Published:  08:33 AM, 09 July 2024

Soheli Mirza Between Life and Death

Soheli Mirza Between Life and Death

Dr. Nalin Kumar Bharati

It is difficult to write anything about a person for whom you have great affection. Soheli Mirza was one of the women for whom not only me, but many of us have great respect.

 It was 2003 when I was in Dhaka for my PhD fieldwork. Before visiting to Dhaka, I had collected many references and addresses from Jawaharlal Nehru University Professors. Salam Azad, husband of Soheli Mirza was one of those references in Bangladesh and with whom I become close.

I met Soheli at Salam's home in March, 2003. Soheli was working for a daily newspaper in Dhaka at that time. At our first introduction, she seemed very thoughtful, intelligent, and decent. She asked me about my experience in Dhaka, progress of PhD and the reason behind selecting Bangladesh for PhD topic. During our interesting interactions, she used to ask meaning of many Hindi words, which I was able to share with her in my half-baked horrible Bengali.

Soheli was a very calm woman. From time to time, she would mention that Salam was writing too much which is creating problems for him in Bangladesh. She was more of a literary character than that of a journalist. I remember a day when I answered one of her questions in English.

She got very upset because she hated English as it's not a South Asian Language and also because the English exploited Indian subcontinent for many years. She had a simple logic, "What is wrong in speaking our own language?"

I left Delhi in 2005 and joined National Law University Raipur and after that NALSAR Hyderabad to serve there until 2008. Then I joined IIT Patna. Soheli asked, "How far is this institute from your home town?" I replied, "My Institute is around 120 km from my home town." She was really happy to know that I was back to my home land. Salam and Soheli both were happy and progressing in their work until 2012 and were in regular contact with me.

The dark years

As I remember, it was 2013 when Salam called me and told Soheli was in Delhi and she was suffering from some major diseases. He described the symptoms, which I suspected of TB and doctor also provided her medicine for TB. Soon after that, Salam told that she had been admitted in All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi (AIIMS), New Delhi and she had undergone various tests including Biopsy.

Soheli and Salam both had a big challenge ahead of them and this continued for a long time. Soheli was suffering from cancer and for me it was unbelievable. It was a crucial time for Salam. I met her in 2013 after chemotherapy. She had lost all her hair. I felt that she had faith in life and did not try with chemotherapy. She showed me patients waiting for treatment in AIIMS. She had really a huge concern for the poor patients.

Such attachment for the poor people is rare. Soheli's health condition was stable for some time. She returned home and used to Delhi for regular checkup. Her health condition started fluctuating a lot. Reports were not very positive even after chemotherapy.

Oral chemotherapy was recommended by AIIMS. Cancer cells had spread quickly in other parts of her body. Due to chemo, she had blood clotting in brain worsening her condition. There was a surgery of her brain and after that she was on bed until her last breath.

In June 2014, I decided to go to Delhi with my family. Ananya met Soheli first time in AIIMS. It was a great moment for her as I had promised her in 2013 that next time I would come with my wife Ananya and my daughter Lychee. In 2014 things were much different from 2013.

It was Ananya's first meeting with her at the age of 5. Soheli was on bed, fully tired of her medicine and treatment. Salam asked to write a letter to Mayo hospital in US for further suggestion but nothing was positive from there too.

Even after the operation, her brain was creative. It was the last stage of Soheli's life when she had almost lost every hope. I still remember the evening when she told me over phone that the modern medical science is hopeless. I consoled her that things would get better.

But unfortunately it kept worsening. Doctor from Mayo advised Salam that only traditional medicine should be used now as the role of modern medicine is over. That day Salam also realized that she had only few days left of her life.

Salam tried a lot but he was helpless. Despite his efforts he could not improve her health condition as it is not in his hands. He told me that he would go back to Dhaka so that Soheli's family members could see her. After few days, I received an SMS from Salam that Soheli was no more. It was difficult to accept the truth.

 I called Salam only after few days. He started crying over phone. Salam and Soheli were not two different people. They were one for me. I wish I could have been more helpful to Soheli and Salam during the treatment. Many times Salam asked me for some minor help but I was able neither to go to Delhi nor to assist him.

Soheli's India

Soheli had a great admiration for the Indian culture and people. She kept mentioning that we had been a single nation in the past. She had several inquiries about Indian languages, foods, and dialects. But many times she was also puzzled with the inequality in South Asia.
As a media professional, her eyes were always open to see the reality of the nation. In AIIMS also she kept on asking me when everyone would have equal opportunity.

I tried to convince her that it is not only the problem of South Asia but of the whole world. But whenever I tried to answer such questions she always had counter questions that how long this inequality was going to continue.

 I have not seen a woman who had her own health problem but worried for the problem of others. In a self-centered world such people are really very limited in numbers.

She was really surprised when I mentioned about 720 dialects and thousands of Gods and Goddesses of India. She kept on asking how people nurture such rich culture in India.

Soheli's Bangladesh  

She had very close attachment with Bangladesh. In our constant discussion, she always looked worried for the poor people of Bangladesh. Many times she blamed British colonial period.

Birth of Bangladesh was a hope for the citizens but growing population and unequal distribution of income was one of the main reasons for the poverty in Bangladesh. In one of the discussions, she simply asked me, "Nalin, why everyone is not economically equal?" Like her many other questions I had no answer to this also. She was mentioning this is really a fact that people are travelling from Bangladesh to India for treatment

Apart from these issues language, culture, rivers and intellectuals of Bangladesh were always fascinating for her. Soheli struggled a lot for her own life but before that struggle, her mind never took rest due to her deep association with deprived people. Her concern for masses cannot be confined within a geographical boundary. Soheli's Bangladesh had many challenges but with all these challenges, her Bangladesh was always beautiful.

Last but not the least

I have not seen such a short distance between life and death. Often it was unbelievable. For me Soheli is always alive in my mind. Life is really strange and more than that the change which we see every moment. For me nobody dies, they disappear. Soheli too has disappeared.

Her words, sentiments, and above all her faith in human beings will be always alive. For me writing anything about her is really difficult as she cannot be fully explained and presented in words.

Dr. Nalin Kumar Bharati is a Professor
and Head of Department of Humanities
and Social Sciences at Indian Institute
of Technology (IIT), Patna.

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