Sunday, December 04, 2011

We lost Jalal

Jalal was one of those people that you felt close to quickly.  I met him at a dinner bringing together people that had lived in Boston.  He arrived very late, but with the type of easy, almost impish smile that made it easy to welcome him into the conversation quickly, and forget within minutes that you’d spent the previous hour wondering where he was.  I didn’t realize right away that he was just visiting from Boston, or had recently been married.  It’s not that he was quiet, but when he spoke it was about the present, light-hearted, even mundane.  Not about the book he was editing, or the other impressive things he worked on.  It was about whether he could join the football games in Banani, the Dhaka party scene, and other normal people topics.
So I was surprised a month or two later when I read an article in Huffington post by Jalal. It was fantastic and got all sorts of wheels turning in my head.  I emailed him back with some reactions, and we got into a follow-up email debate/dialog.  I wasn’t surprised to then see him meeting in North End with my publisher, discussing a book project  of his own.  But always the warmth with which he greeted me was so sincere, his excitement about making plans to make fun things happen so palpable, that it was contagious, and led me to plan things like a semi-“disastrous” music night at North End.  It was one of those where everyone cancels at the last second, including my guitarist!  Luckily Jalal and I were SMSing.  He came late, but with a guitar in hand, and despite hemming and hawing about how rusty his skills were, he turned out to be a great guitarist and decent singer.  I was the one screwing things up; professing to know songs and then realizing mid-way through that really I only knew the chorus.  Or at least a line or two from it.  Asif bhai showed up at one point, and the three of us had a good time trying to harmonize, even if it was a little painful for the other customers.  Jalal was unfazed; he just said it was a learning experience and we’d have to try again.   Maybe practice a bit before then.

He was headed to Boston to visit a new nephew and do a bit of work.  I asked him to take a few letters to mail to family and friends with me, and he kindly agreed.  The day before he left, I called him to get directions to his house.  He lived in the Banani graveyard.  My friend Shazzad was with me when I talked to Jalal, and fearing I might lose my way in the labirynth of arbitrarily numbered streets, he accompanied me.  We found the house (or I did, rather), and the guard was surprisingly reluctant to let us in.  Usually I pull “white girl not making eye contact” and can walk in just about anywhere.  Finally after we state our names and our purpose, we were admitted to the house and sit in the parlor waiting for Jalal.  A book sat by the couch, Shazzad looks at it and says that it’s by someone famous, who is related to Jalal  The entire house is filled with wonderful paintings.  Even I, with my untrained and rather philistine eye, admired them.  Shazzad, who has a master’s in fine arts from Dhaka University, recognized them as works of many of his teachers and other foremost modern Bengali artists.  By the time that Jalal came into the room, Shazzad was bursting over with questions.  He started with rapid fire questions about Jalal’s relationship to M.K. Alamgir.  “Is he your uncle?”  Jalal paused and then said evenly, “He’s my father.”  Who was friends with many of the artists whose work surrounded us.  The conversation shifted to art.  Jalal looked at many of Shazzad’s paintings on a laptop, taking his time and asking lots of questions that demonstrate both a deep knowledge of art and sincere interest in the paintings/painter, and then gave us a walkthrough of his family’s collection.  As we walked into the various rooms, he gave us the background on pieces and painters.  He talked about his father’s earlier imprisonment, under the military government a few years ago.  Not without emotion, but calmly.  He asked us to have a cup of tea before we left.  A childhood friend of his stopped in and joined us.  Again, Jalal managed to make everything seem so natural.  It was befitting to the grand setting, but also made it irrelevant.  His manner made the room elegant, versus vice versa.  
Last week, a friend from DC was visiting and I organized a karaoke dinner so he could meet some of the cool people I’ve found here.  It was a classic Maria—my friend from DC had food poisoning, so didn’t come, and while we went to the place with karaoke, we ended up not singing, just eating.  And the group is heterogeneous in age, interests, maturity, etc. Yet we had to make conversation without the guest of honor.   Jalal came with his wife (again, arriving late but not the latest this time!), and ended up sitting next to Sazid, who is an events manager, consulting on parties and other questionable nighttime gatherings, such as Temptations, which was described as a forum where commercial sex workers and potential clients congregate.  His stories often sound more like B-grade movies than reality.  When Sazid wraps up one dubious claim, Jalal looks at him and says, “So what’s the sketchiest party experience you’ve ever had?”   We all laugh.  It’s the kind of question that keeps everyone on the same wavelength, engaged.  Sazid delivers, telling us about how when he ventured out of the “counter” at the Temptations party for a few seconds, he was covered in scratches and had to retreat.  This of course does not go uncontested by me.  Jalal doled out his gentle humor evenly.  “As an American citizen, are you really ok eating in a North Korean restaurant ?  Are you breaking sanctions?”  I hadn’t considered.  The conversation moved to the Iranian restaurant in Gulshan and whether that would be better or worse.  But politics are just the undertone—we’re discussing the texture of their bread and whether they have any eggplant appetizers that Saroj, the vegetarian, can eat.  Politics and sanctions can wait.
Jalal was between trips.  He and his wife had just been to Nepal, where he had tried yak butter tea (tastes as good as it sounds, according to him), and even eaten bread with hot chili paste early in the morning as the locals did, for its warming effects (just once was enough).  They were headed to Thailand a few days later for a beach vacation in Phuket.  We didn’t dwell on it, other than to inquire about the flooding in Bangkok and whether that would have any impact on their travel. 
As we filed out, Shazzad and Jalal are at the end of the group.  “Tomar art exhibition, ki obosta?” (what’s going on with your art exhibition?) I hear Jalal ask.  Shazzad would tell me later that he was touched that Jalal would use “tumi” (the informal/close form of “you”) with him, after only meeting him once or twice before.  I wasn’t surprised, his presence enveloped in a sense that he was comfortable in your presence, and you couldn’t help but be equally comfortable with him.  It was as if he was on a “tumi” basis with the whole world.  Despite being a professor, coming from a very famous family, and all the other things that easily could have made him less than completely humble or down to earth.
Which explains why, I think, last night, Asif called me and came over to deliver the news in person.  He was white as a ghost when I opened the door.  “Jalal drowned,” he said.  “He was snorkeling in Thailand and didn’t come back with his group.  They sent a search team out, and they found his body.”  I literally couldn’t believe it.  I saw him so recently that his image in the North Korean restaurant is still imprinted in my mind.  Asif and I sat in silence for a little while, occasionally sharing a story about the last few times we saw Jalal.  Asif tells me that earlier in the day he’d seen Jalal’s facebook profile, “In the Phuket airport.  Oh luggage, where art thou?”  I can’t help but laugh; it is such a perfect embodiment of how I can see him reacting to a case of missing suitcases.  Even now, 24 hours later, I can’t believe that he’s just gone.  That his book and his life remain undone.  That we’ve lost him.  We being his family and friends, but the world as well.
I’m certainly a tangential person to be telling this story.  Jalal invited me into his world easily since I got here, but I didn’t know him when he was campaigning for his imprisoned father and rallying against other injustices.  Those who saw his heroism in action, and knew him more closely, I can’t even imagine the magnitude of the loss they feel if my sense is this profound after such limited engagement.   Others no doubt will write their own versions and memories, some publicly. And I will tell my stories here, because Jalal is the kind of individual who deserves to be remembered, celebrated.  Mourned.  Missed.
Sometimes in a yoga class, I’ve had teachers say that we need an individual “dedication” for class.  What is the thing we want to work on, emotionally or mentally? While mine are usually trivial, it’s a concept I like, making life more deliberate, linking physical motions with deeper meaning.  And I’d like to think that it’s a way to keep little pieces of our dear ones with us at all times.  It can be the celebration of the living—when I put on my apron and play Taylor Swift, I think of my former roommate Nina.  When I am sick I never fail to think of Colin, because I stock up on orange juice and sprite to make “Orange-up” like he used to do for me in college when I was under the weather.  Or it can be remembering those who have passed away—a few weeks before the 2006 Boston Marathon, a friend’s younger brother and sister were tragically killed in a car accident in Hopkinton, where the race begins.  Unbeknownst to him, I silently dedicated my run to them.  When I decided to run it again in 2008, I wrote to him, saying:
"Running remains closely tied to a feeling of something akin to spirituality--distance running is itself a celebration of life and the human spirit.  Our relentless pursuit of contentment (even if it's unattainable); the pain that accompanies that pursuit, and the endurance that we discover deep inside when pressed/taken to the limits.  To me, each step is affirmation of all those things--and simultaneously a silent tribute to the potential of humanity (something that's bigger than each of us alone).  You don't have to look far to see intense suffering and grief, but simultaneously you see people overcoming it.  And I'm constantly in awe of both our capacity to hurt and our ability to continue to hope.  Running is the physical manifestation of all of these somewhat abstract ideas, for me……… I decided that I would run the marathon holding you all in my heart and mind the whole way, as a tribute to the memory of your brother and sister and as a plea for that humanity and whatever greater power is out there to carry you all through.  That running a marathon was but a small, small trial compare to what you were facing, but somehow if I ran with all of you with me, maybe there was some immortality to their memory, somehow."
Reading these words after many years, I’m struck by how similarly the sentiment they try so inadequately to articulate to what I’m feeling now.  That I woke up this morning before the dawn desperately craving a run, unable to focus as I tried to use some yoga to find some internal balance.  That sense that nothing I do really matters with regards to bringing Jalal back or relieving what is a permanent grief, even if with time the sharpness fades.  My mom’s mom, my Babi, was the one who urged me to write about my travels, so that she could read about them when I got back.  She patiently read through the lists of animals that I wrote during a trip to the rainforest as a kid, and responded to the blog posts I wrote years later from China with thoughtful comments and questions.  It’s been three years since she passed away, but often it’s still her that I’m writing to.  In that sense, people never completely leave us, so long as we choose to keep them with us.  It keeps the pain alive too, but in a way that reminds us simultaneously of our loss, and of the fact that we are alive.
So today I thought about Jalal, and this idea of dedication.  And I’m still thinking of what specifically is the best way to remember him.  One characteristic of his that will stay with me is that everything I saw him do, was something he truly enjoyed.  He loved writing.  He loved football.  He loved music.  He loved good people.  I’m sure he wasn’t always happy or so calm and kind, but I am sure that he loved life and had faith that a better world was worth fighting for.  I think about this old adage of “On one’s death bed, no one ever says, ‘I wish I worked harder.’”  Jalal didn’t have a chance for composing last words, but I have to believe that his would have been something like, to borrow Rumi’s words, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”  Be in constant motion, fighting for the things that you believe in.  The better tomorrow.  A just world.  From this angle, it was easier to go to work today, to a job I love, at an organization I am proud to be part of.  Until I find the specific way to remember him, I'll try to remember him in moments of productive happiness.  The greatest joy is to take life seriously.
What else is there to say?  We know that life is fragile, that we have no insurance that this day is not our last, or perhaps worse, the last day we’ll see the ones we love.  And yet we have to, and get to, go on living.  In a rickshaw the other day, I saw graffiti on a cement wall proclaiming, “Happiness is a choice.”  And perhaps a responsibility.

1 comment:

Susie said...

Thank you so much for your touching thoughts about Jalal, my buddy from St. Lawrence University. You made me feel closer to him.