantly how will I feel seeing my aging parents. Moreover, I was not sure how I would deal with the loss of my eldest sister to cancer. I had always associated Dhaka with my sister, where she had stayed most of her married life. It had been only three months since her passing. My worries significantly increased thinking that after a short stay in Dhaka; I will have to go to my parents’ home in the village of my ancestors. That thought was both delightful and terrifying as I will be going to a brand new house. My nostalgic feelings are tied up with memories of the old house. I had no memories that are connected with the new house, and I was not really sure how a visit to the childhood home will actually feel.
Before hopping on the plane with my daughter Noor I blocked all these worries out in anticipation of two blissful weeks in Ghorashal. It is one place on this earth that has meant a great deal to me. It is where I had spent my first twelve years of pure childhood with my parents. Now I was returning to that idyllic place with my ten year-old daughter. Visiting my childhood home where now the new house stood would surely revive old memories and emotions associated with the old house as I would be connecting with my earlier self. I felt I was taking her to a fantasy wonderland, my real childhood home, where she could relive some of my own experiences. Both mother-daughter duos talked the entire way as the British Airways flight flew through the night from London to Dhaka. We mapped out the three weeks that we were going to remain in Bangladesh.
Arriving in Ghorashal accompanied by my eldest brother took about two hours by a Land Rover Defender (my brother’s office car). We had an unexpected halt for an hour in front of Dhaka’s landfill because the car was giving sudden engine trouble. When it got fixed, we finally reached the compound of our house late in the afternoon. It was a relief to reach the house from the intense late afternoon sun. I thought I was emotionally prepared to accept the newly constructed house. As the car slowly entered the main gate, I felt I was going to faint. My daughter saw my distress and asked if we were at the wrong house. By then, about fifty village kids surrounded the Land Rover and the driver was shooing them away. The car stopped when it was on the car porch. I remained seated and was unable to move, as though in a trance, though my daughter was nudging me to get down.
I saw my father sitting on the veranda in a leather recliner and I ran to him. After touching his feet, I asked him, “Baba*, where is your chair?” He replied, “This is my chair.” I said, “No, not this one. Where is your easy-chair?” He understood what the question had meant, and asked me to sit by him and made space for me and my child in his big chair. I started weeping. I questioned again, “What have you done with our old house?” He very patiently answered all my questions as to why the old house was gutted down and this massive new modern house had been built instead. He told me it was for his grandchildren.
I was having flashbacks, and I remembered my older brother reading War and Peace, lying on my father’s easy-chair when I was in grade school, as I watched the harvest gatherers. The old veranda was once the hang-out place for me and my siblings. Years later, when I was in high school, it was on the same veranda that my brother had helped me write a summary of William Wordsworth’s Daffodils: “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high over vales and hills…beside the lake, beneath the trees/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” I recall how proud I was of my brother, for being able to dictate a summary after reading a poem just once. Now that veranda only exists in my memory and dreams.
Then I saw my beautiful mother looking both serious and happy, standing in front of the drawing room. My mother still wore her familiar crisp white sari but now I noticed the borders were thinner and black. She had given up wearing colors, many years now. Her hair was grey, with a few streaks of black still showing. Otherwise, she looked pretty much the same to me. When I had held her tight, I could not smell her signature Ghondoraj* hair oil and Tibet talcum powder (made by Kohinoor Chemicals) which she had used as far back as I could remember. Her once familiar scent was replaced by Johnson’s baby powder, shampoo and Pond’s cold cream. Even then I had held on to her very tight, for as long as I could. She hugged me and her granddaughter at the same time and then motioned us to go in.
In the late afternoon sun, the drawing room was very bright and stunning. The triangle patterned beautiful mosaic floor was covered with an oriental carpet of deep forest green with white flower designs. Most of the floor was covered with furniture. But for some reason the new sleek furniture petrified me as nothing seemed familiar. The light weight, comfortable sofas were covered with snow white sheets. I had felt as if I was on a newly made movie set playing out some part in a psychological drama. The overhead ceiling fan was creating a relieving breeze. The only thing that I liked in that room was the big windows with decorative iron grills, over which hung heavy drapes. They put my mind at ease. In these villages, deep into the night, the thieves and bandits come to visit. I was warned in advance not to bring many valuables with me. The iron gates remain locked at night, and I heard they had a night guard to stand watch. Even then, bandits can outsmart a lonely night watchman.
After freshening up, we were summoned to the dining room for a sit-down meal. It was an interesting observation how the table was set for four. All the plates and dishes were contemporary looking. On the side of the dining table, there was even a small China Cabinet replete with Shinepukur* ceramic dishes, cups, and serving bowls. I remembered very clearly, the big Almirah* that had stood in an open dining room in the old family home, filled with generations of old, beautiful crockery from when I was my daughter’s age. There was no sign of it now. Two of the place settings had knives and forks which I assumed were for my daughter and me. My daughter simply pushed away the flatware and started eating with her fingers. I followed.
After eating, I went with Noor on a tour of the new house with my parents by my side. I told myself I could not give into nostalgia in order to get the most out of this short visit for the sake of my daughter. (Boy, was I wrong!) On the compound, the old Bangla ghar* where we did our homework was still there but there was no one to study in it. It was now used by the night guard and his family as living quarters. I asked about the old Palkhi* (a relic of the time before our parents set up their house), and they said that years ago it was donated to some historical society that restores paraphernalia belonging to previous generations to display, educate about old traditions, general customs, and way of life. The big round Teak wood table and sturdy chairs, where we did our homework, were given to the local high school library.
We then retraced where the old house stood. The most distinct feature of our old house was its beautiful courtyard, shaded by a huge Kool Boroi* tree. On the left there was a Neem* tree which had multiple purposes. The leaves were used for medicinal relief in some ailments, and a few twigs were cut about six inches in length, to be used as a substitute for a toothbrush after chewing the top of it. Nothing cleaned teeth better than a Neem twig along with Tibet toothpaste. Now, the courtyard looked a bit unkempt, and was covered with patches of grass. In an abandoned part of the compound, a lone cow grazed. The cow was very bony; we could even see its rib cage. Some chickens and ducks were roaming around but I could not locate the old chicken coop. We were told it was further down and kept out of sight, along with the cow shed. The old water well had been sealed off, but the round cement slab that was around it still remained.
While strolling, I could still see myself sitting on the veranda engrossed in watching the share-croppers in the courtyard during harvest time. They would come with bales of jute, paddy, sacs of mustard, red chili, turmeric, garlic, and every imaginable assortment of lentils, beans and other grains that they had grown in my family’s land. The grains were initially stored in each corner of the courtyard before they were dried in the sun, cleaned and stored in the Gola ghar.* I wanted to find the Ghola ghar where harvest was stored during the month of Agrahan*, supplying food for the entire household for the year. It no longer existed. I learned that most of the agricultural lands were sold because my father did not want to manage them after Girish babu*, our old and trusted naeb*, passed away.
My mother’s vegetable patches somehow did not look the same. During my childhood, we had many lime and lemon trees that my father special ordered from Mymenshing’s* Agricultural University. They were all gone. On four corners of the property there had been four mango trees that we sisters named after our four brothers. To this day, I have never known mangoes to be so sweet and full of so many flavors. The mango trees had died. There had also been about a hundred Betel Nut and Bamboo trees, but I did not see many that remained. Two coconut trees were barely hanging on to life.
We walked towards the bhuture pukur* that used to be outside the compound. The pond was now inside, and looked very serene and beautiful. The sight still gave me the chills, for many years ago; it claimed the lives of three eight years old girls on the same day when they went swimming. Now it had been restored for fish cultivation, for the Dhaka dwellers and for the probashi* grandchildren to swim in when they come to spend a few days in the country. My daughter wanted to know if she could go swimming at some point in that pond, and my answer was a stern “No,” for I had always believed the pond to be a condemned thing. She started to fuss and to appease her I told her that in about a week, she could fly colorful kites from the rooftop of her paternal grandparents’ house. By then a feeling of pensive sadness came over me and I felt I had enough of the grand tour of the new house. With that strange melancholia we went inside the house.
It was almost evening and mosquitoes were swarming in. Mosquito repellents were lit and the very smell nearly had nauseated me. To distract myself, I went into the drawing room and saw about five or six young children whose parents worked for my parents, deeply engrossed sitting on the floor, watching the evening’s English news on a large black and white television. I cried out, seeing the newscaster; I recognized him as one of my old classmates from Dhaka University. There was an air of seriousness about him, he was bespectacled and in his mid-thirties, and wearing a suit. The last I saw him, he was a kid in rimless glasses who wore jeans, and showed up for class lectures late. Seeing him wearing a three piece dark suit in the middle of summer, reading away, revered intensely by a handful of village children who hardly knew Bengali alphabets let alone English, gave me some much-needed comic relief.
Noor and I unpacked. I had asked beforehand that we be able to sleep in the old palank bed, where my father slept when I was little. It was originally my grandmother’s bed. The bed now was in one of the back rooms of the house, which was not ordinarily used. I removed the small blue dusty carpet from the floor, and went looking for a sheetal patee and a hand punkha. I found them in my mother’s room. I lit an old kerosene lamp and turned off the electric light and spread the patee on the floor. And I lay there for a long time looking at the night sky visible through the windows. When I came back to reality, I noticed there was a new black dressing table, a night stand with a portable Sony clock radio on it. There also stood two old wooden chairs and I remembered these to their last details. One was my grandfather’s; with Queen Anne legs and its back carved with elaborate krishnachura leaves. On the wall hung a portrait of my late grandfather, a well-known pundit in his time well versed in Arabic, Sanskrit and Bengali.
As I was flooded with memories, I told my daughter more stories about the old house. She listened with great devotion, and then informed me that earlier she saw a tube well with a pump that provides running water now. She tried to convince me that change is good, and because of that, her grandparents were more comfortable in this modern house. My eyes got misty, but I did not cry. Instead I remembered the first line of a 1962 Elvis Presley song: “Home is where the heart is!”
In a far corner of the room I spotted a heavy small bookshelf that Surjo Mohon mistry made for us when I was about Noor’s age. I had left most of my books on it before coming to America, only toting the complete works of William Shakespeare with me. With the kerosene lamp in hand, I dropped myself in front of the shelf. My heart jumped when I saw the torn and tattered copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Another survivor I spied on was my English translation of Geetanjali, its cover eaten and torn. I slipped both books off of the shelf, and with great care dusted them with my dupatta. Feeling elated I stored them at the bottom of my suitcase.
Ghorashal*– A village on the outskirts of Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital)
Baba* — Father
Easy Chair*– An upholstered roomy chair for lounging
Ghondoraj oil*– A fragrant oil
Shinepukur*– A ceramic manufacturing company based in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Almirah*– A large South Asian cupboard made with curved wood
Bangla ghar*– Bengali style house
Palkhi*– A palanquin
Kool Boroi*– Indian jujube or Chinese date fruit
Neem*– A medicinal plant
Gola ghar*– A storehouse to put rice from sun-dried paddy
Agrahan*– The eighth month in Bengali calendar
Babu*– A term of endearment as a sign of respect towards men
Naeb*– A bookkeeper who also looks after a landowner’s property
Mymensingh*– A district city in north central Bangladesh
Betel Nut*– A seed of the fruit of the areca palm tree
Bhuture pukur*– A ghostly pond
Palank bed*– A high four poster bed
Sheetal patee*– A lightweight mat made with very thin cane strips
Punkha*– A hand operated small fan made with bamboo
Krishnachura*– A very attractive monsoon flower in Bangladesh
Mistry*– A carpenter
Geetanjali*– Song offering
Dupatta*– A long shawl-like scarf, a traditional essential clothing worn with salwar/kameez suit by South Asian women
About the Author
Zeenat Khan is a freelance writer and columnist. She has been writing newspaper columns since 2008. She wrote a weekly post editorial for the Independent and a biweekly column for the Financial Express, for two plus years, two major English language newspapers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She also writes short stories and nonfiction. Her multiple stories and nonfiction pieces have been published in an anthology, special supplements in New Age, the literary page of the Star literature, and weekend magazines. Currently, she is compiling and editing her short stories to get the collection published by 2021. Since 2019, she has become a regular contributor to the countercurrents.org. She considers herself a social justice seeker. Her columns usually focus on the pursuit of justice, and how to combat racial and social injustice. She covers many other topics including how to defend human rights issues, gender equality, current social problems, concerns relating to South Asia and beyond. She had majored in English and American literature during her undergraduate studies at the University of Rhode Island, USA. She lives in Maryland suburbs, outside of Washington, DC.