Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 23 December 2011
“My sister was crying as she watched me pack a year’s supply of tampons. She couldn’t imagine why I wanted to go and live in Bangladesh,” said Kansas-born Susan Elahi.
The tearful scene took place in 1980, in Saint Louis, Missouri, as a 30-year-old Susan was preparing to set off with her Bangladeshi husband for what was supposed to be a six month “adventure” in Dhaka.
“It was all a great surprise to end up here,” she said with a smile.
Susan isn’t only referring to the geographical region she’s called home for three decades. As she explains, “I never thought I’d get married or have children. I had a good business and good friends – I was so happy that I didn’t think I needed to have all that in the equation.”
However as the mother-of-two reflects on her 32 year marriage, she glows with happiness and an enviable sense of contentment.
“In this day and age, [being married this long] is an unusual feat. It’s lovely. I think that because we started out as friends, it took us a long way.”
Susan and Ehsan first met in Missouri in 1975, through mutual friends.
“We realised we lived a block away, so we’d often go to the laundromat and do grocery shopping together. To help Ehsan get a rent reduction, I painted his neighbour’s flat. I made curtains too,” she said.
Susan and Ehsan “did a tonne of stuff together” for about three years. “He was my best friend,” she said.
However dating was out of the question, as neither was single at the time.
“I was dating a stupid idiot and Ehsan had a girl who wanted to date him seriously… It took some time for the light bulbs to switch on in our heads,” she added with a laugh.
The couple eventually married in 1979, when Susan was 29. However after their first year of marital bliss, the local economy was hit by “a huge recession.”
Susan said, “Everyone was working two jobs just to pay the heating bills. As much as we had invested in our education, we couldn’t seem to move ahead. My parents, at the same age we were at that time, owned their own home. It felt like the American dream was slipping away. It was getting us down.”
And so the couple decided it was time for a sea change.
When Ehsan and Susan arrived at Dhaka airport, every suitcase was meticulously combed by customs officials. She said it was routine at the time.
With a mischievous grin, Susan recalled how “a customs official held up my tampon and asked, ‘What’s this?’”
“He’d only seen the mouse mattresses,” she added with a chuckle.
Susan and Ehsan had left Missouri in March, when the ground was still covered by three feet of snow.
“I was dying of the heat in Dhaka,” she said. Needless to say, she’s well adjusted to it now.
Prior to Bangladesh, Susan had made just one other international trip, which was to neighbouring Canada. Nowadays, the couple are regular jet-setters.
Susan said, “Bangladesh is a great jumping off place for so many other areas in the region. It’s only a 20 minute flight to Kathmandu from Dhaka – when I was growing up in Kansas, Kathmandu seemed like the end of the world.”
Susan and Ehsan immediately moved into the Elahi’s 200-year-old home in Old Dhaka, where they lived for the next 10 years.
Susan said, “There were nine family members and 13 servants. My mother-in-law kept apologising for being so short-handed! You could eat off the floor in that house – absolutely.”
Susan was presented with a wardrobe containing 200 saris. She said, “That’s the kind of acceptance Ehsan’s family’s had for me. They accepted me before I came. My father-in-law was adamant I would not be referred to as his daughter-in-law. I was his daughter, because my father was so far away.”
The Ehsan family occupied the second floor of the building. Susan illustrated her new home’s palatial proportions, “The ground floor was divided – half was rented to the government as a paper go-down. The other half was a girl’s school – with 600 students.”
The ceilings were 17 feet high, the walls were “hugely thick” and some of the original stained glass remained intact, along with a hall with louvered doors.
As beautiful as her home was, Susan said that no one in Old Dhaka was spared the annoyance posed by monkeys.
“They were huge and stole things,” she said. The sneaky critters even managed to open the jars of pickles stored in their pantry.
As the monkey population increased, they became such a menace that local residents resorted to drastic measures.
“My father-in-law told me that people would put poison in big pots of cooked, sweetened rice, which were left out for the monkeys to eat. But the monkeys were so clever – they’d call an old monkey to smell the rice and dip a finger in it. If it didn’t meet his approval, they would leave it alone and go somewhere else.”
Susan made excellent use of the saris bestowed to her. She said, “I was in university when I first saw a woman wearing a sari. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I wondered why someone would choose to wear such an inconvenient garment.”
However to her surprise, “I discovered I could wrap it around me in three minutes flat. No pins. I think it was some sort of contest to me. My sister-in-law taught me how to put on a sari, and I was determined to learn quickly, because I didn’t want someone dressing me every day. I thought, ‘Ha! Now the shoe is on the other foot. I can’t expect my western clothes to be accepted.’”
Susan said that in 1980, “there weren’t many foreign women here. Somehow I heard of Dhaka American Women’s Club and I joined in 1981. But living in Old Dhaka without a car made it hard [to attend events regularly].”
She said the fact that she wore saris as opposed to a shalwar kameez, “points to the kind of changes that took place in Bangladesh over the years. A married woman would never wear a shalwar kameez, because that’s what schoolgirls wore. We wore saris.”
But surely wearing a sari restricted her movement, at least somewhat?
“I got used to it, though it was hard getting into a CNG [auto-rickshaw]. And when my child threw up on me, I had to deal with all the fabric. But it was also quite useful, because if my daughter was cold, I’d wrap her in it.”
It’s a beautiful image and one wishes that Susan, a talented painter, had made a self portrait of her child nestling in her ornate sari.
13 May 2014: Susan passed away yesterday, very unexpectedly. She died of a heart attack. May her beautiful soul rest in peace. My condolences to her family and close ones who loved her so.
To be continued next week: Part 2: “Dhaka was a completely different place back then.”