Dangerous Letters by Lamya Sadiq

Dangerous Lettes by Lamya Sadiq. Part of the department of Unruly histories by Meera Shakti Osborne.

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Audio Transcription:

Meera: Dangerous Letters is a conversation between Lamya Sadiq and myself, Meera Shakti Osborne. This work is part of the Department of Unruly Histories, which is a project I initiated in 2021.

This audio is not a complete story. In fact, it is just the beginning. We have a lot more material we want to share with you to continue telling this important history. However, we need more funding to be able to achieve this. 

What does the danger in the title refer to? Love. Separation. Fleeing.  Building. Holding on. Letting go. Hoping. These are all dangerous acts. They make us vulnerable and confront what matters to us. 

To act with love and in the belief that you will live abundantly is a dangerous thing.

*Male voices sounds*

Lamya: This sound piece is a collaboration between myself, Lamya Sadiq, and Meera Shakti Osborne.

*Distant car beeping*

Lamya: But basically it starts to get really mountainous there, and I think more north of that is Nepal. So it's like…

Meera: But then, but then to the, so then to the west of that is Ladakh and Kashmir. 

Lamya: Yeah. 

Meera: Which is also.. It's kind of mountains all around. 

Lamya: Wait, I got my geography wrong.

Meera: I'm getting confused. My, my west. I can see . I can, I can see. So basically I do this thing where I transpose London onto all maps. 

Lamya: Yeah. 

Meera: So if you think about India, um, is like here.

Lamya: Yeah. 

Meera: Bangladesh is here.  My house is in Holloway in northeast London. Which is like here. Which is the same place as Bangladesh. 

Lamya: Yeah. However, if you make Bangladesh your map of London, it’s northwest. Rangpur is northwest.

Meera: Okay. Within Bangladesh. 

Lamya: Yeah. Within Bangladesh, it's northwest.

Meera: So towards it's, it's inland, it's towards…

Lamya: Yes, exactly. It's inland.

βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️ βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️ βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️

Lamya: Dangerous letters aims to illuminate a period during which my grandparents were separated. My Nana fled Dhaka in 1971 in the midst of the liberation war or Muktijuddha while my Nani had to stay behind. It is concerned entirely with the minutiae of existence, the small negotiations, daily decisions of passing thoughts and feelings.

I find that I tell a lot of stories about my grandparents because for the last almost 10 years now, I've been living in the UK and I've met people who don't know them. I have some that are my favourite ones and I like to share those cause I think that is a really good window into what they're like, the kind of circumstances that they met in and also, that it's really funny, and I think there's something very kind of, typically, I find it very typically Bangladeshi that their encounter involved a lot of kind of like mixups and confusion and like, um, just hilarious moments and a lot of serendipitous things as well. ‘Cause I think like we're definitely believers in that. That things happen for a reason and things work out a certain way for a reason, and I really see it. There was no way that they weren't destined for each other. Ultimately, it's a really romantic story.

*Dida on phone call background: ‘Amar boiyer pathokh ache, shei pathok amake bechiye rekheche, pathoker jonno ami likhi, pathokh amake proshongsha kore!’*

Lamya: So my grandfather's name is Syed Shamsul Haq and he was born in 1935 on the 27th of December in a village in the north of Bangladesh in a district called Rangpur. And his village is called Kurigram. We still have some relatives that live there still. It's a very scenic, small place.

*Sounds of rain*

Lamya: My Nani is from the southwest of Bangladesh. In a region called Jessore, or pronounced Jashore. She's from a town, I would say, she always gets a bit offended when I described as a village. I think it's more of a, she says it's more of a town, but it's somewhere in between. It's a very, very, very small town, and it's called Churipotti and she was, also to say my Nana was one of about seven siblings... My Nani was one of ten. Her name by the way is, she has two names. Her name is Anwara Syed Haq, and her professional name is Anwara Begum. She was born in November 5th, 1940, and both of my grandparents were obviously born under British rule.

So yeah, they came from very different parts of the country. And where my grandmother came from was borders west Bengal. So there was a lot of Hindu…in Bangladesh in general, there's a lot of convergences between Hindu and Islamic celebrations. We celebrate Durga Puja. We use quite a lot of…it's particularly from where my grandmother's from, she uses a lot of words that would normally be used in West Bengali families. So for example, I call her Dida. And Dida is not actually a very typical way to call your grandma in Bangladesh. Most people will say, um, Nani, Dadi, but Dida is um, a bit more unusual, I guess, in Bangladesh. Um, and my grandfather, I call him Badsha Bhaiya. I essentially called him brother even though he is my grandfather. And I feel like that was just one of the ways he liked to stay really cool and young . So he would call, he, I mean, these were names that they, they asked me to call them.

Meera: Did he call you Didi? 

Lamya: So I would call him Badsha Bhaiya. He would call me Badsha Bhai as well. My Dida also calls me Dida. Basically my grandfather's parents gave all of their kids very regal names. So Badsha is kind of like a, like a, a king or an emperor. And then all of his siblings have similar names:Raja, Selim, Shahjahan. So I think his…

Meera: They weren’t playing.

Lamya: They weren't playing. His parents had really…were very ambitious.

So my Dida was, um, a very, very studious girl. She always did well in her studies and I think she was second to eldest in her family, but she had a lot of responsibility, so, I think from a very young age, she just had a lot of, she became accustomed to taking care of her siblings. The age difference between her eldest, between herself, and her youngest sibling is 20 years. They all shared a bed. I think there must have been something crazy like five to a bed, and she still complains about that today. She said It was so frustrating sleeping with my siblings when I was a child because some of them were so young that they would still pee in the bed. She always described herself as a dreamer and that she really loved to read, and back then books were really expensive. So there was an absence of like material to read simply because it was so expensive. But she did tell me one of the things that she would do, was that when she would, when they would go to the bazaar and get fruits and vegetables, they were wrapped in newspaper. So she would wait eagerly to get those. And then she would read the torn up bits of the paper. So often she would be like, sometimes there would be a story and it would just get cut off at the moment when something was being revealed. So she had all of these stories that she never knew what happened next or even, how it started. And I think this must have really trained her own literary mind because Dida is also a fantastic writer. And, um, for all the stories that she was never able to complete, she probably invented and imagined it on her own. 

Meera: Did she go to school? Like could, did she learn to read and write and things?

Lamya: Yes. She went to school. She would get told off by her teachers a lot, she said, because she would always be looking out the window. . . And, but, but she always did very well. She, she, um, I think was very gifted and could retain a lot of information, and she is still like that today. Her father sent her to Dhaka to study medicine. So she got into study at Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, which at the time was very prestigious.

Meera: Mm-hmm, um, would there have been like other women there at the time? 

Lamya: So the hostels were segregated by gender, so the hostel that my Nani stayed in was with a group of other, um, women who subsequently became her lifelong friends. So there was my Nani, Anwara, there was Kohinoor, Hajera, and Hasina. So they all, they all studied different branches of medicine. So my Nani went on to become a psychiatrist. I think Kohinoor was a gynaecologist. Hajera was a doctor specialising in diabetes. And then, I don't remember what Hasina was, but she told me a story when they were studying. And I think they were doing like trying to diagnose a patient and maybe the task was to identify what, cause, what was the cause of the patient's issue.

So she'd be like, we were all, you know, surrounded at surrounding this one patient's case. And Kohinoor would be like, well I think, I think that her hormone levels are low. I think she might, we should check if she's pregnant.. And then Hajera would say that I think her sugar levels are really low…I think she might have diabetes, and my Nani would obviously be like, I think she's suffering from some kind of anguish. I think she needs to be put on antidepressants.

*Meera and Lamya laughing *πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚*

Lamya: So at this time, my Nani in the, I want to say, the early sixties - she's at Dhaka Medical College studying. So the way she tells it to me is that one day she found out, or it was advertised somewhere on the campus, that this writer that she had taken a particular liking to was giving a reading, a public reading. So at that point, she'd been reading his work for a while. So she was really curious to like see him live and also what he would, what he looks like, what he's about, and went to the event. Unfortunately, he wasn't, he wasn't there. It was announced at the event that, oh, so Syed Shamsul Haq couldn't make it due to like unforeseen circumstances. Later on, the reason that he was not present at this kind of ties into a later part of their story as well. So I think something must have, there must have been something in her that made her feel like she wanted to reach out to him. And I think it was really just as simple as she was moved by his writing, and I think it was still a time where you could reach out to your favourite writer, singer, actor. You could just send them mail in the post, and there was actually a chance that you could have some kind of correspondence with them. So she found out his address through the magazine that he was writing for. And she sent what we could essentially describe as a fan mail to him. She's like, I didn't even know how old he was. I didn't even know. I didn't know anything except his name. And I heard, you know, people would talk about him a lot, talk about his writing, and then I think it was three months later also, the system that they had for the post at the hostel was a complete mess. You basically had to, it would all get dumped and you had to sift through it. Nobody was personally delivering it to your door. So if you forgot to check the room with the post that day, you could miss it. Also, people were accidentally taking each other's mail all the time. So she said by chance, one day, several months after she'd written this letter, she was told by somebody at her college, probably like another student that, oh, he had accidentally taken one of her letters and when she saw it, when he gave it to her, it was, she was like, it was just so bizarre. It was very striking. It was written on like this yellow card, this really high quality paper, and written in this like black ink and it was all very suspicious and mysterious and she just couldn't think of who would send her a mail like this.

*Sounds of distant chatter*

Lamya: When she opened it, it was from him, and I think the first line of the letter was that “I don't think he received my last letter to you.” So he had responded to her initial letter, but it had just got lost, never to be found again. And he then sent a follow up letter and at that point began an ongoing correspondence between them, just letter writing to each other. And I don't know exactly how long it went on for.

Meera: Was it like, was there like a romantic edge to it? 

Lamya: I don't think there was, I think it was just more like intellectual, I think it is romantic to share thoughts and ideas and that can be with anyone. You know, they were, they were sharing ideas, they were talking about the state of affairs of the world and like what they thought about it. So they continued on writing letters to each other, and I think it was my grandfather that wrote in a letter to her saying that I think we should meet. So it's very much like dating, like online dating is now.

Meera: Were people doing that in Dhaka in the fifties? Sixties?

Lamya: I don't really know that they were.

Meera: But people were like dating because like in my family, like that narrative doesn't exist. And I think for a lot of like Desi families, that narrative isn't like a common one. 

Lamya: Yeah. 

Meera: You know, like the common, the way that my grandparents got together was through an arrangement. 

Lamya: My Nani didn't come from a wealthy background, but because she, like so many things, her education gave her a certain amount of freedom that was closed off to other women at the time. And because she was studying medicine, even though she was in her early twenties, her parents didn't have an expectation for her to marry until she finished her studies because they felt that that was more important. So already it's a bit of a different situation if you're leaving, ‘cause a medical degree. I imagine like five, six years, that's five, six years that she didn't have to have suitors being brought to her. She didn't have to think about marriage, she just had to focus on her studies and I think…

Meera: Yeah. That sounds must have been very, like a beautiful time for her in lots of ways.

Lamya: Yeah. I take for granted that my grandmother's situation was so different from other women. So she said that she showed up to the Chinese restaurant. She had given her girlfriends at the hostel, debriefed them and told them that if I'm not back by a certain time, you need to come look for me here, because this is a proper blind date. You know, he could have been writing as Syed Shamsul Haq and actually he was just, you know, catfishing probably existed then too. He waited outside the restaurant. She couldn't just walk into a restaurant on her own. She had to be escorted in by a man, and that was like custom politeness sort of, or etiquette. So she was standing outside the restaurant waiting for him to come. And while she was standing there, a woman sweeping the road was doing the rounds up and down the road, and she said she'd done it a couple of times. The woman was like, whoever you're waiting for is not coming. She's like, “go home.” She said that she felt disappointed, but more than anything she felt confused. So she made a move to leave and then at the last moment was like, maybe I should just check inside the restaurant. She was walking upstairs into the restaurant and just at that moment, my Nana was coming down the stairs thinking the same thing. So he's on his way out to go. They basically meet each other on the staircase going in opposite directions. She said that when they made eye contact and when they kind of like bumped into each other on the stairs, they kind of knew who the other was. I think it just fit together. Um, that this was like a woman on her own and a gentleman on his own, and that they were probably the ones that each other was waiting for. And my Nani said that when I first saw him, I was like, “He is so unattractive.”

*Meera and Lamya laughing *πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚*

Lamya: She was like, he was so skinny. He looked malnourished. He had really like dark bags under his eyes. He was dressed well enough, but that he didn't look great. But on the other hand, my Nani is very conventionally gorgeous. She's like fair skin, like milk, very kind of like hourglass figure. She has one of those moles on her upper lip, um, and like jet black hair. She's absolutely stunning and I think he just felt a bit caught off guard that she was so stunning. Um, and then proceeded from that point onward to really overcompensate for it. They proceeded to talk, or how my Nani describes it: he proceeded to talk. So she said that he was just talking nonstop and she was like, he was so full of himself and he was talking about all of these things that he's done, all of these places that he's been to. And she was like, even his manner was very westernised. He was speaking in like some words he would say in English and she to this day is very what is called Khati Bangali, which is just like through and through. He is very, very not posh in every way. Unfiltered, speaks really loudly. It's just like quite different from him. I wanna say like, not as elegant, but in the best way. He proceeded to talk about himself lots, making sure that she knew how famous he was.

Meera: Do you think he was nervous?

Lamya: I think he was nervous. Um, she was just really put off. And I think Meera, if it was you or I, we'd also be really put off by that. We'd be like, who does this man think he is? And then she said she was relieved when the date came to an end.

*Chader Sathe Ami Debona (feat. Runa Laila) · Andrew Kishore · Runa Laila · Alam Khan · Syed Samsul Haque, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of Ashirbad*

Lamya: For all of his kind of ability and intellect, he fell short at how to like, woo this lady. But what he did do was he sent a box of Mishti to her, and a big one. When she tells me the story, she definitely kind of omits what was going on in her mind. She tells me this story very much like action-based, but I think the parts, you know, like why, what made you change your mind? Why did you think that you would give him another chance? She doesn't really tell me those things, cuz ultimately I think they're just really personal.

Meera: None of your business? 

Lamya: Yeah, they're none of my business. Even though as her grandchild, I feel like it's all my business. But yeah, I, I think that now I see it as maybe intentional that that's just like something private. Um, between her and herself, maybe not necessarily something even my Nana knew, but like what prompted her to do that? My Nana probably felt like he needed another chance, desperately.

Meera: He probably knew he messed up.

Lamya: Yeah, I think so. I think he, I think he knew. So I think they started hanging out a little bit more. Of course, you couldn't go to each other's homes or anything crazy like that. You would meet outside, and what my grandparents did was they would go on rickshaw rides together, and it would just be like an opportunity for them to sit close to each other in a way that was like respectable still. So they were doing a lot of that and I think at that point they were pretty much like, yeah, we're, we're dating now we're a couple. She told me that he had a really bad cough. 

Meera: Was it TB? 

Lamya: Yeah so she managed to pull some strings with people at her medical college to get him a scan. By which point they found out that he had really, really bad TB and essentially like life-threatening TB. So very early on, and this would be another, this would become very common throughout their time together, is that she.. 

Meera: She saved his life. 

Lamya: She saved his life. That was the first time..

Meera: The first of many..

Lamya: The first of many times she saved his life, so he proposed to her. And now it was the time for him to meet her family in Jessore. So they go together, they take the train down to Jessore. They've heard through letters that my Nani has found someone that she wants to marry. Everyone is very excited to meet him. My Nana was very anxious about this meeting, so, he had a friend of his that he knew that lived in Jessore and he asked him to come along for support and a detail that I haven't mentioned, but it is quite fundamental to the story, is that my Nana is very dark-skinned. I get my skin colour from him, and my Nani is extremely, extremely fair. And his friend, as it happens, was a very fair-skinned, very plump, healthy looking guy. So he comes with the two of them to my Nani’s parents' place and there is my Nani’s family, her siblings, her parents all ready to like welcome this man. And they had a wreath of flowers ready to put on him as you do. And when they arrived they put it on his friend. They just assumed that that was, that was him. And so like an awkward moment ensued where she had to basically say that, no, it's not, that's not him.

*Meera and Lamya laughing *πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚*

Lamya: And by all accounts, they were a little bit disappointed, but they had known that he's, he was a very successful writer and that he’s been involved in big things, so I guess that helped his case.

*Sounds of rain *

Lamya: I do not want to overstate the resilience and trauma. This we can take for granted. Rather, I consider how the miracle of their survival required a refusal of the terms of visibility imposed upon them to be something other than asylum seeking, stateless, undocumented persons, hero, or heroines.

*Call for prayer sounds *

Lamya: So I thought maybe we start with the first letter, which details my Nana's journey from Dhaka to London. I suppose there's also room to talk about how different the letter writing format is from a lot of the ways we communicate now that one of the things that I find so like that I found so wonderful about it is how much of it is filled with the mundane in a way that is omitted in any kind of written ways we communicate today. We still talk about the mundane in conversation. Maybe, maybe like, you know, where we wrote letters, we send voice notes, or you know, we talk on the phone, we talk in person. It's not that we don't do it. But I guess the written form feels so like exclusive and formal, and that if you were to write something like in a birthday card, or if you were to write like anything really, it would just have to be special in some way or it have to be loaded with just like mic drop moments or something really well thought out and poetic. And despite my Nana being a poet, I would say this is really not that at all, which is really striking to me, is that I've know him in the public eye and even in privately as well to use very beautiful Bengali. Whilst I can sense his tone in the letter and his pace for sure, he's just using everyday language and I feel like all of the people from home and maybe even elsewhere that have engaged with his work in some way can feel reassured by that. That actually his ways of talking about his day-to-day life were exactly like anyone else's, I think. I don't know. 

Meera: When I think of the mundane, I think of familiarity.

Lamya: Yeah. 

Meera: And maybe there was like a desire there to talk about things in a way that make him feel closer to your Nani. 

Lamya: Yeah. And that if anything, I mean reading it myself, I could imagine cuz it really is a step by step account of the entire journey. And I was almost waiting for there to be something. And I think, I think this is, this is also something to mention is that me as the, I guess, reader of this archive. I bring my own desire into it as well, so I'm reading it and I'm like waiting for the moment when I would see, um, I would be able to read between something and get a sense of, oh yeah, this was my Nana's first encounter with racism or something like that. And actually it was surprisingly uneventful , aside from the length of the journey, it was incredibly uneventful. like you said the things that are just familiar and everyday as also kind of an essential part of the story, and also that not every single moment, despite the fact that I know from stories that I've been told by family members that his time nor my Nani’s time was very easy here, in the same way that most South Asian people's lives weren't easy at that time. That it wasn't that in every moment.

*Traffic horns and birds chirping in Dhaka*

Lamya: So I can start with the date of this letter. So this is the first one. It was sent on the 29th of September, 1971. And it was sent from an address in Scotland. The address is, oh, it just says Carluke, Scotland, and my Nana mentions in the letter that he went up to visit some friends of theirs that were living there. And it is, it's just so nice to come here and immediately like, look for friends, look for community, maybe see people. ‘Cause I, I find that that's so the case that if you're a new immigrant, you will find the most random relation as like a base, something to hold onto. A place to begin. So something, something that is just that all of the letters start with that are written to my Nani - it starts off with Priyo Manju. Manju is my Nani’s nickname I guess. And Priyo is essentially the easiest translation would be Dear, but Bengali is such a romantic language that it is more akin to My Treasured than Dear, but it is the equivalent of Dear, if you know what I mean. The letter starts off with my Nana letting her know that he finally arrived to London, and something really interesting that he says is that, and I'll read it in Bangla:

Shei dom atkano poribesh theke mukto peyechi. Dhaka’r basha theke beriye, gari te jokhon utlam ar gari start holo na, tokhon tomader mon khubi kharap hoiye giyechilo. Prothomei badha - tobou firini. 

What he says here in the first line, that he is describing that as he was leaving the house where my Nani was, where my mom and my uncle were, that he was being liberated. I thought it would be the opposite of that, where.. 

Meera: Your heart is ripped in two... 

Lamya: Yeah. Like I can't bear to be, I can't bear to leave all of you. It was the hardest thing I had to do. And then afterwards he describes how when he got into the car that it didn't start and that that was kind of a feeling that, am I ever going to be able to leave? Like, here's the first obstacle, and then followed it with a description of how even that setback, I guess a symbolic setback didn't, diminish his determination to not look back.

And so already at this point, we're getting a, it's almost like the beginning of a short story. Like, you know, what's happening? Why is he leaving? Why is there this, why is it loaded with images of being liberated of not looking back. And he does mention in it that he remembers seeing their faces as he was leaving and that they were incredibly sad, but that he had to kind of, like I said, not look back.

I mean, factually, I can describe why that might have been, because at the time, the reason that my Nana left Bangladesh, or at the time East Pakistan was because my family and many others that were close to him feared for his life because during that time, in early 1971 and for actually quite a few years before that, um, but most, most kind of significantly in the last. In the last year or so, there was just a lot of intellectuals, artists, anyone, anybody really that was notable. And I guess pro-independence was subject to surveillance and identification by the Pakistani military and I think there were quite a few people that my grandparents knew who had been murdered and people had been murdered, professors had been murdered at the universities, you know, alongside students. So it certainly wasn't just people who were, had some kind of celebrity or had some kind of recognition. There were also just people pro liberation as caught in the crossfire and especially those that occupied, you know, spaces that were , creative spaces as well. It's, it's, it's interesting actually, and maybe Meera you could say something about this, is that why is it that the arts is such a threat that one of the first things to like diminish a liberation movement is to attack the creative people?

Meera: Even right now in the UK you see that happening. In a different way. But in schools, the cuts to certain subjects, the cuts to things like philosophy used to be a subject you could study in quite a lot of state schools. Now you can't, and I guess the thing that the arts teaches in like an umbrella way is to like question things, right?

Lamya: Mm-hmm.

Meera: As like an artist, you're taught to notice and to question, to record, to observe, to analyse. To share that. And that is a threat, isn't it? 

Lamya: Yeah, I mean, incredibly so that would cause not only the disruption, but the end of so many lives... 

*Sound of distant chatter*

Lamya: One of the main parallels I can draw between the genocide that was taking place in 1971 in East Pakistan and the Holocaust is this deliberate attempt to exterminate creative people. It's almost too intended to create this vacuum and subsequent brain drain where you are cutting off a community's ability to culturally and intellectually reproduce itself. Which was so intrinsic to the, to the fabric of an identity, a shared ethnic identity. I feel like the loss from that time from 71 has never really been recovered. And I think today in Bangladesh, people still mourn in that loss that they can never fully know from all of the not only the lives that were cut short, but all of the ways of thinking, creating, all of the experimentation, all of the knowledge that might have been produced, could have been produced. And I feel like it, it almost explains some of the, I would almost, I would say, an overcompensation to, to reach for this like, Bangladeshi national identity that makes sense. Because, the point of creation is this huge gap. The people who are so invaluable to that process of social formation, I mean, beyond the nation, were taken from us.

*Woman speaking Bengali in the distance*

Lamya: And interestingly, in the same, in the same exact letter, whilst it starts off with what I just described at another point, he laments just having left everything behind that he had left behind, essentially his life. 

Meera: It's nice that he creates space for both those, those feelings. 

Lamya: Yeah, and, and it makes me think that the letter form is so incredibly beautiful is that, that it does allow for kind of off the cuff emotions. Maybe for us, you know, not being used to that as much anymore. Like we kind of consciously think of drafting things and then writing it out properly. 

Meera: Because these are written by hand in pen on paper.

Lamya: Yep.

Meera: And there's not. Any mistakes?

Lamya: Nope. No,  no crossing out, nothing like that.

Meera: Wow. 

Lamya: And I remember when my Dida showed this to me, when this publication was made, and she showed me these letters. That's the first thing she said is, look, there isn't any, there's no omissions, there's no like line cut through or anything. It was just like kind of flow of feelings. So whilst the form looks kind of rigid, it's actually just so raw, which is something I didn't expect either.

*Chatter as though in a market*

Meera: So the car wouldn't start, and that was the beginning of the journey. Can you, can you tell, can you describe the rest of the journey?

Lamya: Yes, I can. So the journey subsequently, and, and this is what I mean, it's a play by play, continues on to the airport. And at the airport he describes, hang on a second, if I can find the line. 

Meera: Take your time.

Lamya: Dhaka airport’e eshe ek hungama holo!

Hungama is actually a Hindi word, but I think it just means like, just like a big, uh, big drama. And the big drama was just that the woman that was in front of him, her suitcase was really overweight. And that he was just having to sort of wait for that situation to, um, be sorted so that he could check in, and I was like, okay. Oh my God, is he gonna, is he gonna offer to help her? Or something like that. Then he just, then in the following line, he says,

Ei dike amar jinishpotro’r ojon ekkebare katai katai thikh!

And then so basically gives himself a compliment about how his, the weight of his suitcase was on the mark. Katai katai thikh is like it is literally on the line. And I was like, oh, great. Okay. So that means he is going to offer to put some of her stuff in his suitcase. Oh, he's such a great man. I knew he was like that. He seems to just tell her, he says:

Tokhon meyeti ke bollam - ‘tumi tomar bari te phone koro’ ami challam

He just, the way ends so anticlimactically. He requests the woman to call her family and ask them to help her.

Meera: If I was that lady, I would've been so annoyed.

*Meera and Lamya laughing *πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚*

Lamya: And I should just add for the listeners that my Bengali reading is not very fast. So when I read one line, I'm in suspense about what's happening after. Cause it takes me like at least twenty seconds to get going again. So here is me thinking that, oh, he's gonna be so heroic, or even earlier than that, he described it as a big drama. And I'm sorry, maybe it's because I'm a 21st century woman living in London that is not drama. That literally didn't affect him at all.

The bulk of this letter is repetitive in the sense that it describes every single leg of the journey from Dhaka to London. I would like to remind everyone that this is 1971, so here we go. So the route began from Dhaka to Karachi. . Then there was a layover in Karachi where he ran into somebody that he knew called Choudhury Shaheb and he ate at the airport with him and he mentions something about the meal costing 10 taka, but that he didn't have any Pakistani money on him, which is interesting ‘cause I didn't think that at that point there were a unified country that they would have different currency. So the man that he was with, Choudhury Shaheb paid for him or he, as he describes it, the ‘dhar diyeche’  which is lent him the money. But I think that is just like a nice way to say that he paid for him. But interestingly I think.. Now this is, this is just speculation on facts that I don't have, but if there was a different or different note circulating in East Pakistan than there was in West Pakistan. Maybe handing over Bengali money and Karachi was not something that he felt okay doing.

Meera: Yeah. Maybe it was the same currency. It just makes sense. Right? 

Lamya: Like Scottish and English money, same currency, but they look different or they have different people on it. 

Meera: You wouldn't wanna identify yourself as from East Pakistan and when you are trying to leave, I imagine. 

Lamya: Exactly. That's a thought. And it could be because whilst I don't think my Nana or my Nani would have allowed my Nana to go away with empty pockets. I feel like he would've had, would've had enough money to pay for it himself.

Meera: I remember you saying to me ages ago when you first started telling me about these letters. That they, things weren't always, as they seemed. That they were, your Nana would obviously have been aware that these letters would've been like read. Probably by other people on the way to your Nani.

Lamya: As I attempt to weave a narrative from these letters, I know the speculations I offer are always a partial utterance and accountable to the ethics of narrating a life I cannot ever fully know, even if they are my family, my intervention is to break open what is already there in these letters. It is to yield an image capable of articulating another kind of existence and confront the constant homogenising of people who migrate to Britain, whether by need or choice.

*Rain Sounds*

Lamya: So from Karachi, short layover, and then the plane flies to Tehran and I think for quite a few legs of this journey, it's on the same aeroplane. So the way it worked was that the aeroplane would land, refuel, restock, and then be off on its way. So from Tehran the next stop was in Athens. So at this point he, my Nana is just entering into Europe for the first time, and immediately he makes a comment about the service of the aeroplane. And I found this really entertaining because, I mean, travel then was quite like a luxurious, it was an experience and now travel is an experience for all the wrong reasons if you can't afford to travel in style. When he is in Athens on his way to Rome, I should add, he makes a comment about the quality of the flight and the service and the food. It says

Antarjatik ei biman gulo service shotti bhalo. Prottekta jatrir dekhi ora ottonto kheiyal rakhe. Shorbokkhon shudu khete dei.  

Now that's a good, that's a good, that's a good line.

Shorbokkhon shudu khete dei. So he's saying that, so you're constantly being fed on this flight, which I can't imagine at all. In the absence of having anything to do on that flight, they would just feed you constantly.

Yes. Yeah. So after Athens. Um, the next stop was Rome, and I think in Rome. He had to spend about four hours in the terminal during which time he seems to, he says he wandered around shops. I mean, I just don't know at this point how many hours have gone by. So, so far we've crossed Karachi, Tehran, Athens, Rome...and now he's on a layover that that means he has to kill four hours. And once that's happened, he's on, if you thought it ended there, the plane to Zurich and after Zurich, the next was Frankfurt. Then after Frankfurt, Copenhagen, then after Copenhagen finally arriving in London. And anyone that either knows or has lived in London would know that the journey doesn't end there either.

He describes going on a bus and going on a train and then taking a car from the train station to go to the person that picks him up from the airport is just named as Zia, and I think that this Zia must be the Zia, who is my Nana's brother-in-law, much younger than him, but I know that he and his wife, who is my Nana's sister lived in London in the seventies and what the first comment he makes about him is that he says: 

Okhan theke chara peye nijer suitcase niye egotte dekhi bahire kacher opor theke Zia hath narache. Meyeder moto lomba chul or akhon. Prothome chintei pari ni. 

So he makes a comment about when my Nana sees Zia that he had very long hair and that he couldn't recognize him, and that, I mean, it says here that he was like Zia has kept his hair like a woman, I could hardly recognize him. And for, by all accounts, my Zia Nana, as I would've called him, led a very bohemian lifestyle in London. So I like the idea that the first encounter he has with somebody from London is like, very cool, very trendy, very seventies. 

Meera: Is he still alive?

Lamya: He passed away. Unfortunately, he passed away last year from Covid. 

Meera: Oh, I'm sorry. 

Lamya: But he and his wife was my, um, Nana's sister. They had a really, really great life here. They lived in Balham and they, she, she worked at HMV. And I forget where he worked, but I think he was studying law school when he was here. 


This is a good moment to describe how my Nani is such a pivotal part of the story is that essentially me and anyone, anyone else that I'm sharing these letters with, and it's with me reading what is an incredibly traumatic life-changing moment like reading through that and seeing that in the mundane descriptions that maybe there was a suggestion or a hint or a glimmer of something else.

And I think at that point we really take, we almost take the position of my Nani in the sense that he would be the best to decipher that code. So whilst to us and to me, reading this, I'm working much harder to find those suggestions. Mainly because the letters weren't written to me, but also because I wasn't around at that time to be able to be sensitive to what would've been difficult, what would've been uncomfortable, and so on. I think once we speculate, I suppose, the way that we arrive at these readings of what was happening below the surface is when we start reading it through my Nani, speculating through her as like the person who is able to assemble the clues into a more clearer picture of what was really happening.

βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️ βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️ βœ‰οΈ πŸ–Š πŸ“‘ 🌹 πŸš— ✈️

Lamya: The inevitable inclusions and omissions of my speculations speak to the ongoing and provisional character of writing and speaking about history. These ambivalences, will I hope, be an invitation to play with history, both in the telling and the making of it.

*Sounds of coconut being cut by Boti Knife*

Meera: My name is Meera Shakti Osborne. I'm the editor and curator of this work. I am responsible for the shape this piece has taken. Part of the process of creating this work has been exploring ways to tell stories, make an archive that feels generative and inclusive. Everything you have heard is what the participant and myself have chosen to share with you.

We welcome feedback and encourage you to visit www.duh.world to see the rest of the archive and to get in touch with us. This work has been funded by Arts Council England Project Grant. Thanks for listening.

Transcription by Sarah Maher

Audio Mixing and Mastering by Alex Sushon