On Monday, my great aunt Nazneen Begum passed away in Bangladesh. I hadn't seen her in person since I was 12 years old when she came to visit my family all the way in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where she stayed with us for about two weeks. She was hilarious, adventurous and someone who loved nature. Even though she was my grandmothers youngest sister and her hair had completely greyed, she had the spirit of a young woman or a child even. She and my mother literally frolicked about, gathering wild flowers in meadows they randomly stopped by off interstate highways. I remember my aunt, whom I called "Shundor Nanu" or "pretty grandma" in Bengali, taking off her shoes with no hesitation to go wading in a lake, her salwar kameez hiked past her calves. She and my mother were kindred spirits, connected from my mother's childhood, more best friends than aunt and niece. She would sleep next to my mother teaching her traditional Bengali songs and telling her poems that my mother has memorized to this very day.
But she was so much more than a relative that was fun yet separated from me by thousands of miles of oceans and continents. My aunt was a fierce lady. She was the very definition of a fierce lady. She spent a lifetime teaching girls. She taught at countless schools throughout the country and later became a professor. She even came to America to teach at schools here and continued her education at a Cal State, her passion to educate and to learn pushing her across borders and oceans. She was an voracious reader, my mother told me that her home was lined with books, books and more books. This is something else we have in common.
Empowering girls, teaching and advancing education were her greatest passion. She came from a generation of sisters who were married off young due to the turmoils of not one, but two wars. One war that saw the world battle from the shores of Europe to the South Pacific, to a violent partition that tore apart the British Raj into the modern day Indian subcontinent. She knew that marriage and childbirth were not the default pinnacle of a woman's ability and ambition. She knew and dedicated herself to education, the one thing that could change the lives of women, families and communities. In the heart of it all she was a social justice activist. Her work was not only limited to teaching. I recently found out that she also rallied teachers to march and protest calling for better pay and workers rights. I wish I had known all this when she had visited for those 15 days. But I was barely in middle school, only beginning to touch on thinking about the grander impact I wanted to make on the world. I loved her but I didn't know her whole story, not in the way I appreciate it now.
|Students at my aunt's Mohammad Eusuf Higher Secondary School|
As I reflect upon my own social justice work and commitments, I feel so deeply rooted in knowing the history of my own family in social movements and in efforts for social good. Is this passion to create change genetic? Is it passed down somehow through blood, through the coding in our DNA? Or is it passed through stories and learning, through the songs and poems my Shundor Nanu taught my mother as a young girl, who looks up to her to this very day with the utmost love and reverence?