My dear son, what can I tell you about my life; I have lost my eight children, my husband is crippled by polio, my parents’ are dead, my relatives are stranded; I have nothing or no one but God to support me, and if you want I can talk to you about God.
The life of Mrs. Rahima Begum can be compared to a traumatic tale that few can envisage. Presently, she is a beggar; not one in Dhaka city but in the village of Dholeshor, Sirajganj. She suffered poverty, humility, deprivation, injustice and the loss of her eight children. Here I give you her story.
Mrs. Rahima Begum was born in the year 1949 to a poor family in Jirou. Her father was a destitute farmer growing crops on leased land. Their only property was their homestead located on delicate chor area, waiting to be claimed by the rivers.
Having three brothers and two sisters, Rahima Begum was the third child in the family. Neither of the children except one brother received even the primary education. Rahima and her sisters aided their mother in the daily works, whereas the brothers aided their father in farming; a typical rural family.
Rahima was married at around the age of 16 without any dowry to Mr. Eman Ali Talukdar, also a farmer and from a similar socio-economic background. It was 1966 when she came to Dholeshor village of Sirajgonj. Her husband’s house at that time was a mud-laid house of one room, with no furniture except a bed and a few utensils.
Soon after marriage Mrs. Rahima Begum was pregnant within four months. Reflecting back, she told me, “The moment I heard that I was pregnant, a fear grew in my mind; a growing anxiousness that should I give birth to a girl, what will my husband say? How’ll my struggling family feed her?”
While she lay pregnant, at nine months age of marriage life, her mother-in-law passed away. She found her husband to have broken down in this period, and daily income was lacking; it was the first day in her life she had to pass in hunger.
News of her mother-in-law’s death arrived late to her parents in Jirou and they came to see her almost a month later. This was only the second time she saw her parents after her marriage and she felt happy after a long time. The happiness however did not last long as she learned that her father exiled the elder brother from the family for a reason her parents would not tell her.
Rahima recalls, “Yes, the days were not only tough but without any sign of hope; it forced you to face reality in ways unimaginable. We didn’t have enough money to buy soap so instead I had to wash my hair with mud and fiber. I luckily had two ‘sarees’ at that time, one of them half torn; and wearing those I passed my days.”
The First Child
Before delivery, Rahima’s husband gave her all the support that she needed. She only wished to have a healthy boy as a child.
“God, it seemed, did not listen to my prayer for some unknown evil deed I had probably done.” Rahima expressed to me in great grief.
She clearly remembers the birth of her first child. At that time, there were no medical centers nearby, and the thought of availing proper delivery facilities were a dream. The delivery was carried out during night time with candles at the Dholeshor must-laid house, with aid of her mother and other neighbors. The delivery was successful, but her fear and grief sprouted to life the moment she saw the child was a girl.
Luckily Rahima’s husband expressed no disappointment. She says, “At that moment, I felt I was the luckiest women alive.”
The Time during the Liberation War – The Beginning of her Life Struggles
At the end of 1970, during the rising tensions of the liberation war, Rahima Begum was again pregnant. Both of her brothers fought for liberation and both of them lost their lives.
The most horrific time of my life was during the liberation war. I remember that once at night, several Pakistani soldiers stormed in our mud-laid house, breaking our door made out of jute. Storming in they held my husband and my mother at gun point – seeing me pregnant, they did not force me to get up from bed. They searched the entire house breaking most of our utensils probably for hidden arms. Completing the search, they asked a few questions to my husband and they left. I really thought that would be the end of our lives. My unborn child was our savior.
Rahima’s child was born a few months before the liberation of Bangladesh. To her shock it was again a girl.
Soon there was euphoria all over the country in the elation of gaining independence. However, to Rahima and her family, it was no independence.
Rahima’s husband, Eman Ali Talukdar expresses his views strongly in the following words,
At first I thought the end of the war would solve our problems. But soon I realized we wrongly bought independence; independence did not untangle the weave of poverty in our family, neither could it bring back the value of my wife’s brothers.
A few months after the war, Rahima learned that their house in Jirou was completely destroyed by the river. “The river devoured our house.” that is how Rahima described me the loss. Having lost everything, Rahima found his father heart-broken, without any hope.
Before 1974, Rahima had two more children – both of them were boys. It was a time when Rahima’s anxiety was relieved even if a little bit and things seemed to be finally improving up.
The 1974 Famine
The famine of 1974 crippled Rahima’s family. She describes, “During the famine, many a day went without food; and most days we could eat only once a day. Being the mother of the family, often I was the one bearing hunger; whatever food I had, I tried to at least keep my children hunger-free – I did not want them to feel the pain I was felling and I could not resist their cries. The growing desperation, the mental stress, and the cries of my children made me mad.”
During the famine, Rahima’s youngest son fell diseased – he was suffering from severe gastric and dehydration. Without proper medical check-up and immediate attention, a few days later Rahima’s youngest son passed away. “The days when my son died, I felt no hunger; the pain satisfied it and took all of them away. I could not understand the workings of God.”
Yet, it seemed one death was not enough. Sometime around the end of the famine, Rahima’s father also left them. Rahima’s found her father dead in the mud-paved floor of their house, where he slept the previous night.
Within the year 1979, Rahima gave birth to four more children – all of them were boys. But soon they realized the troubles of having a big family with only a single member to generate income; when her husband got ill, income generation suddenly stopped. They started living by borrowing.
None of Rahima’s children received immunization or vaccination even for the basic diseases. Rahima’s family could not afford proper hygiene or sanitary, leaving her children open to diseases. Owing to this and malnutrition, three out of four of Rahima’s sons passed away one after another.
Rahima could not afford to tell me details of their death. “God took them away. I do not know why but God took them away; and I have faith that He will keep them happy, since I could not – I think that is the reason why He took them away.”
The 1980 Flood
The 1980 flood hit Dholeshor hard. Rahima’s entire house was flooded. Rahima and her family took shelter atop the roof of the house until their house collapsed. Depleted of food, shelter and clothing, the family was stranded in the grasp of the disaster.
Since they could not afford to buy a boat they a raft from the stem of banana trees, which they used for shelter. They looked towards large trees for shelter from heavy rain. Rahima, her husband, her mother, her two daughters, and her single four-year-old son –all they could do is to struggle to live.
I remember a stretch of four to five days when we had nothing to eat except a simple lump of bread a day for each of us. To get this lump of bread, I had to swim over 400 meters up and down to where the relief was being distributed. How we survived those days I cannot tell.
Amidst this chaos, Rahima’s only remaining four-year-old son died drowning in the waters. After that incident Rahima recalls that she did not drink any water for two days, untill her husband forced her to drink. “Why did I not drink water? Well, how could I? This water took away my only living son that God did not take from me. How do you expect me to forgive that?”
Soon, the flood died down, and Rahima and her family barely clung on to life. When the water washed off, she found her entire house to be demolished – “…there was not even a trace left of my house.”
Following the flood, Rahima received some relief from different people and institutions, which she used to first satisfy hunger then to rebuild her house and to buy some chickens. “The first thing that I did with the money was to feed my family. We all tasted fresh food, food that was not damp, after a long time.”
However, the new house was nothing like the old one. The shanty house consisted of linked fiber-threads acting as a roof and cloth acting as surrounding wall. “We had no shelter from rain at that time. We slept on the mud-paved floor and when it rained the mud became wet and slippery; we could sleep no more.”
Polio and Marriage
In 1982, Rahima’s husband became crippled by polio. He became disabled and gave up working. Rahima did not know what to do. She had no idea how she would feed all five members of the family. Rahima and her daughters raised chickens and used the money from selling the eggs to survive – but it was not sufficient.
However, two to three days after her husband became inflicted with polio, she received a marriage offer for her elder daughter. Rahima happily wedded her elder daughter without any dowry to a man also belonging to a poor family.
Rahima still regrets recalling the marriage, “I still grieve that I couldn’t even give a single ‘saree’ to my elder daughter during her wedding; I couldn’t afford one. She had to marry wearing a torn ‘saree’ – I couldn’t fulfill my duty to her as a mother even in her wedding.”
The First Days of Begging
Soon after the marriage Rahima’s elder daughter left for her husband’s home. There was one less person to take care of for Rahima, but at the same time one less person to help in doing daily household works.
This was the time when Rahima first begged in her life for food – “I had no other choice in my mind, I did not know to do; but I knew one thing that I had to live and support my family. With that in mind and throwing away all pride, for the first time in my life that day I begged for my life.”
Eman Ali Talukdar shares his sadness in the following words, “I never felt so drowned and morose in my entire life, to see my own wife beg while I lay disabled and without any means to help her – I never imagined such a day would come.”
Rahima thus started to beg from then on, struggling to live. She still does so. However, life was still not kind to her. Rahima lost her elder daughter to jaundice and her younger daughter while giving birth to an already dead child.
The following are her words that, “I do not why I did not become mad when I heard the news. The news sounded familiar and I knew they reached my ears for the eighth time. God somehow made my heart calm and silenced my tears – but He let me pray and silently cry for my children whenever I wanted to.”
Over 2 hours passed as we chatted. I sat there stunned. Is this independence?
What can I say about begging? How would you feel to wander around from place to place all day asking everyone for money and food? How would you feel to live so lowly to everyone? I feel exactly the same way and more because it is not by my choice that I am doing so. If I could I would have stopped begging but I cannot; I have to live and the only profession open to me is begging.