Post 362.

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Sunday was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 77 years old. Under blue sky, I visited the family cemetery plot, where his grandfather and both parents are also buried, and wondered about what kind of relationship one should have with the dead.

I hadn’t seen him on his last birthday and wasn’t sure if I regretted it or was at peace with my reasons. Now, here I was on this birthday, six feet above him and unclear whether it mattered, whether he knew or what to feel.

Such mixed feelings extended to the grave itself. My dad wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on his mother’s grave. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, and was unthinkable to us, creating a persistent sense of discombobulation that I’d failed to fulfil his last wishes.

As I stood looking down, I considered whether he felt suffocated by soil and trapped in the dark. I wondered if he feared the angels, Munkar and Nakir, who interrogate the deceased and accompany the soul on its journey to Jannah or Jahannam, or the dimensions of Heaven or Hell.

One late night, a few weeks after his burial, I stood looking across heavy rain to the cemetery fervently hoping that my dad’s sense of justice, his contribution to the region, and glimpses of his generosity, love, goodness and humour would have transformed his grave into a luxurious space for his spirit to await an afterlife beyond our comprehension.

If not, the angels would have beaten him brutally, as they do sinners and disbelievers, in what is feared as the torment of the grave. It’s not for the faint-heartened, for the dead is struck a blow with an iron hammer which could turn a mountain to dust, the grave narrows and compresses until the body’s ribs interlock, and the soul is torn from the body by cutting veins and nerves like a skewer ripping through wet wool. I was surprised one could worry for the dead. I chastised myself for not doing what he asked.

I had selfish reasons justified by the merest of fleeting memory. I had stood next to my dad with my hands cupped at his mother’s funeral, at that very grave, when I was four years old. It’s a vivid, slightly blurred and instant image, like a polaroid. Something about it rooted in my heart. I held on to it like an old, precious photograph. He seemed so tall then. I was so little, loyal and adoring.

Forty years later, I couldn’t let him go without the same cupped gesture. There was inexplicable solace in this repeating image, for I was a child then and it was the child in me burying my dad now, connecting to him almost as the four-year-old I was at the time, imprinting another layer on memory.

My dad had also fasted for Ramadan, and was praying in the masjid, built on family land where he was born, the day before he died. The cemetery was close by; it was an unexpectedly small circle of life. He had returned home in both belief and location. He would be able to answer the angels’ questions. A Muslim burial was without question.

So, on Sunday, I found myself at his grave while my brother pulled away overgrown grass, and I contemplated whether the three generations buried below our feet ever conversed, whether they quarreled and forgave, or shared each other’s sighs, whether their spirits intermittently roamed, or whether the stillness and silence was peaceful.

With Ziya nearby, I told myself that being buried in your mother’s grave is the most profound kind of return. It must be more comforting than returning to one’s religion, childhood home, or perhaps entering Heaven. There is no closer relationship with another human being for, once, two were only one. The thought seemed to quiet the blurry four-year-old hovering in Sunday’s heat, and her imprecise worry.

One night, my sister and I both dreamt my dad. It felt like he came to visit, appearing from nowhere, returning nowhere. I learned that to dream those who are gone is a gift, and sometimes it makes you grieve.

This time, I left without significant emotion, but deep exhaustion. The afterlife is a whole world to be constructed in one’s imagination. It takes time, remembering and realization to find the right pieces to give it solidity and harmony.

Relationship with the dead also requires nurturing grace and forgiveness along the way.

Love lives on, Dad, happy birthday.

Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

Post 232.

I’m a child of the UWI.

I came here as an MPhil student in 1997, but my earliest memories are of roller skating in the quadrangle at six years old or bicycling on a weekend with other children of UWI parents, over an expanse of concrete that then seemed unimaginably vast. I return to then whenever I see staff and their children getting exercise or playing on campus. As a younger generation, we gather long memories of the place, over decades, as if it is our second home.

There are many of us. Children of academic and administrative staff who grew up with intimate familiarity of the campus. We come to the UWI as students and meet lecturers who know us since we were small. We follow in the footsteps of our uncles, aunts and parents who studied or worked here, who were part of student politics, or who made life-long friends and memories.

Such a long view indelibly informs my deep commitment to the UWI today. The university is a place where people grow and give back, where knowledge can come to matter for how it changes individual lives and families, not just meets state ‘development’ goals.

Three generations of my family have been academics here. After Naparima College, my dad’s mother’s brother, Inayat Hosein, gained a diploma from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in 1937. In 1945, he graduated from Mc Gill University with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Agriculture. In 1948, he was offered a scholarship to Kew Gardens. He obtained the M.Sc. in Botany from London University in 1955. He was a citrus expert and Senior Lecturer at the UWI when he retired in 1977.

My dad’s sister, Taimoon, studied international relations at UWI and became a senior research fellow focusing on trade and competition law at the Institute for Social and Economic Relations. Just before I submitted my thesis, she gave me her mother’s wedding ring, which she had promised me as a gift when I finished. She was the first among my dad’s siblings to earn a PhD and retired soon after I became faculty. I never take off the ring, remembering a matrilineal investment in education.

For a while, my dad was Head of Management Studies. I recollect sharp images of walking across endless grass to the huge rooms housing the university’s mainframe computers, trying to keep up while he carried tall stacks of rectangular boxes full of punch cards used for creating and storing computer programmes. As a child, I’d marvel that these cards could communicate with this hulking, futuristic technology. This week, I became Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, after nineteen years first studying and then teaching here. On my first day at work, my dad texted to say that he expected me to surpass him one day, as a professor. I guess what one generation doesn’t fully achieve, but continues to aspire to, it hopes for in the next.

I remember lecturers in dashikis and leather sandals. There was Vere Knight, who wore shorts throughout his university career, whose family was like mine as a child. Today, tertiary education has narrowed to an ideal of preparation for employment and entrepreneurship, and jackets, worn by both women and men, fill a meeting room. I always thought of jackets as a capitalist uniform, drawing on Rastafarian cultural resistance, but bought my first jacket this year, in preparation for headship, on the advice of my predecessors who know women need every resource to negotiate the system and its hierarchies in a neoliberal age. Times indeed change a place.

Stories communicate how we make the history, community and landscape around us meaningful. Our stories give spaces humanity, inviting others to share where matters and why, allowing for our eccentricities. We tell such stories about Naps or Bishops. For UWI, they are a counter-narrative to easy public disparagement and generalized dismissal or, alternatively, to policy language and economic rationales.

Others can point to such generational relationships, chances for a first job, inspirational teachers and supervisors, and long-term mentorship. We follow in the footsteps of those who came before, literally walking the paths under the trees as they once did.

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On my first day at Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine Campus. It’s been 19 years under the mentorship of countless academics, especially women, especially Professor Rhoda Reddock and Professor Patricia Mohammed. I walk with all their spirits. Forward ever.