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Saturday, July 31, 2021

‘Baba planted seeds of independent thinking in my mind’

Slain Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy wrote about the inspiring patriotism of his father, Ajoy Roy, a physics professor at Dhaka University.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: March 4, 2015 12:04:27 pm
Despite my numerous friendships, somehow Baba had become my closest friend. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) Despite my numerous friendships, somehow Baba had become my closest friend. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

Slain Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy wrote about the inspiring patriotism of his father, Ajoy Roy, a physics professor at Dhaka University. The grieving father had the grim responsibility of filing a murder FIR and handing over Avijit’s body for medical research, as his son had wished.

I got off the plane and walked out of the airport gate to find Baba waiting for me. Baba, my ever-familiar Baba. I paused before I embraced him. On his face were the lines of time. In these few years, he seemed to have aged a lot. And why not? He crossed 70 a few years ago. His crop of hair has thinned, but the eyes are full of life, as before. “You shouldn’t have bothered to come, I would have taken a taxi,” I said. Baba laughed, but said nothing. Perhaps, to himself he said, “As if I need to listen to what you say!”

Without a thought to what others say, Baba lives by his own credo, his own conscience. From my childhood, this is how I have known him. You could say that’s a bug that affects me too. If I don’t like what others say, I avoid them. Sometimes, I tell them so outright. In some circles, I have earned myself the tag of being unsocial.

My mother never liked this stubborn streak. Avoiding any conflict or disagreements, and moulding herself to others’ wishes and needs, brought her peace. The purpose of her life was confined to the wellbeing of her family and her two sons. And she had few options too.

A university professor, Baba would spend his days in the lab or attending to his students. He might be able to simplify the problems of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism for his students in a thrice, but the everyday business of running a house was beyond him. Perhaps, he never tried to figure it out too. It was left to my mother to make our home and run it with skill. My father, on the other hand, was a Bohemian in the domestic sphere.

My father had two brothers. I didn’t know that for many years. That was because they had left for India long ago. Since the day I learnt of this, the question came up often in my mind: why did Baba stay back in Bangladesh? I asked him once, “Why didn’t you go to India, like Jethu and Kaku?” Baba looked at me and said, “India is not my country. Then why should I go there?” I was bewildered. I had not expected such an answer. I had thought he would say, “Arre, I tried, but just couldn’t manage.” Or, “I was so tied up with this job that I could not go.” But Baba simply said, why should I go to that country.

And really, why should he have gone to that country? It took me a lot of time to understand that Baba’s love for his country was much greater than that of ordinary people. When I was a child, many of my friends would ask, “Where in India do you own land?” At first, I would be very surprised. Later, I realised it was naturally assumed about anyone with a Hindu name that the fellow must have one foot in India. So, he must own land there too. But how could I convince them? Buying land in India was not even an option for us. I didn’t explain too much. I just smiled to myself. By then, I had realised that if I would put that question to Baba, he would say, “Now, why would I buy land there?”

No, there was no land bought. Neither in India nor in Bangladesh. Cars, houses, money — I never saw my father chase any of those. When many people around him had made money and become bloated on their own self-importance, Baba was thinking about the country, about his students, was spending sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make the syllabus more constructive. None of that brought more wealth into the house. The more he spent his time on such work, the angrier Ma would get. “All this talk of country and people, and look where he is.” She would say that in the 1960s, while in Leeds, UK, for his PhD, he had wrapped up his thesis in three years instead of five. So impressed was his supervisor with his work that he asked him to stay back. He promised a job in his lab. But Baba didn’t. It was the pull of his home, his desh. The country then was swept up in the turmoil for freedom. He returned and plunged into the 1969 Non-Cooperative Movement. In 1971, he fought in the War of Liberation.

It was in the middle of such pitched battles that he heard of my birth. By then, Baba had gone from fighting on the Comilla border to becoming a member of independent Bangladesh’s planning cell in India. From there, he was handling the work of the general secretary of the Bangladesh education committee. Even though he had heard of my birth, he could not arrive in time. When he did come, my mother, hurt and angry, would not speak or look at him. Baba would pick his first-born in his arms for the first time 14 days after he was born.

Na, Baba could not bring me up in a palace, or give my brother and me a life of luxury. Our family would struggle to get even the comforts that a middle-class university professor’s family would take for granted. We lived in a tiny house on the university campus, its walls mouldy and rooms damp, but for us it was no less than a Taj Mahal. We would walk to the school on campus. On the vast field near our house, we would play cricket and football. Baba could not give me a world of riches, but he introduced me to a world of books. On our shelves were books on science for the young. Books like Zafar Iqbal’s Mahakashe Mahatrash, or Swapan Kumar Gayen’s Swatir Kirti. I read because of him. He opened my eyes to Sukumar Ray’s world, acquainted me with Hojoborolo, Pagla Dashu and all. It was he who planted in my mind the seeds of independent thinking and doubt.

Truth be told, my respect and love for Baba increased manifold once I left Bangladesh. Baba always was an inward-looking person. Whenever I think of him, an image of a somewhat serious and aloof man, cigarette in hand, comes to mind. I would be scared of him. There was a certain distance between us, without much reason even. It took me time to know him better. When I was in Bangladesh, he was, to me, like any ordinary father. But his strength as a human being I got to know later.

I’ll give you an example. After the 2001 elections, attacks on the minority community rose sharply in Bangladesh. Frantic with worry, I call home from the US. But Baba wasn’t home. He had gone to Barisal, providing what help he could to a village scarred by communal violence. With others like him, he was trying to rebuild destroyed houses, bringing people together. I was amazed, and worried. What if he doesn’t return? I get angry at Ma. “Why do you let him go?” She shoots back, “Does your father ever listen to me?”

But Baba returns, unharmed. He has helped fight this poison, to the best of his ability.

It was difficult for many relatives, or even my mother and Bonya’s father, to accept our marriage. Neither of us believe in or follow any religion, but it was a marriage between “Rafida Ahmed Bonya” and “Avijit Roy”. I realised how true a liberal Baba was after our wedding. I have never seen him upset about our relationship. He always stood by us. I am struck by wonder at his rapport with Bonya.

The man I thought of as a brooding introvert now can’t seem to stop chatting. That his humanity was more capacious than the sky I hadn’t realised. Despite my numerous friendships, somehow Baba had become my closest friend. No,

I haven’t ever told him that. But every day, I sense his vast presence near me. He’s by my side, even if he is in the farthest corner of the earth.

Excerpted from a blogpost written on June 20, 2009 on the website, ‘Sachalayatan’ Translated by Amrita Dutta.

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