Authors: Zia Haider Rahman
He’s bright enough but not in your league, she said.
Perhaps this was the kindest remark anyone could make, anticipating as I now believe it did the anxiety I would feel on meeting these magnificent people, the sort of thing that should be said even if you don’t believe it to be true. In those days, I knew nothing of what I’ve come to know of the upper classes, who seemed to my mind then either fat people in dusty wigs, half recumbent or mounted upon some unfortunate horse, in paintings with gilded frames, or thin people who stalked the globe, gathered loot, and discovered the sources of rivers already long known to unimportant people. With such ideas in my mind, it was easy to dismiss them. But the middle classes—that is to say the intelligentsia, the writers, academics, doctors, and lawyers, and all those whose labor is framed by the transmission of words, written or spoken, but only after years of study—to me these people were forbidding in the particular power they held. They seemed to have a natural, ordained intimacy with what I loved, the world where I was safe, the world of imagination, books, and ideas. When I looked closely at people in the public library, none of them conformed to my idea of the intellectual elite, who never came to the library but had, I believed, shelves and shelves of books at home.
At seven o’clock on the morning of my interview, I took an hour-long bus journey from Willesden Green to High Street Kensington. At the appointed place, I was picked up by Mrs. Fraenkel’s friend. Inside the car, in the driving seat, was a middle-aged woman who spoke to me in a rich French accent. I smelled perfume. Her short hair followed the line of her white neck, a string of pearls straddled the collar of her blouse, and the slender fingers of one hand held the steering wheel while those of the other rested on her thigh, the tips of the fingers just below the line of her skirt. I cannot remember her name. In the front passenger seat sat her boy, Laurent, I was told. As I settled in, Laurent crooked his head toward me, flashed me a confident and utterly disarming smile, and resumed his conversation with his mother. The car seemed to move without any sound, like mercury over steel, but what I remember most vividly is that I was able to cross my legs.
I did not have much to say to these people, and they seemed busy discussing arrangements for coaching Laurent. I was informed that he was “a fencer,” not merely that he liked fencing. As we broke free of the suburbs of London, I lost myself in the book I had brought with me, volume one of
Mechanisms in Modern Engineering Design
by Ivan Artobolevsky, translated from Russian into English in 1975. Some years before I had come across the single volume in a poky secondhand bookshop in Marylebone for the price of two bottles of milk. It was an utter delight, a compendium of designs of lever mechanisms with page after page of beautiful diagrams. The elderly bookseller, who in my imagination was the same Ezra Cohen whose name was etched into the storefront, explained to me that the book had been distributed by the Soviet Union throughout the third world, at knockdown prices as part of their propaganda efforts. When I expressed surprise at how well informed he was, Mr. Cohen shrugged his shoulders. I’m an old socialist and I like books, he said.
An old socialist who called the Russian effort propaganda, including this, a collection of mechanical-engineering diagrams for building bridges and machines to raise water and irrigate land. I did not stay and talk to Mr. Cohen, for already I was dreading returning home with, instead of milk, a book written originally in Russian and in symbols and diagrams. I have since imagined a conversation in which I stand silently and listen to Mr. Cohen, with all his books around him, talking to me, not about the building of bridges, not about breaking the chains that bind the poor, but instead explaining to me what I have since come to understand, that the idea is the thing and that words can do only so much.
After the interview, I decided to give myself some time before rejoining Laurent and his mother, and so I took a walk through Oxford, around the Radcliffe Camera (twice), under the Bridge of Sighs, down to Magdalen Deer Park. Everything was as I had seen it in the books at the public library near my home in London, yet now a future at Oxford was more than an idle dream. But there was something new and unexpected.
As I walked through the streets, one thought returned to me over and over. One thought kept surprising me, springing at me from behind walls and at corners, like some trickster; one thought followed me around the city as I walked through its cobbled streets and along its sandstone walls: I would never again be destitute.
It was early December, and by midafternoon the light was retreating. I made my way back to the Eastgate Hotel, where Laurent’s mother had ensconced herself for the day. When I arrived, she and Laurent were taking tea by the fireside in the hotel drawing room.
How did it go? she asked me, as Laurent bit into a scone.
They’ve given me a place, I said.
What do you mean? asked Laurent, through a mouthful of scone. His mother looked at him sharply.
I think the college offered me a place, I said.
No, said Laurent, they don’t tell you until later by post. First you take the entrance exam, which you did last month, right?
Right, I replied.
Then they interview you and after that they let you know by letter.
One of the fellows—are they called fellows?
One of the fellows said they looked forward to seeing me next autumn.
What exactly did he say? asked Laurent.
Well, she said—she was a woman—that they were pleased to inform me that I had a place to read mathematics at the college and they hoped I would accept, and they looked forward to seeing me next autumn.
There was then an odd silence as the information seemed to take root. I am not so naïve now, nor perhaps was I so naïve then, as to remain blind to their incredulity, though at that moment I, too, felt my own disbelief, as I heard myself.
You must feel overjoyed, said Laurent’s mother.
I’m happy, I said, but mainly I feel hungry.
I wasn’t sure I had enough loose change to buy anything to eat in this expensive hotel.
When I arrived back in London in the early evening, my father opened the door. It was a Tuesday, which was my father’s one day of rest from waiting tables. As a child I walked home on Tuesdays with the thought that my father would be there and that I would probably do something to make him angry. Years into adulthood, I have felt a recurrent anxiety on Tuesdays, which did not ease until these last few years, when I slipped from the cycles of the working world so that one day ran into the next, the weekends ceased to frame the week, and each day became nameless over time.
At the door, my father said nothing about the interview. I thought then that perhaps he had simply forgotten about it, or that he had not grasped how much turned on that interview. In the kitchen, my mother was chopping coriander leaves while the lid on the rice pan rattled, letting off bursts of steam. She asked me how the interview had gone, to which I replied that the college had offered me a place to study there. She smiled, and in a turn of phrase that I have never forgotten, and whose translation into English I think preserves the sense very well, she said: Good. This will vindicate me in the eyes of the extended family. I sensed that behind this remark lay some vast story and one I already suspected my mind was not equipped to hear without cost. My father simply said: That’s very good. Have you eaten?
It struck me then that my father might not have forgotten about the interview and that he might indeed have grasped its significance, and that perhaps this was why, at the front door, he could not bring himself to ask me about it.
* * *
I don’t know if it was merely the fact of listening to Zafar again after all those years, but I have to confess that his voice and his language sounded beautiful to me. Reading his notebooks and reviewing the recordings have been a pleasure, even lulling me here and there into a state of hypnotic calm, notwithstanding the knowledge of what came to pass and that everything was circling toward violence. In writing this account, I can’t deny that my own language, on the page, beats in places to the rhythm of his, rather like—I don’t mind admitting—the movement synchrony and posture mirroring of couples. Zafar spoke in balanced sentences, apparently crafted, on occasion perhaps sounding rehearsed, though this should not be regarded as a criticism, bearing in mind that he had probably spent most of his life considering the matters he was now setting out.
At times the composition of his speech evidenced a South Asian sensibility, as if he had learned English grammar from Victorian textbooks. There was no reason to expect his command of English to be anything other than fluent. But I always believed that I could detect an occasional unruly inflection of accent and, moreover, I perceived in some aspect of his composition—its occasional verging on the stilted, perhaps—that English was his second language, though I daresay he’d long outgrown use of his childhood language, Sylheti, a language related to Assamese and Bengali yet with its own script, he told me.
I remember asking him in college if Sylheti was another language altogether or merely a dialect of Bengali. Max Weinreich, the linguist of Yiddish, writing about the difference, replied Zafar, said that a language was a dialect with an army and a navy. Zafar is not quite right: I have discovered that Weinreich himself actually attributes the remark to a student of his. What I have been unable to trace, however, is the origin of something my friend said to me later, at the very end of the same conversation, when we parted. An exile, said Zafar, is a refugee with a library.
My search of the Internet and books of quotations yielded no source for this. I like to think that this was Zafar’s own observation, not so much because it offers a penetrating insight—like many quotations, it teases but does not satisfy, yet it is enough—but because the words seem so appropriate as applied to him. Zafar was an exile, a refugee, if not from war, then of war, but also an exile from blood. He was driven, I think, to find a home in the world of books, a world peopled with ideas, whose companionship is offered free and clear, and with the promise that questions would never long be without answers or better questions.
* * *
This was not the first occasion, I said to Zafar. You said that this was not the first occasion you saw your parents as individuals, individuals with their own hopes for themselves.
Indeed it was not, said Zafar.
I poured him more coffee. He took a sip, set down the mug, and continued his story.
The first occasion, he said, was some years earlier, before I was sent back to Bangladesh. On Saturdays, my father would go to work at one o’clock in the afternoon, not as he usually did at nine o’clock. The Governor, which is how my father always referred to the proprietor, recognized the extra demands placed on staff on Saturdays. The restaurant, in the heart of London’s West End, remained open until much later on Saturday, into the small hours of Sunday, in fact, in order to serve nightclubbers and pubgoers staggering in for a curry.
On Saturday mornings, continued Zafar, my father and I marked a routine of visiting the library. On the way, he would buy the
, which he would read in the children’s library while I leafed through the books. Many librarians in those days refused to stock some papers because the Page 3 girls fell foul of library dress codes, so to speak.
I’d take out my little notebook and research the things I had noted in it during the week. I’d look up the unfamiliar words I’d come across that had defied my palm-sized, well-worn Collins dictionary, and I’d browse the shelves and pick out another set of books to take home. Sometimes my inquiries would send the librarians retrieving books from the adults’ section, a large and separate room on the other side of the entrance foyer. My father would sit and read silently while all this happened around him. I have happy memories of these hours. But things changed on a day that was to be the last on which we walked together to the library.
At the desk in the foyer, I handed back the books I had finished reading over the preceding week. The librarian always mispronounced my name, saying Zay-far rather than Zaff-far. I did not correct her mispronunciation on the first occasion because I was so grateful that she had remembered my name at all. After that, of course, it became impossible to call attention to the error.
She said, Hello, Zay-far, and I acknowledged her, but then as I turned toward the children’s library there came a new thought, as if unannounced. I was nine years old then.
I thought that I ought to go into the adults’ library, not the children’s. Even though the prohibition against under-sixteens seemed to be strictly enforced in that library—maybe in all public libraries in those days—something told me that the staff would not stop me. Don’t get me wrong. I have come across anti-intellectuals in the most unlikely quarters, people who unpredictably bay at the whiff of aspiration, some because they can’t stand an uppity nigger, as it were, and some because love of learning visibly pains them. And in Britain in those days, of course, knowing your station was demanded not just by the superior classes but by every class. Yet I was sure this librarian would not stop me. I think my father had already sensed that something was afoot. Certainly, he did not meet my eyes. Later, whenever I thought about why I was sent back to Bangladesh, I would recall this moment, even if I could not find a direct connection.
I think I’ll go to the other library today, I said. There’s something I need to look up.
Everything happened slowly. My father did not lift his eyes from the floor.
Well, come and get me when you’re done, he said.
He turned and I watched him enter the children’s library with the two newspapers rolled up, wedged under the arm, his head down. I saw a man who might have thought his life insufficient, amounting to little more than a handful of routines marking his time on earth. If there was drama in the lonely heroism of a workingman, he did not know it. I have thought my father believed he had no entitlement to his anger at life’s inequities, since his life was the envy of many of those he had left behind in Bengal. I see now that he also carried enormous guilt for having survived the atrocities of the 1971 war. But that Saturday morning, as he walked into the children’s library, what I believe I felt was his heart breaking. Watching a door close that can never be opened again is, I am sure, enough to break a heart.