Portrait of a migrant childhood with an Uncle-roommate

24 November 2020

1

Non-passengers cannot go into airports in Bangladesh. My granny’s lined face—a mask of sagacity—was a novelty, simmering with anxiety and inexperience in the flat white light. Lips pursed like the aviation industry was one big blunder. She disapproved. People die in the place they were born. Most of all, we want consistency in a person.

My mother and I crossed the ocean. A yawning distance, the likes of which my Mamas or Mamis[1] had never seen or felt in their entire lives, much less any of my grandparents: we gulped it in one Atlas bound.

2

Granny was an FWV. When I ask her what that stands for, she takes a minute to conjure ‘family welfare visitor’. Buried under bureaucratic acronym-ity, the ambiguity is intentional. With one FWV per city district, Granny visited each clinic in her jurisdiction in rotation, parcelling out her days with vilified IUDs, subdermal implants and girl-children. The scarcity of the service is a warning. She practised midwifery intermittently, but family welfare suited her. You need control, you need discipline, and above all, you need to be a good girl.

When she was 26 on a steamer, she saw a man, jolty and panicked, seeking a doctor for his feverish son. He was stylish, Granny says, rakishly metropolitan in a suit and Ray-Bans. I have met a cartoon of great uncle Afzal, pinstripes drowning his body and the same Ray-Bans, propped up rather than worn. They would have had the same effect draped over reedy cotton branches. But I can see him on that steamer, young, rising through the ranks of a private agriculture corporation as a limitless world flowered for him in the post-war[2] boom. Over a cool compress on his son’s forehead, did my grandmother waver on his strong hands? This woman, temperance itself, tendering to a married man. Naturally, Granny asserts, she never entertained any thoughts beyond decency. Like restraint could be a miracle and a realisation in itself.

She was introduced to Afzal’s younger brother, my Grandpa. Granny was teetering on the edge of chirokumari[3]. Grandpa put saucers of milk out for stray cats. He was decent, save a penchant for motorcycles, which Granny objected to and he promptly gave up. Haltingly, they married. They had my Mama, my mother, then a plum tree in the yard and she never looked back.

Although Grandpa had an enviable position in the same agribusiness company, he devoted himself to many side ventures. Investing in the schemes of others, road making, construction; he was shortly in the business of brick distribution. On a tip that the government was moving a bill to pave all the dust roads sempiternally crisscrossing the country, he bought a cement mixer. The bill, if ever there was one, did not pass. In rickshaws barrelling through the streets of Barisal, he joked he almost built it all with his bare hands.

His last and biggest project was tiger prawns. His friend came to him, wide-eyed with wonder at the money to be made in tiger prawns; Hussein, criminal amounts! There was no more to be said. Grandpa swiftly ordered a shipment and bought a plot by the beach for breeding. He and my Mama stayed in a blue apartment nearby, their untrained eyes habituating to the floundering crustaceans over three months of scrutiny, backs craned like waterbirds. They came home every other weekend, three hours each way on the train, his head bumping against the window with his son sprawled beside him.

3

Mum and I were flagged for random checking at Brisbane Airport, the baby-vomit-yellow tag a shout around our suitcase. You have been seen. We were opened up and inspected. Granny’s rolling-pin was thrown away. Dark shiny eyes wrapped in a scarf, my mother was 25 years old, desperate in that airport car park empty like in dreams—what happened in July 2007 to clear that carpark for my mother to teeter on those ruthless lines like an authoress in the woods, like a woman on a rope? I have often wondered. Mum steps into the middle of the road.

And then cloud-break. A soothsayer cometh in the shape of a sedan. We are asked You alright, love for the first time and a phone is received through the window with breathless thanks. The sedan stays until my father arrives to bundle us back to the Gold Coast, electric on the highway. It stays with us when we reach home and eat—a warm cavernous saucepan of orange prawn curry in coconut milk like so many egg yolks—and remains with us still.

4

I knew some monosyllabic English from nursery[4] in Bangladesh: pots, cats, mats and the like. That first Australian year, I learnt fast. I devour Disney films in English this time, cracking open the halting alien phonemes with yellow-black 3D-bevelled subtitles; the stories I already know, spoonfuls of sugar. I graduate. ABC2. And again. ABC3. My library books fatten from Aussie Bites into Hans Christian Andersen and purr.

One day, we are swimming in the complex pool. A girl my age babbles, pretty in frilly Dora bathers. I summon all my powers of concentration and respond, burning with Napoleonic confidence. The conversation up to this point is not impressed on me, but the dissolution of it immutably is.

Pardon? asks Dora-girl.

I flick through my mental index cards. I don’t know pardon. I swim away, speechless. I am not me; the language is not mine. For all my earnestness, I fall short. These instances cut sharp images in my mind. Grade 2, Mrs Currey’s story circle: I pronounce nowhere now-here. Until grade 4, I am unclear on the difference between invaluable inestimable priceless worthless. If I learnt English at first to fit in, I now do it in double time to stand out. I have a profound relationship with my reading level colour. My name is Izma, my eyes are brown, and I am seafoam blue.

5

Seven-hundred dollars rich, the first thing my father bought in Australia was a computer. The second, a good leather jacket. Dad always thought himself something of a rebel. He watched his friends hang their university degrees on their wall and little else. He did this without pity. Then, he crossed the ocean and made something out of nothing.

He also went to university, which is where he met Mum. My parents are romantics. They had a love marriage—which was broadly judged to be a budhi koi gese[5] idea—but this is the most circumstantial evidence. They are English literature majors. By necessity, they are romantics. Dad is weaned on Americana, Twain and Steinbeck. Mum is partial to Briton mystery and poetry, Doyle, Christie, Keats. And Rumi. They love Victor Hugo. They love Roots. They watched their friends’ parents marry them off to a sweet little homemaker they found in the village grahm, rural families in a red vein of clay homes marking where the flooded rice fields ended and the dust road began. Radically, they decided there was a choice. Bone-deep they knew their friends were wrong.

6

State school costs like a private one for non-Australian citizens: $12,000 a year. Dad drove taxis like everyone else and Mum got a job at the Surfers Paradise Coles. She came back home roaring with laughter every night with stories of all the characters she’d met. We moved into a duplex complex like kings. I told my classmates my house has two stories too, not knowing that was not what they meant.

We had a roommate, Dad’s friend that I called Uncle. He drove taxis through the night and his room smelled like grass. His day started when I came back from school. I made after-school snacks; he, breakfast. Sugar and butter on white bread (untoasted); chip butties go down easy with a glass of mango juice; triangle cheese stirred into chickeny microwave noodles, oh my.

Once we were indulging in powdered milk from the bag by the spoon, as we often did, when I choked. Uncle gave me water, which packed the powder into clumps. I sputtered and mantled and went red, then purple. My mother and father, bones aching, come home to Uncle, too high to function, stringing me up by the ankles and shaking me down like a bottle of Heinz. And from my mouth, as a small white dove in a dust bath, a pearly pile of spit and waterlogged milk powder.

Some of our friends came over that night. They fussed over me until I cried for shame and tickled me until my stomach hurt more than my throat. There is a photo of my parents and Uncle watching the Channel 9 Friday night movie. Blurred figures in the background with glasses in their hands. Like any other photo of a party of twenty-somethings but for me lolling on the faux-Persian rug in front of them. Overbright eyes and taut cheeks, they were painfully young.

 

[1] Uncles and aunties

[2] Bangladesh Liberation War

[3] Spinster

[4] Kindergarten

[5] Where did your brain go?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *