Remembering Quayes: Mind the gap

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Naeema Chaudhury Quayes


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.

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 centers, 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.

9289A1CA-0110-4D9B-BBEB-6CD7151E339DHaving 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, including in Foreign Affairs Training institute or Harvard JFK campus or Law School, were inspiration for his boundless confidence. The teacher-student bond was a 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 pediatrician 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.

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.

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 counselor 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 issues of cultural and intellectual heritage and organizational effectiveness.

Quayes stayed away from people who projected doom and gloom but hoped also to lift up spirits with his cheerfulness and optimism.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). 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 to MoFA to give him respite from grueling 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 armor, a defense 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 capitalized 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 hospitalized 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 septicemia 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 at then that no one should languish in a hospital, be at the mercy of medicine or relinquish their right to die a dignified death to rules, authority and the decisions of anyone other than family; but how helpless is that family in the face of such circumstances?

The Brazilian government and diplomatic community bestowed their highest honor, 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. Quayes was laid to rest with his parents in Banani graveyard.

We as a people are not very good at looking in the mirror or recognizing 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 this April 2, 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 soul rest in eternal peace.

The writer is the spouse of the late ambassador and former foreign secretary Mijarul Quayes

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