I can still taste my first sip of coffee.
It was sometime in the late 1950s on a river on the outskirts of Dhaka. I may have been five or six years old. We were on a motorboat: my brother Sani who’s three years older than me, our father, and an English couple. The day was bright, without scorching heat or the threat of rain.
The adults sat astern, my father’s hand on the tiller of the new Evinrude outboard motor. They conversed in English, a language still shy on my tongue. The foreigners peppered our father with questions, and in his replies he seemed expansive, full of words. He frequently pointed to boats on the water or settlements on the riverbank. Once when a motor launch chugged by, weighed down with passengers, he noticed the name and announced that he had designed the vessel.
There was pride in his words and we shared the feeling. He consulted as a part-time boat designer and he often took us along to the riverbank near Narayanganj where motor launches were assembled. In our parents’ bedroom, a bench at the foot of the bed was stacked with boat magazines lying next to newspapers, car magazines, and a .22 caliber Remington rifle. On top of a bookshelf there was a pile of stationery and business cards. In a thin san serif font, the print read: Lutfur Rahman, Boat Engineer. Below was printed the address of our house on Mymensingh Road.
While the world of boat building was familiar to us, our father’s expressiveness on the boat that morning was not. At home we knew him as the silent type, more often taciturn than pleasant. With the English couple he seemed to be an entirely different man.
Sani and I took posts near the front, inside the shelter cabin. A strange contraption called a life jacket, entirely foreign to us, had been fitted over our bodies. The two of us whiled away our time gazing at the life on the water. We waved to boatmen on the country boats that we whizzed past, kept an eye out for the occasional porpoise that somersaulted out of the water, and marveled at the speed of our boat that was clearly the fastest vessel on the river.
The English couple had brought along sandwiches for lunch. After we ate, the lady opened a Thermos and the aroma that came our way held an exotic burnt edge, hinting of chocolate. We walked over, expectant looks on our faces. Coffee, they called it. She poured the steaming black liquid into two plastic cups, and after stirring a couple of sugar cubes in each, she handed them to us.
Upon returning to our places, my brother took the first sip, I the second. It was the most awful beverage we had ever tasted. Nothing like what the aroma had promised. Too shy to return the coffee, we were caught in a quandary. Sani and I came upon a solution. We pretended to take a sip, then held the cup over the edge and slightly tipped it, so that the dark liquid dropped into the gray-green water below. A few more sips and tips, our cups were empty. We returned them, and when the lady asked if we’d enjoyed the coffee, we nodded energetically.
That boat ride stamped itself in my memory as My First Taste of Coffee. Most of the other details faded and I don’t believe there was ever a time when I knew who those English people were. It would take another 40 years to unravel the mystery about that boat ride. By then I had moved clear across the globe to Oakland, California, and one summer day, quite by accident, I made a surprising discovery at a bookstore in Berkeley.
For most of my life I had a troubled relationship with my father.
The outing on the boat belongs to a few years in my childhood when there was a semblance of goodwill around our house. But it was punctuated by episodes of violence.
My parents often argued and, playing in the next room, we could hear the decibel level rise. We held our breaths until that moment — which inevitably followed — when he would explode. He would grab his rifle and chase my mother through the house. As she ran through our room, we would grab her sari and join her flight to the kitchen where she collapsed in tears. We tried to comfort her while hugging her close for our own safety.
It seems they fought over other women in his life and her desire to be somebody more than a wife and mother. She had been a widow at 26 with six children, and I figure she only married my father because of desperation. With him she had three more children. Some of her other children stayed with her parents down the street while others lived with us. My father never made them feel totally welcome. One by one they found ways of escape — through marriage, boarding school, or simply seeking a more attractive life outside the house.
He was impatient with children, and as his middle child, I seemed to bring out a special rage in him. He could not deal with a young boy’s curiosity and noisiness without resorting to beatings.
The violence subsided, only to be replaced by a state of cold war. As I left childhood behind, our family divided into two wings living under a shared roof. On one side of the house, my father holed up in the bedroom my mother had abandoned, and he closed himself off. We ate separately and stopped doing things as a family, though we did share the TV in the living room after television arrived in the mid-1960s. My only other contact with him remained the rides to school on the other side of town. Finding the silence between us suffocating, I tried to draw him into conversation. He remained tight-lipped.
On our side of the house, we made lives independent of him. By this time, my mother had returned to university, made an income from renting the house that she had built with HBFC loans, and even bought a car.
Emigration and war emptied out the house. My older siblings began to move to the U.S. and even my mother left, taking my younger sister with her. My brother Sani and I remained, and as teenagers we joined the movement for Bengali freedom. During the liberation war, he joined the guerrilla struggle while I found refuge in Calcutta.
After independence, the power relations in the house were made anew. My mother returned and established some sort of coexistence. Sani married and a new family started up in our house. By this time I had left to attend college in the U.S.
When I went home for the first time ten years later, I had my first encounter with my father as an adult. We could only make small talk. Away from home I could never write him a letter. I could not get past the problem of the salutation. The words, Dear Baba, simply would not come.
My mother died unexpectedly in 1985 and I returned for the funeral. When her body was lowered into the grave, my father howled in misery. I had never seen him cry and had never imagined he would cry for her.
For most of my adult life I nursed my bitterness toward him and wore it as a badge of endurance. But when I returned home for my irregular visits, I only saw an aging, broken-down man. Anger gave way to pity. Still, all I cared to remember from childhood were the cruelties and the hurt.
The summer of 1995, when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, I heard that he was ill, possibly dying. I decided to visit him. I didn’t expect a miracle through which we would suddenly break down four decades of silence. No, I was curious about his stories, eager to find out anything about the man before he had entered our lives. Perhaps I hoped to find some clues about how he had become the man we knew.
There was no miracle. Behind his eyes I might have discerned regret and sadness, maybe even a desire for forgiveness, but he didn’t even know how to open up. Neither did I. The walls between us were simply too thick.
I did come away with some stories.
He didn’t give me much from his childhood. At eighteen, though, he had clashed with his parents. They wanted him to marry and follow in his father’s footsteps as a moktar. He stole money from them and ran away, taking a ship first to Rangoon, then Calcutta. When he returned home, his father agreed that he could go on to college. He ended up again in Calcutta, and after graduation from Islamia College, he joined the police.
I had known that he had been with the police in Calcutta during the British Raj. This experience, I suspected, had reinforced the harshness in him. His tenure with the police coincided with the turbulent years of the Indian freedom struggle. What had been my father’s role? He resisted my probes and didn’t want to talk much about his police career. (After his death, I would find a journal he had dictated where he noted that his job included beating demonstrators against British rule.)
What he did share with me was his passion for cars, motorcycles, and later, boats. One day at the Alipore Courthouse, he had struck up a friendship with Cleghorn, an Englishman who owned a boatyard in south Calcutta. From this man he learned how to build a boat running on a discarded car engine. During the Puja holidays, he took this boat and navigated his way to his village home in Keshranga near Chandpur, hundreds of miles away.
Two years after my visit, my father died in a hospital in Dhaka. I did not go home. Seeking out the nearness of water, I spent a few days next to the Atlantic Ocean, on Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard. For the first time ever I allowed myself to reach back into childhood, to the years before our cold war. It suddenly hit me that he had not simply been a cruel man. He had other dimensions. He’d ventured out into the world on his own, leaving the limits of village life behind. He had learned how to fix engines and build boats. He read voraciously. And in his own way he had even made attempts to be a loving father.
I now remembered the times when he took my mother and us on early morning walks to nearby Ramna Park. We played with the deer at the small zoo there. He took us on many road trips, introducing us to haats, forests, and the ocean at Cox’s Bazaar. Born just after the turn of the century, he was so old school that he might have considered it sufficient that he had provided home, food and education for us, but he had tried to go the extra step.
Then, life — his own selfishness and pride, my mother’s refusal to be bullied, the cacophony of children’s voices testing his patience — all overwhelmed him in ways he could not find an escape from. None of us could.
Saturday, July 18, 1998 was a brilliant summer day in the San Francisco Bay Area. I started the morning at a coffee shop in Berkeley but needed to kill some time before joining a friend for her daughter’s third birthday.
Up the road, Black Oak Books was perfect to occupy a few hours. They have a small section with new books — the latest titles in fiction and nonfiction — but what attracts me is their large used section. In the back, they have a shelf devoted to the Indian subcontinent. This time I purchased a book on the country boats of my homeland, hopeful that it would be useful for research. On and off I’d been working on a fictional piece based on some of my father’s boat stories.
Returning home from the birthday party, I collapsed on my bed. The temperature had topped 32 degrees and my Oakland apartment, even with its windows and living room French door wide open, was sweltering. I wanted to nap but sleep would not come. Lying on the bed, I opened my new book.
It was a hardback with a vinyl-covered dust jacket. On a red background the cover focused on a photo of a Bangladeshi boat, sails puffed out by the wind. The title read Boats and Boatmen of Pakistan. The author was an Englishman named Basil Greenhill. The book came out in 1970, just months before Pakistan split up. I read that Greenhill had worked in East Pakistan in the 1950s and because of his long interest in marine history, he spent some of his time researching our boats. For centuries the people here have built many different types of wooden boats as the primary means of transport. The book was the fruit of Greenhill’s fieldwork, published more than a decade after he left South Asia.
Skimming the first third which describe the land, climate, and life on the rivers, I came to Chapter Four: “The Building of the Monsoon.”
Greenhill recounted how he sought to facilitate his research travels by acquiring a boat of his own. He had a specific idea about what he wanted, a boat that would allow him “to move about the rivers on the boatmen’s own level.” It had to be at least 18 feet in length, solid and reliable, roomy enough for four or five people, running on a zippy outboard motor, and able to withstand rainstorms and high winds. However he did not know how to arrange for such a boat to be built. Then he writes:
“The solution to the problem came in the person of Lutfur Rahman, to whom we were introduced by a friend….”
I jumped out of my bed.
Yes, Greenhill was talking about my father. In the short bio he provided, the Englishman got some facts wrong, but he described in detail how my father arranged for the boat to be built in our backyard.
“He knew just what I wanted. He discussed the merits of round bilged hulls against V bottom hulls for boats of this size and sort. He decided on a round bilged hull as being more easily driven, and because it would be possible to build it easily by the traditional methods used in constructing the round hulled river sailing boats. This I readily accepted. Because she was going to be small and easy to move to the water on a lorry he decided to build the boat in his own grassy, tree-shaded, back yard, instead of on the bank of the river, and to this I was glad to agree, because it would be easy for me to visit this place regularly and to watch the
boat grow and how the craftsmen worked. By following the building of this small motor launch by men normally engaged in building river sailing boats I thought I could learn a great deal about how the latter were made.
“I did do so, and friendship with Rahman opened a whole new world of boat builders and boat people.”
Now the mystery was solved. That trip on which I had My First Taste of Coffee had been the maiden voyage of the Monsoon.
What had been a scattering of vague memories in the recesses of my mind suddenly came into focus. I recalled fragments of scenes from the building of this boat. Greenhill describes how the wooden logs were acquired, how sawyers split them by hand, how smiths forged iron fastenings, and how the boat builders assembled the vessel, plank by plank. I could now smell the sawdust and wood shavings, feel the heat of the red-hot metal pieces fired in the forge, and even recall some of the names and faces of the craftsmen.
I now had another face for my father. Here was a voice from the adult world, a man who he’d befriended, describing a man I never saw.
Basil Greenhill died on April 8, 2003 in his home in Cornwall, England. After a 20-year career in the British diplomatic service, he had served as the third Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The London Independent, in its obituary, described him as “the leading late 20th-century figure in maritime museums.” He wrote, edited or collaborated on some 40 books.
After my discovery of his book, I had contacted him. He added this to what he had published:
“I have very clear and happy recollections of your father and the enormous help he gave me in making accessible the closed world of the boat builders and river men. Indeed, the quite considerable work I was able to do on what we might now call the ethnography of the floating world of Bangladesh was made possible only because of our friendship…. To an agnostic British person in the 1950s your father gave an impression of quiet dignity coupled with high intelligence and an open mind.”
I had often wondered about the dedication in Greenhill’s book. It read: “Again in memory of Gillian, who shared all the travels which gave rise to this book and then died of amoebic hepatitis picked up somewhere in East Pakistan.” Basil Greenhill’s obituaries cleared up this mystery. She was Greenhill’s first wife and she died shortly after they returned to England in 1959. Presumably she was the lady on the boat who served us the coffee.
The house on Mymensingh Road was torn down five years ago. Even earlier, the yard on which the Monsoon was built became a road, the extension of New Eskaton Road towards Sonargaon Road.
My brother Sani lives in Dhaka and favored my father’s interest in cars more than boats. He acquires and, now and then, restores antique cars. He runs a transport business, now using trucks. For a while they ran tanker boats along Bangladesh’s waterways.
As for me, I seem to keep moving from city to city, but wherever I go, I find that I have to live near water.
And coffee stopped tasting bitter a long time ago. I learned to add cream and plenty of sugar. While I no longer care for that much sweetness, I cannot face a new day without a cup of strong coffee. I’ve learned to even relish a hint of bitterness.