Friday, May 12, 2006

Making My Family Tree

They were showing the myths discussed in the Da Vinci Code on the History Channel and mentioned a document tracing the genealogy of Christ - a family tree, if you will. The mention of those words made me reminisce about a particular incident from my childhood.

It was during my summer vacations, usually spent in Bangladesh. I must have been around ten. Now, when I used to travel from the Middle East to Bangladesh, it would mean losing connection with all my friends for two months, as well as giving up my favourite TV programs. I am talking before satellite channels (and the internet), and all of Bangladesh used to have one channel - BTV (still does). The only good program on BTV was Wednesdays, 10 pm, MacGyver. And this was if I was in Dhaka, and the power was there. For three days on every trip, however, my parents would go to our ancestral village. Which meant, for me, not even TV.

I used to be quite bored while in the village. First, as I mentioned, no TV. Second, the washroomstoilets used to be ... disgusting. The elders did nothing but chew bidi and paan and have red teeth. The young kids thought nothing of playing football in the mud. And no one knew of Sherlock Holmes! And if you think I would have a fun time with my cousins, think again. All my cousins who lived in the village were a) older than me and planning to pressure my dad to get them a visa, any visa, to Dubai b) younger than me who thought nothing of grabbing a cockroach and tearing off its legs one at a time. All the cool cousins were in Dhaka, it seemed.

So there I was, at midday, sitting all alone, reading my Tintin comic for the fourth time, when my dad walks in.

"What are you doing?" He asks.

"I am BORED." Little spoilt me complained.

"Well, your Riaz bhaia's playing football." My dad offered.

I looked at him in shock. "It's raining outside. And the ball is not even Nike!"

My dad then had a bright idea. "Tell you what, why don't we make a family tree? It will teach you a bit about our family. We are descended from Isa Kha, you know.

So he asked me to get a piece of paper. Which proved easier said than done. At that time the only papers one could find there were newsprint papers attached to school notebooks, which my cousins were reluctant to part with (for some reason there was always paper when the elders were playing cards). I finally got stole one notebook.

"Ok," my dad said. "Write your great-grandfather's name down. It's so-and-so."

I wrote it down.

"Now we are going to note the names of his kids."

At that moment my uncle popped his head into the room and asked us what we were doing.

"Making a family tree." I replied. I had to explain what that was.

"Oh." My uncle popped his head out and started to shout, "Maqsud! Shamim! Faiza! Poppy! Rana! Come here! WE ARE MAKING A FAMILY TREE."

Suddenly there were 10 people in the room. I drew four lines under my great grandfather's name and asked, "so how many kids did he have?"

"Wait." My uncle interrupted. "There was 4 ... no 5 ... but that was from his first wife. From his second ..."

"He had HOW many wives?" I asked incredulously. At that age polygamy was unknown to me.

"Three." My dad replied quite matter-of-factly. I quickly added a few more lines under my great grandfather's name. 17 kids, to be precise. I was going to need the whole notebook.

And that's how it continued. It was funny how everyone 3 generations ago had 2 or 3 wives and atleast 15 kids (not counting those that died in infancy). The next generation may have children in single digits (like 9) but could still have 2 wives. The following generation had 1 wife and only 3 or 4 kids.

When we were finally done, half the village was in that room. Everyone kept reminding me of someone I had forgotten "but what about Kamal the son of Quddus the ...". It had taken 13 papers, 2 hours, and we found out we were related to the village MP's eldest daughter-in-law.

I still have those papers. And come to think of it, that one afternoon was some of the best 2 hours I had spent.



luckyfatima said...

salaam mezba wow i didn't know polygyny use to be so popular in rural BD. Like were your forefathers landowners or something? did ask your dad about the polygyny thing or just kind of ignore it?

NAB said...

it's an islamic thing. people still do it, though it's not as overt nowadays. It's against ones of the Bangladesh Laws, isn't it?

About the family tree, that's so cool. I have always wanted to make one but no one knew enough. the farthest I had gotten to were my great-grandfathers. Infact, co-incidentally enough, both my GGFs shared the same name. And lo and behold, my bua's grand-dad was called the same too! lolz. so they were all "Miajaan Ali".

mezba said...

@Fatima: wasa. I don't know if it was popular 100 years ago but way more common than now. My great grandfather was a landlord (semi-nawab too, if family stories are to be believed lol) but they were based in what is now West Bengal, India. They had to leave everything behind during the Partition as they were Muslims in a Hindu area. What was a small holiday home in East Pakistan (now B'desh) became their new home.

@Nowal: Ya, making the family tree was so cool. And we got to hear lots of stories about my forefathers.

Even now I don't know what happened to a couple of my great-grandfather's sisters who never moved to E Pakistan. I guess somewhere I have Indian relatives.

I don't know if polygamy is against Bangladesh laws (I suspect not as it's an Islamic nation) but probably there are all sort of restrictions on it.

goBgoB said...

MacGuyver! OMG that was my favourite SHOW!!
awesome about the family tree. it would be so much fun to make one !! hmm.. maybe for my next trip to BD'esh (who knows when that will be )

Isheeta said...

faiza! rana! poppy!

lol! whenever we'd be playing with the kids in the neighbourhood, if some uncleji saw us playing, he'd call out his herd too! ah, memories!

Em said...

you were quite the brat, "and it's not even Nike", hehe...

you've done well even if it's up to your great-grandfather part.

i know of some deshis who claim to trace back unbroken chains to their descendents to Arab ancestors from the early second millennium... some "academic" accounts even construct family trees of the Prophets (as)... all utter nonsense as far as i understand it. any thoughts?

Em said...

argh! "to their descendents" is redundant.

luckyfatima said...

salaam yes, i think the polygyny thing was more of a nawaab/chaudhry thing than widespread even back then. multiple wives and families are just more expensive than practical. :)

in line with what em says a lot of s. asians claim arab, persian, turkish, and afghan ancestry. i think a lot of people may have 1 afghaan great great great somebody and romanticize about it. kind of like a lot of white and black americans who have no connection to the native american indian identity all say they have a native indian great great grandmother. like, for many desis they do have someone way back in the lines, but most of their ancestors are probably locals or wouldn't they look less desi and more turkish, afghan, or whatever? just a thought. i think that sounds romantic and prestigious (since these guys were "noble" conquerors) and separates people from the "hindu convert" identity.

hassan-al-makdis said...

Polygamy is still very much legal in Bangladesh, and very much in vogue, irrespective of whatever laws they may have governing it. As any red blooded Bangladeshi(I am one) knows, laws are not really enforced in Bangladesh, and so the practice is widespread in the villages. personally I have nothing against polygamy. In fact my stance is, it can be a harmonious arrangement if proper rules are followed. But in the villages it is frequently abused. I once saw a T.V. program in BD which showed an 81 year old man with 19 wives and some 50 odd children. his youngest wife was 21 and his youngest kid 3 or 4. And to think he did not even have Viagra.

mezba said...

@Gobgob: MacGuyver was the best!

@Isheeta: Those uncles would be too tired and old so you would have to get their glasses of water and newspapers for them, but man could they shout!

@Em: As far as I remember, for someone to track way beyond their great-grandfather, successive lineage records would need to have been kept from way before. For us, we could trace it back to Isa Khan but that was because those records were kept in our family.

@Fatima: Probably you are right. Although in areas of Noakhali and other places where the Bengals fought the Mughals you are more likely to see non-bengali heritage as people from other areas came here to join the fight. And I think you are also right about an inferiority complex about 'hindu ancestors' amongst SOME bengalis, but there's an equally outspoken bunch who are proud they are different from Afghani/Pakistani culture!

@Hassan: Wow. 19 wives would be illegal in Bangladesh under Islamic laws anyways, I guess that's why he was on the news. Reminds me of one of those Confucius says jokes, "Old man marrying young wife is like buying best seller for others to read." lol

TheBlondeBrunette said...

isn't it wonderful to learn about your family history and where you came from? I hope you don't mind me commenting I sort of just found you while surfing the blogs. your blog is very nice. I hope that you won't mind if I pop in from time to time.