Til Death Do Us Part

In a time when love is proved more by a willingness to spend money than on strength of the bond, Juneyna Kabir speaks to a couple who reminisce on simpler times when mutual respect and sharing were given utmost value

I visit Syed Hasan Imam and Laila Hasan in their flat in Moghbazar which is overflowing with awards and accolades of their celebrated lives in cinema and dance. “My cleaning lady has recommended that I stop accepting them,” Laila jokes, pointing to the shelves that have been constructed in the building’s common staircase to accommodate the crests and medals.

When I arrive, there are already some visiting guests from Kolkata who Hasan tells intriguing stories to, of his youth and times spent with legends like Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Laila emerges, dressed beautifully in a red and white saree, a large tip on her forehead as is her style and flowers in her hair. Hasan, too, is dressed in formal trousers, a shirt, and a sleeveless sweater. I can’t help comparing the attitude of people towards life then and now. Be it their sense of dress or approach to relationships, they are a lot less casual.

We are finally alone and I ask them what their plans are for Valentine’s Day.

“I am against any ‘day’. If mother’s day means forgetting your mother for the remaining 364 days then one day has no meaning. I once read about a woman who died on Christmas Day because her son forgot to send her a card that year. That’s what happens when you put all your emotions into one day. But every day is Valentine’s Day for us!” says Hasan.

Laila tells me they have been married for almost 54 years.

“30th June, 1965” Hasan recalls the date immediately with a smile.

“Was it an arranged marriage or the result of a relationship?”

Hasan laughs and says “mix and match”.

He didn’t pay any attention to Laila initially because she was just a little girl. During that time Laila was conducting the Khelaghor Onushthan for Radio Pakistan. The first time she saw him was there, as she was acting in the young group roles and him in the adult group.
Laila knows Hasan’s history so well, she volunteers to tell it.

He returned to Bangladesh in 1957 from West Bengal after completing his studies. Laila was a well-known dancer by then. Hasan was pursuing a career in a bank and in theatre soon after. Laila would play the child roles and Hasan the adult ones.

The first time she saw him properly was during the Rabindranath Centennial. Three plays were directed for the occasion in which her husband played a role. When she used to come for dance rehearsals, he would be there rehearsing. That was when she got a good look at him – a handsome young man leaning against the doorway. She shared this with her mother – that she had seen the hero Hasan Imam up close! But they did not speak or interact then and Hasan was not yet aware of her presence.

In 1965, Hasan was playing roles in Voice of America (VOA) dramas. Currently, VOA covers news but back then they were producing dramas. He was 29 and had not risen to the peak of his acting career yet. He felt it was time to get married so asked a friend to find him a girl. The friend not only suggested a girl but cast them both in the same show. All his friends knew of his quest and showed up for the viewing to gauge their interaction. The girl was not aware of this. After watching the drama, Hasan discussed with his friends that night about the girl. Everyone approved.

A dramatic irony of the highest order.

There was only one bank back then, Sonali bank, where Hasan worked. His to-be father-in-law would collect his salary from there every month, where would always interact with Hasan, praising his looks, acting skills, and roles in the dramas he would watch. He would question him about why he didn’t act in cinemas. Back then, however, Hasan was not into furthering his acting career, but caught a lucky break soon, when he was cast for a role in a movie.

When he went to Laila’s house with the proposal, his father-in-law did not respond positively. Despite the father-in-law’s reservations, Laila’s maternal father gave his blessings for the marriage. But he wanted to see his acting skills before accepting completely. At the time, one of his films was very popular. It was on repeat in one of the cinema halls, so Laila’s grandfather took him to watch the movie, who was pleased with what he saw, and gave his blessings again, and took the initiative to persuade everyone else for the marriage. Eventually, his father-in-law agreed, and the marriage was held.
“Now you know why I said mix and match?” Hasan laughs.

I ask them why they think arranged marriages are on a downward trend, especially in urban areas.

“Nowadays, parents are less inclined to let their kids pursue an arranged marriage because they are less connected to the minds and hearts of their children. When he used to live in a joint family, we knew our relatives very well due to the day to day interactions. What they liked, what their personality is like. Nowadays, parents are less aware of what’s going on in their kids’ lives.” Hasan explains.

Laila adds that when she lived with her siblings there was no habit of closing doors. Nowadays, kids stay in their rooms with the doors closed and they get annoyed when their behaviour is questioned. They consider the closed door as their independence.
I also want to know from them why the divorce rates seem to have increased over time.
“In arranged marriages, a lot of factors are taken into consideration by both parties before confirmation, Hasan and Laila take turns to explain. Whereas, presently, people get into relationships without knowing much about each other. They view marriage as ‘if it works out, it will; if not, it doesn’t matter’.” Since childhood, they were taught to view marriage as ‘building a life with one’s partner’.

Back then, divorce was not met with an open mind in Bengali culture. People should realize and accept that the world is not fair, nor are their lives. As time passes, people become closer despite the differences, but they can never be one. The people who are aware of, and accept such perception, do not get divorced. We can see changes in our current society, compared to the past. We think the changes are negative. Life is not my own, my children will be born from me, my children will bear their own children. This is the play of life. The sadness that my life contained, cannot be burdened upon others. I can move away from it or bear with it, but I will not burden my loved ones with the sadness. The current generation is not aware of such responsibilities. The society has less and less influence over an individual’s life now. Mankind is the creator of ‘society’, and it was created because of need. Due to the break in society, it is no longer functioning to its intended capacity.

Before partition, we had leaders from the Muslim League and Congress who used to have dinner at the same table. It’s not necessary for people to see eye to eye in every aspect of life, differences will exist but with respect and civility, relationships can be maintained. The differences in opinion are not a good enough reason to reduce interpersonal relationships among people. Hence, people should coexist, within a society or even a country. My life is not my own, it is as much of a part of society, as it is a part of my siblings, my parents and my wife’s. Back then, many people along with their differences, combined into a unit; such a perception is gradually fading from society.
Do you have any recommendations to foster unity in our current society? When asked, Hasan answers,”Yes. Socialism. Although it’s going to be a struggle, if we can equally distribute resources and try to support each other through our respective economic and occupational statuses, we will succeed. We have to correct our errors and learn from them.”

Towards the end of our meeting, Hasan kept getting phone calls that he was reluctant to answer.

“I was supposed to be at an award show an hour ago” he smiles mischievously.
I think of the cleaning lady and how happy she will be to not have another piece to clean.
Before we leave, we take a photo of the lovely couple. Our photographer asks him to fix his sweater slightly.

“I’m glad you said it because if I said it he would have gotten angry,” Laila says, chiding him.

You can be together for more than half a century but there are some things which will always annoy you and frustrate you forever. It is about looking past these small idiosyncrasies and looking towards the bigger goal, a lesson I learned from two wise souls who ensure me that this is the
best way.

*Photography by Al Rashed

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Juneyna Kabir

Juneyna is the sub-editor of ICE Today and ICE Business Times. She spends most of her time planning her next meal and plotting female world domination