The father-son duo in Dorchester in 2004 paying a visit to Thomas Hardy’s house
It has been just over eight months since you passed after such a painful and lingering illness that was so unbelievably hard to witness as a son. You were in such a state that, at one point, I found myself praying to God to take you away and release you from your agony. My dear father, my mentor, my best friend and my teacher wasting away and turning into a living skeleton before my eyes whilst all we could do was look on helplessly. We all know that cancer is a one-way street – there is only one final destination at the end and, each time I was with you, I could see your situation deteriorate at such an alarming and rapid rate that it was both terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. Towards the end, during your final days, I practically lived in the hospital, visiting you twice, thrice a day, sometimes even more, and only returning home to rest, change and deal with the mundane responsibilities of the household and everyday life that needed to be dealt with regardless of whether my father lay dying somewhere in a hospital bed or not. I was in a daze that whole time you were in hospital since the very day you came back to Bangladesh after your unsuccessful bout of treatment in London. The doctors had given you another six months to live and, along with that, created within me a false sense of expectation and hope that you would be around for at least a little while longer. I had no idea at the time that you were to live for merely another twenty-seven days. A man who was born on the twenty-seventh, who lived for twenty-seven days after he came back home and left us on the twenty-seventh of the month. I took it as a sign of just how special a man you were. Times like this, your mind naturally turns towards the mystical and hidden dimensions of life. You begin to believe in omens, in signs and in portents. You begin to believe in miracles. You get down, weeping, on your knees before God and pray that some kind of miracle saves your father – a miracle that did not occur in the end.
You shared so many valuable words to me during those last few days – as you have done all my life – and those words will remain with me forever. I still recall your last words to me, mere hours before they wheeled you unconscious and scarcely able to breathe into the Intensive Care Unit. Those words are etched into my soul – not because they were your final words, but because of what you said. I sat there one evening at the foot of your bed in the hospital cabin completely unaware that you would be leaving us within the next twenty-four hours. You told me, ‘Baba, you should go home, you look tired.’ You said those words with such loving kindness in your voice, a voice that was garbled and barely recognisable in your chemically induced stupor and it made me think that, even in the face of death, a father thought not of himself but of his son. I cannot think of that night even today without tears coming to my eyes. Such is the love of a father for his son. I have a son of my own, my beautiful boy who was the apple of your eye and I hope and pray that when it is my own time to depart, I can be the loving and caring father that you were to me. Never thinking about yourself even as Azrael, the angel of death, lay in wait at your door; only of me.
We hardly slept that night before the day you left us; pacing endlessly up and down the corridors of a deserted hospital at night. The emptiness, the quietness, the immense solitude of that place mirrored exactly how we felt inside at the time. I prayed endlessly to God that entire night, I prayed so hard that it hurt, and yet still, He took you away the following day. They say that God is ‘The Most Merciful, Most Kind,’ and so I believe that He did exactly what was best for you at that time. He put an end to your misery and suffering and took you back into His fold. I could not help but think of the final message of Ya-Seen, ‘So glory to Him in Whose hands is the dominion of all things: and to Him will ye be all brought back.’
That day, along with our closest family, I was constantly at your side and, at the same time, I steeled myself in preparation for you passing which – I knew – would not be long. As your only son, I knew the mountain of responsibilities that would soon be coming my way and, so, while I sat and prayed by your bedside, I also went downstairs frequently to make preparations for your burial. There was so much to do in such little time. The space in Kurigram Government College that you had set your heart on was not even ready, nor was it even formally agreed. There were phone calls to be made, talks to be had with government officials, the burial ground which – at the time – was simply a field full of paddy needed to be cleared and filled with sand and a grave prepared, not to mention a temporary helipad built on the college grounds for your final journey. I did this all in secret, like a thief in the night, and I felt terribly, terribly guilty at the time about having to do this without my family’s knowledge.
Indeed, I felt guilty for many months thereafter knowing that my family was desperately praying for you to live whilst I, your only son, was preparing for your death. You would be glad to know that I have finally come to terms with this. I know now that I was merely doing what a son needed to do at that time; to fulfill a father’s final wish at any cost. I was barely able to look Ma in the eye during that time, wondering if she would curse me for preparing or even thinking about her husband’s burial whilst we were all desperately praying for you to survive. I know now that you would have been proud of me knowing that I did this as there was no one else in the family able to think clearly and practically at that time. It is exactly what you yourself would have done – in fact, have done – when your own father died. Like you, I did not shed a single tear when you passed, rather kept myself steady as a rock to be able to perform my final duties to you with courage and confidence while my whole world lay shattered in pieces around me. Like you, it was only after I had fulfilled those responsibilities that I was able to return home and finally cry in the privacy of my room, where nobody could see me. It was from you that I learned how to show this courage in the face of even the deepest adversity in life.
Baba, not a single day goes by that I do not think of you; do not cry in private where nobody can see this weakness of mine. In you, I lost not only a father but the greatest friend and well-wisher I have ever had in my life. As a father myself, I fully know and understand that the love between a father and son is irreplaceable but, I look into my son’s eyes and I find you. I have only to pick up one of your books and you are there, I go to see your plays every opportunity I get and I do not hear the actors; it is your voice that I hear. I hear you speaking through them and, each time, I am left in a state of wonder at the sheer magnificence and brilliance of your creative genius. I did not get a chance to tell you this but I became a full-time writer when you were first diagnosed with cancer not for myself but simply to put a smile on your face. It was the only thing I could do from a distance while you lay sick and dying in London. I wrote for you then and, even now, when I sit down to write, I can feel you right by my side. During that final week of your life, when my first book was almost completed, I told you a secret that I held so deeply within my heart that I could not share with a single other living soul. I said, ‘Baba, I dare not admit this to anyone else but I firmly believe that my first book will win an award.’ And, you know what, Baba? I was right. I did win that award after all. You were so unwell that you were unable to speak at the time. You simply smiled at me and pointed a solitary finger towards heaven above as if you were saying, ‘I’ll be watching.’ I hope you did get to see me accept that award in the end because I dedicated it in your name. It was the very least I could do for someone who inspired me to become the person I am.
To be able to make what some may think such an audacious statement is also something that I learnt from you. You taught me to be fearless in my writing, to forge ahead with the courage of a lion and have the confidence to know when I am writing something that is turning out well. ‘A writer is his own best critic,’ as you have told me so many times. I have taken each and every one of your gems of advice to heart and I would like to think it reflects in what I write today. You taught me to be the artist that I am, you shared with me the hidden secrets of your craft and you longed so, so much for me to follow in your footsteps and become a professional writer someday. Well, I have done just that. Just a few hours before you died, I whispered in your ear as you lay unconscious in the ICU. I said, ‘Baba, may your passing be as effortless and painless as possible and, be rest-assured that I will carry on your legacy. I will carry on the Syed-Haq name. Within a very short space of time, I will become one of the leading voices in Bangladesh.’ I have kept that word, Baba, my final pledge to you as you took those last breaths and it has happened at an incredibly fast pace. Behind that, I can only say that it is your teaching and inspiration that has made this possible. Even that pen of yours which you personally blessed for me in your final days, is with me all the time. The same pen with which I saw you sign thousands of books when I was a young boy; so young that I did not even have any concept of death. It feels like having a part of you with me and it gives me untold courage to move forward with my art as you would have wished. Your art. The art that was such an integral part of your own being and is now a part of mine.
Baba, there are so many things left unsaid that this would turn into an endless discourse. Your passing has changed me in so many ways. I am finally the responsible, hard-working and level-headed son that you wished me to be. I have finally acknowledged and embraced my creative side and I am thankful to God that you were able to witness this while you were still alive. The only advice I can give to those fortunate enough to still have their fathers is to say that if there is anything in their hearts that needs to be said, they should say it while they still have a chance. The hopelessness of knowing that I can never again share these private thoughts of mine with you will remain with me forever. And, yet, I am grateful for having had you for so many years in my life, I am so utterly grateful to our Creator that I was able to enjoy your glowing presence well into my middle age. May you be resting in eternal peace and may you receive the love and respect in heaven that you received from so many others while here on earth.
With all my love and immense gratitude for being the father you were to me,
Your errant, oftentimes unpredictable and yet dearly loving son,
— Ditio Syed-Haq, June 2017, ManjuBari, Dhaka.