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OP-ED: My sister’s legacy

  • Published at 07:29 am December 19th, 2020
Rehana Mohsin
Photo: COURTESY

Rehana Mohsin was, to the end, her own person

Say not in grief that she is no more but say in thankfulness that she was. 

A death is not the extinguishing of a light

but the putting out of a lamp 

because the dawn has come.

-- Rabindranath Tagore

My sister and I were a generation apart. So much so in fact, that she was more like a mother than a sister, and as a young girl, that’s what I often called her -- “Ma” -- much to her embarrassment I might add, particularly in public.  

Mrs Rehana Mohsin or Renu Apa or simply Bubu, as she was to me, was born in pre-partition Calcutta. She was the eldest daughter of former ambassador Syed Maqbul Murshed and Ume-Zainab, the daughter of Fatima Khatoon, our grandmother, and Chowdhury Muhammad Amin, our maternal grandfather. Both were descended from two branches of the same zamindar family of Burdwan, in West Bengal.  

Maqbul Murshed and Ume-Zainab had three children: Rehana, Sultana, and Iftekhar, but tragedy struck early in their lives, and she passed away just a few days after giving birth to their son. My sisters were only eight and nine years old at the time, and I can’t imagine the trauma of losing the one you love most, at such a tender age. 

A distraught young widower, with the sombre responsibility of two very young daughters and an infant son, our father took the only correct and most sensible course, and married his late wife’s younger sister, my mother, Ume-Salma. And so, the home and family unit were restored, and the forlorn motherless children found solace with a new mother from the same bloodline, and in the years to come, I was the happy outcome of that union.

1

Our paternal antecedents, the Mursheds of Murshidabad, of that era, from our grandfather Syed Abdus Salek, to the generation of our fathers and uncles, had acquired the reputation of being men of exceptional acumen. They may not have been landed gentry like the Chowdharys of Burdwan, or the feudal “lords” of the day, but their ancestor Mir Mali was awarded a sanad (a grant of land) as a man of letters and for his “intellectual services” to the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. 

Thus, they became Jagirdars, who nevertheless, excelled with the rising tide of meritocracy. Their track record of public service in the judiciary, in civil administration and diplomacy (as chief justice, chief secretary, and ambassador respectively) is still considered exceptional by any standards. Each reached the pinnacle of his career with considerable distinction.                    

But this is not a eulogy of patriarchal achievements or even retired bureaucrats. It’s essentially a personal recollection, a celebration of a free spirit, a charming and vivacious lady, my sister. 

There’s so much to say about her that most of her friends and larger family were unaware of, I really don’t know where I should begin. 

She attended Clifton College in Bristol, England, and a Finishing School in Switzerland. She was a natural polyglot who spoke a number of languages fluently. She played the violin, and was an able enough horse rider to go fox hunting with her British school friends. Her accomplishments were many, and she was no less cosmopolitan than she was indeed, the quintessential Bengali beauty.  

She was an avid reader, and in her old age, shamelessly addicted to television soap operas. She wasn’t anorexic, but once upon a time, one would have thought that she practically survived on cigarettes and countless cups of coffee. A proficient cook, she was a tireless hostess and a devoted home-maker, who maintained a meticulous household. 

2

Despite globetrotting half a lifetime, true to her roots, she loved her saris and never wore anything else. Even in the simplest attire, there was always an air of elegance about her, and whatever she undertook, she never compromised with perfection. 

She was barely five feet tall with a petite delicate frame, but her larger-than-life personality was inversely proportionate to her diminutive size. Any misguided soul, who might be deceived by this frail appearance, would have to deal with the severity of her sharp tongue and fearless demeanour. Invariably outspoken, and defiantly unapologetic, this little lady did not suffer fools gladly. 

When she died, she could quite easily have been buried in the family graveyard of her husband’s ancestral home. But she left explicit instructions, and chose to be interred on her father’s grave -- almost as if to assert her independence. 

Liberated, but in a profoundly civilized and cultured sense of that word, she was, to the very end, her own person. That, to me, was my sister’s legacy. 

Farhana Murshed Rahman is a freelance contributor.