Shamim Chowdhury writes
I receive the news in the dead of night; that nocturnal stretch, that is, if you believe in folklore, the Devil’s Hour, when creatures of the spirit world make their presence felt. I have been sleeping badly; jumpy, jittery, thrashing my head against the pillow, waking up often, checking my phone for messages of I know not what. 3am, and I am alone in the world. Then it appears. A WhatsApp message from my brother. Short and to the point: ‘Chinoo Chacha died’, chacha referring to my paternal uncle, my father’s older brother, the first in our family to be snatched by COVID. No hope of sleep now. I am consumed by a cloud of helplessness, confusion, pain and disbelief. I phone my mother, my urge to reach for her that of a needy child. We speak of death. Other messages from family members start to appear. Lots of them. Ping. Ping. Ping. I scroll and scroll and scroll, unable to stop, in the vain hope that the repeated, rhythmic actions of my fingers and thumbs will somehow placate my perturbed heart.
Dawn breaks. The inky sky above my Istanbul apartment gives way to wintery hues of powder blue and muted silver. I stumble out of bed and tell myself I am ok. I believe too. I am accepting, stoic. I clean, cook, fold this, dust that, stir a pot, make soup to take to a friend. I put on my coat and check my phone one more time. Another message. “boro chacha also died”. Boro: Eldest. Just 15 hours after his younger brother. A double strike for covid. Stoicism abandons me. I slam the plastic soup container onto the kitchen table and slump onto my bed, coat still on. I call my friend. No soup today, I tell her. She is understanding, kind and sympathetic, but I can barely respond. I am too broken, too numb for tears. The next few days, I mostly sat on my bed, rocking back and forth, seeking comfort and distraction in social media.
It is January and we’re almost a year into the pandemic. My uncles’ demise is the latest blow in a year that has altered my life beyond recognition; one where I went from being a roving international correspondent, jetting across the world covering some of the biggest stories of our times and with a fun-filled social life to boot – not to mention the heady delight of daily Istanbul life – to find myself alone and isolated days, weeks, months on end, staring into the Bosphorus, its glistening waters blinking mockingly at me. As if that wasn’t enough, I was deeply unhappy at work – for reasons unrelated to the pandemic – with little hope of returning home any time soon.
And now this.
The deaths are a trigger. I am transported back to June 1998 and the moment my father dies of heart failure. I am back in that place, in London on that balmy summer’s day, registering his death, receiving guests, grief ballooning inside me like an over-inflated life jacket in danger of exploding at any second. My father’s older brothers looked like him and sounded like him. They are my flesh and blood. I watch the funerals on Facebook live, writhing in agony, alone in my flat. A part of me is buried as each uncle is lowered into the ground.
Fast forward six months, and I have returned to London. The pandemic is dragging on, and I am facing an uncertain future. I plan a trip to Scotland to visit an old friend whose life has also come full circle. I decided to climb Ben Nevis. I am craving something to re-ignite my deadened zeal. My friend, Hasina, who is joining me, suggests doing the climb for charity. It coincides with my father’s 23rd death anniversary, so I decide to raise the money in memory of him and my two uncles. I opt for a small charity named Lonely Orphans, which runs a project for Rohingya refugee girls living in the camps of southern Bangladesh. This resonates on a number of levels. I have reported from the camps on many occasions and have witnessed the suffering of the Rohingya first-hand. Bangladesh is also the country of my heritage and one that I have an intense emotional attachment to. Setting up my donation page through the charity donation service JustGiving requires the little effort I can just about muster at this moment in time.
Hasina, who also has Bangladeshi ancestry, is carrying her own weight of sorrow. Her only son, Sami, was killed 7 years ago, aged 18, by an uninsured driver in a road traffic collision. She opts for the Palestinians in Gaza as her cause. She wears Sami’s gloves during the climb. A third British-Bangladeshi woman, Luthfa, joins us. Palestine is also her charity of choice.
None of us are seasoned climbers, far from it. But the weather is on our side, our footwear is on point, and our packed lunches are ample. We are feeling buoyant. We relish the camaraderie and banter of the people we encounter during our ascent. The sense of shared experience spurs us on as we clamber over rocks and step tentatively across streams. The panoramic views of the Highlands leave us breathless. On and on, we walk, navigating the winding path as we climb higher and higher. We take too many photos and stop for too many breaks. My father and uncles come up in conversation. So does Sami.
The terrain becomes more barren. A biting chill envelopes us. At some points, the path disappears. We heave ourselves over boulders, some smooth and slippery, others jagged and jarring. We become breathless, disorientated, irritated. At times it feels as though an invisible current is thrusting us forward as if we have become one with the mountain, our will no longer our own. The hours pass. We walk in silence, our aching muscles clenching in protest with our every step.
It takes us considerably longer to reach the summit than some of the other climbers, the snow crunches under our feet. The mist frustrates us. The flat plateau leading to the stones marking the summit seems maddeningly endless. But it does end. Suddenly we are euphoric. We’ve done it; three British-Bangladeshi women on a mission to close wounds and make peace with ourselves. We have also raised nearly £3,000 for charity. Never before has the hankered old metaphor of conquering mountains rang truer. It’s a modest achievement, but for us, it is everything.
Twitter: @shamimjourno, Instagram: @shamimjournalist