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In memoriam

Mijarul Quayes as he was

Naeema Chaudhury Quayes | Published: April 19, 2019 21:14:23


Before I met the man, I heard him from the far end of (what was then) the open corridor of our tiny IR department in the Arts faculty of DU. He was talking distinctly about the merits of a textbook that a first year student had borrowed from the seminar library. The student greeted us in passing. The stranger, however, radiating a bright smile and confident air, stepped forward and introduced himself. He appeared to be more mature and experienced than the rest of us, so my classmates took to addressing him as 'bhai'. He preferred 'Quayes', which is what I always called him.

We were both 22 at the time; I, in my second year of university and he, in his second year at DMC. Our journey together lasted 35 years.

What had we in common? We moved in the same social circles, had honest, hardworking, helpful government officers for fathers, strong, tireless, accomplished mothers, siblings conversant in dog-eared Agatha Christie, Perry Mason, Tin Tin, Archies, DC and Marvel comics; related to the values of the liberation war-having escaped from Islamabad, admired the same historic statesmen and literary personalities and had similar outlooks.

Quayes was, by far, the most energetic, understanding, caring, generous and patient among our peers. We knew each other on and off the first decade, mostly sharing cultural and volunteer pursuits. They were lively respites with friends and family, reflecting on books, music, lectures, exhibitions and films at cultural centres, as we finished our education and worked at our first jobs. Crumbling, neglected public buildings and polluted environments were an occupational hazard. We both developed asthma. It got worse with humidity or if we caught colds. But it did not put us out of circulation.

Having an extraordinary capacity and appreciation for language, Quayes comfortably mastered Bengali literature and made every effort to share its depth, beauty and reach. He read the world news on radio, taught English at Notre Dame College and worked at an upcoming ad company. But what he really enjoyed was seeing Bishwo Shahitto Kendro materialize, the platform it gave him to conduct discourse on subjects of his interest, his role as mentor to a younger generation and getting everyone he knew (including moi) to contribute books, LPs or organize funds for computers and so on. His mother worried that it was all he focused on at the time. He was knowledgeable and single-minded in purpose when it came to things he was passionate about.

Quayes' teachers, whether in Islamabad, Residential in Mohammadpur, Rajshahi or Dhaka College, Foreign Affairs Training institute, the Tokyo language school where he became fluent in Japanese, Harvard JFK campus or Law School, were inspiration for his boundless confidence. He never lost an opportunity to thank and acknowledge them. The teacher-student bonding was as constant and strong as the closeness and importance he placed on family and a handful of friends.

Quayes had trained for more than three years as an MBBS doctor. He wanted to be a paediatrician upon completion, no doubt because of his gentle ways and fascination with babies and children. Wanting no part of the divisive student politics that plagued DMC and a career path that he thought would least disappoint his mother he made the sudden decision to sit for the first BCS exams, to become instead a diplomat. His first and only choice as far as government service was concerned, was to join the Foreign Office.

An event that affected him deeply was the death from leukaemia of his 24 year old brother Jamil, during the beginning of his career and posting in Japan. Living by himself for first time, he discovered that he had a talent for cooking. And although on a tight budget as a junior officer, he liked to entertain. But drinking classic coke and grabbing fast food to and from work when he didn't cook left its damage. He started putting on the weight that he would struggle with for years, despite changing his eating habits later.

Most of his friends and colleagues were married and had children when we decided to tie the knot. It was on a monsoon day before he went on a fellowship and I could take a break from my development work in Dhaka. As newlyweds, we explored Massachusetts, had neighbours, friends and the occasional visitor from Bangladesh for meals, caught up with siblings and cousins and drove across the US with a colleague to take in the sites. The high point of this period was Quayes earning his post graduate degree in Public Policy from Harvard. We learned to encourage other's interest, finish each other's sentence, sit with each other in comfortable silence or have meaningful conversations when time seemed to stand still. If we had disappointments and disagreements, they were rare. We relied on each other, our ability to be ourselves but also to handle things alone if need be. A curious diplomat from the West had asked years later how our marriage was 'arranged' and Quayes, with great conviction and without missing a beat replied: 'we arranged it'.

Back from his study leave, we lived and worked from his parent's home. He was then a Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I taught in Scholastica. He maintained close ties with his five batch mates (and their families), was cordial and often engaged with his '82 BCS colleagues in the government. Quayes deferred to and earned the respect of well-meaning and competent seniors in the Foreign Office, who also took him under their wing and encouraged his professional growth. He refined his drafting, negotiation, reporting and administrative skills from them.

We became parents to Manoshi and Madhuri, born during our posting in Geneva. Quayes was many things to many people but his role as loving father was one that he cherished. He listened attentively to their requests, sang them lullabies and tucked them into bed. They were his first and last concern for the day. He remembered birthdays and anniversaries with a thoughtful gift, a special cake, a greeting card, flowers, a call or message even if he was in the same room or several cities away.

I may have been the one to take photos, read the girls books, introduced them to crafts, music and films and dressed them in nice clothes, but Quayes kept us entertained. Sharing a meaningful anecdote, debating on history or politics, laughing aloud tearfully at silly jokes, breaking out in song or demanding his daily dose of hugs.

If he ever felt guilty about anything, it was for the long periods he spent on official travel away from us. Holidays together were therefore important. Like my father, also a career diplomat, he planned in advance and took us on many side trips, even learning how to drive for our sake, though not comfortable with it.

Quayes joined the Foreign Office in 1982 and the Tokyo mission after training. He was counsellor in Switzerland and Singapore and worked as Director, Personnel and was DG, South Asia, SAARC, NAM at headquarters. He served as ambassador to the Maldives, Russia, UK and Brazil, concurrently to other nearby capitals and as Foreign Secretary in Dhaka. Diplomatic peers and counterparts abroad in bilateral and multilateral missions and the UN who had the opportunity to work with him, speak of his contributions in bilateral and multilateral fora, particularly in human rights and complementary development, trade and employment as well as issues of cultural and intellectual heritage and organisational effectiveness.

Before meetings and at public gatherings, he liked to lighten the mood and make people laugh at his jokes. He often retold a few stories: of the little bird who held up the sky explaining its stance with 'one does what one can'; of drawing a bigger circle around a smaller one to include all those who are otherwise excluded and of building bridges instead of walls. This to remind us that being part of the solution was better than being resigned to problems. Quayes stayed away from people who projected doom and gloom but hoped also to lift up spirits with his cheerfulness and optimism.

Life at home and abroad was a series of adjustments every few years amid constants that were our responsibilities and interests. We were glad to make new friends, offer our home and hospitality to foreign guests, visiting officials or patients seeking treatment and to have had my parents live with us before they died.

 Quayes was often invited by international and regional organisations, universities and cultural organisations to lecture. But 'home' was where he was in his natural element: relaxed, childlike, wondrous and delighted, especially if he could give vent to his aesthetic sensibilities, in the way he dressed or directed the layout and composition of the décor, furniture and the garden.

Quayes had his imperfections and was the first to admit them. He could be as malleable as he was stubborn, depending on what was at stake. It is not that he didn't try to keep well but that he was too invested in work. Medical tests for annual performance reviews during his career would find him free of the usual health risks (high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, or heart disease). It gave him a false sense of security. He preferred and trusted his own judgement rather than the specialists whose advice changed with each posting. He skipped the midday meal, but had a blind spot when it came to snacking on familiar childhood foods. He ate sparingly and selectively at official dinners. He walked and took the stairs at every opportunity unless his knees and back gave way so that the strongest hands available were assigned to relieve his distress. The sleep everyone accused him of not getting was in fact made up during travel or on weekend afternoons. The real worry for me was his working and travelling for long hours in a sedentary position.

During his stint as foreign secretary we hardly sat together for a meal and only saw him on TV, like the rest of the world. He travelled extensively and tirelessly until he fell seriously ill and was treated in Singapore. I wrote Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to give him respite from gruelling routine.

Quayes now suffered from a chronic dry cough, poor metabolism and digestion (likely from an underlying gut and hormone imbalance) and apnea. If things weighed on his mind, he chose not to air them. Self-deprecating jokes aside (about being a 'heavy weight', 'Moha med' and 'having more of Quayes to love') the morbid obesity or inflammation that his body held was a kind of armour, a defence mechanism and reaction to the indifference, insensitivities and unfairness of self-serving individuals and dysfunctional system and environment that sadly became his workplace where he spent most of his energy and time. Saving-face and defensiveness went hand in hand with an atmosphere of distrust and misunderstanding. The propensity toward apathy, pretence, sycophancy and cutting corners in the rhetoric of 'progress', stifled any genuine effort, any honest or worthwhile service.

An otherwise wise and respected relative observed whether Quayes could not have chosen to be less visible, less known for being cultured or what he stood for, thus avoiding the 'wrong' kind of attention. As if to have integrity, intelligence or an opinion is a crime. Worse than not taking a stance is perhaps not to have any stance to begin with. His courage in the face of political divisiveness is neither to be capitalised nor dismissed. It did not take the form of 'I am right, therefore you must be wrong....'

The Singapore hospital had five years before diagnosed and treated a rare airborne disease Quayes had got from attending a conference. Although he regularly took his bag full of medication, he picked up a virus from an infected horse on a visit to an agricultural project in Brazil. Not long after, a much loved and admired cousin from my family and then my mother, the last of our parent's generation, passed away in early 2017; we were in the country for her burial. Quayes needed rest and medical attention but permission for extended leave was not granted. There is a limit to even what a man such as he could endure. Prior to returning to Brazil, he let known to family, friends and colleagues his final and possibly only grievance.

The time came to take his leave of us. He was already showing signs of serious illness in Ankara but allowed to travel and hospitalised on reaching Brasilia. Connected to a respirator and kidney dialysis machine in the ICU, he seemed to have recovered two weeks later. Three days before he was to be released and sent home, Quayes succumbed to septicaemia from a bed sore. His last question to me just hours before he passed away was when I'd take him home. Next he was in a body bag and had to be prepped for the journey back a week later. It occurred to me then that no one should languish in a hospital, be at the mercy of medicine or relinquish their right to die a dignified death.

The Brazilian government and diplomatic community bestowed their highest honour, while the visiting Brazilian delegation in Dhaka, civil society and the people of Pakundia, Kishoreganj. paid their respect. A wide circle of close friends, colleagues and family attended janazas at MoFA, Gulshan mosque and his Qul Khani in Shaheen Hall. Quayes was laid to rest with his parents in Banani graveyard.

We as people are not very good at looking in the mirror or recognising what needs to be addressed. There seem too many distractions, too much separation, so little commitment, parallel worlds within worlds where the twain does not meet. Nor do we operate from the same page, in continuity, having the same visions.

When a person dies s/he takes with them the knowledge, experience, hopes and expectations of a generation. And we the living are left either to have learned the lessons or to repeat the same mistakes and start over from scratch without benefit of those who tried to show us the way forward, to step up or create the space to be.

Quayes is said to have been larger than life, in a league of his own. He was consistent and whole and wore his heart on his sleeve. I do not know of another person with such equanimity. He gave you his full, undivided attention, whoever you may be or whatever the task at hand. You remember him not for what he did but for how he made you feel. In Quayes' world, you mattered.

There are very few people whose goodness is all encompassing. Quayes was, above all, a good man.

We remember you on the occasion of your birthday, give thanks and celebrate the 56 amazing years spent in your company. The past did not hold you back. The future did not make you anxious. We are mindful of the gap you have left behind, the void that needs filling. Your presence lingers. May your spirit rest in eternal peace.

The writer is the spouse of the late ambassador and former foreign secretary and works in a private bank.  nquayes@gmail.com

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