Razia finally defeated by poverty

Razia Sultana

With the help of a local journalist, we made our way to the home of national team footballer Razia Sultana at Moutala in Kaliganj. The local journalist was in front, me and my colleague Kalyan Banerjee following behind. He halted his motorbike, indicating we had reached. I was rather surprised. There was no name plate, not even any gate. There was a pile of hay at the entrance of the homestead which consisted of dilapidated cottages on either side of a narrow yard.

We visited Razia's home on 19 March. The moment we entered, a woman began to weep aloud, her cries rending the air all around. This was Razia's sister Najma Khatun. I took the opportunity to console her and then asked to meet the proud mother of the champion footballer.

I realised that the woman sitting with bowed head nearby was Razia Sultana's mother Abiran Begum. At our request, she came and sat near us, but said nothing. The infant was nowhere to be seen. We learnt that the infant's father Eyam Rahman had taken the child. He works at a garment factory in Dhaka and his village home was in Rangamati. Razia's infant boy will stay with his paternal grandmother in Rangamati for the time being.

In the meantime, Razia's uncle Saker Ali Sardar came walking, leaning on a cane from the house next door. Other relations, Razia's childhood friends, neighbours and other all arrived at the yard. Razia belonged to all of them. She had brightened the faces of the people in Moutala, and then slipped away into the darkness of her grave.

How was our Razia Sultana? Her sister's eyes glistened with tears. Everyone wanted to talk. There was her childhood playmate, a village aunt, her brother just a year older than her, everyone. Razia began playing when she was just eight. She would go with her cousins to take the cows to graze in the fields. She would play marbles. They would play football with a pumelo (jambura) or a deflated ball, but Razia was sure to score a goal. Yasin Sardar, who was her childhood playmate, said, "I do not know what Allah made her knees out of! What strength! When she went to Basantpur to play, she scored seven goals herself."

Razia first came to the limelight when she was in Class 5 and took part in the Ubhakur Government Primary School's Bangamata Football Tournament. She went on without a break to the Under-13, the Under-19 and then the national team. From 11 years of age till her death, she played at home and abroad in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Singapore. Her participation cards for all the tournaments have been kept carefully.

I always would go around with her. I once went to watch a match and I heard shouts from the gallery, "Block Razia! All you need is to block Razia!"
Najma, football champion Razia Sultana's sister

We look at the picture of Razia's first tournament at Ubhakur Primary School. Her eyes are shining with determination to overcome all odds and reach the top. We look at the pictures one by one, seeing her gradually grow. When she played in the national jersey, her hair was short and spiked in front. She had laughed and told the others, the national team captain Sabina suggested this style, that I look good this way!

I asked those around us whether they had ever gone to watch any of Razia's matches? They all chimed in, "Yes!" How did so many people go? They said the school authorities had arranged a bus during the Bangamata Football Tournament and the entire village went enthusiastically to watch the game.

Razia's sister Najma had been with her. She said, "I studied at a madrasa then, but I couldn't imagine not going to watch the game when Razia would be playing. I always would go around with her. I once went to watch a match and I heard shouts from the gallery, "Block Razia! All you need is to block Razia!"

Her elderly uncle Saker Sardar now spoke out, "They once went to Nepal and got stuck there. There was some earthquake or something. She had called me over the phone and said, uncle, don't worry. We will come back."

How were Razia's growing years? A sports girl among five brothers and sisters, she must have got a bit more attention and care than the others! Fish, meat, at least one egg a day, at least one glass of milk?

I reach out and hold Abiran Begum's hand. I look into her eyes. She begins to sob, "My silly girl left with a lot of suffering. She struggled so hard. No one stood behind my crazy girl."

Was she given care, I asked. Abiran replied, "Her father had tuberculosis. I worked as a day labourer in various homes. We have two papaya trees in the yard. Our meals were boiled papaya and rice. Sometimes some greens growing around the marsh. I never managed to give her a green chilli even, let alone fish, meat or milk. Once they were preparing tengra fish next door and my elder son asked if I would one day treat them to tengra."

Her father would play a cycle van but died of TB in 2018. Razia took responsibility of the entire family since then. The prime minister has given her Tk 10,00,000 and she just about erected four pillars for the house with that. They had so much debt, so much need, the illness of her father and another one of her brother's Fazlul Huq. Much was spent on medical treatment.

A sense of despondency descended upon me as I sat in the yard of that gloomy home. I could still hear fractured words around me, "The TNO (UNO) had bought her first boots. She looked after everything after father died. She was the youngest. She suffered through her life. She never got to eat a decent meal. I'm wearing her clothes. Just look at the state of her clothes. She would say, good days will come. But what days have come! She couldn't even hold her baby boy."

Weren't things any better when Razia got married? No, her husband would give her very little money to spend. She would get around Tk 8000 to Tk 10,000 from Bangladesh Football Federation. That was about it. Fazlul Huq fell seriously ill around six months ago, almost on his death bed. Razia kept her pregnancy a secret and went on to play. Players for the tournament were selected from Satkhira Sports Academy, Lakeview City, Chingri-Bangla Club and AR Sporting Club. Razia got a share of the tournament money and used that for her brother's medical treatment.

How much would Razia get? The family said, if there were matches on, she would get Tk 8000 a month. She didn't play for a few months and wasn't paid.

Why wasn't Razia taken to hospital? Her family replied, Razia refused to go. There was a health camp near the house and she went there for an injection. That was all.

She would always say, good days are ahead, ma. Where are the good days? Why didn't you tell me that you were leaving, silly girl?
Abrian Begum, football champion Abiran's mother

But she should have been forced to go, surely? She should have visited a physician at least four times during her pregnancy. They replied, they could not make her budge. She was worried that if she went to hospital, her child would be born through surgery. Then she wouldn't be able to return to the field. Then how would she earn? How would she feed her family?

Then? Fazlul Huq said he had taken her twice to the Kaliganj bazaar to get an ultrasound done and everything was fine. The doctor had said there would be no problem for normal delivery. At three in the afternoon of 13 March, Razia phoned her brother and told him to bring a midwife to the house. Fazlul came along with the midwife and village doctor Sanjay Mondol. They all agreed that it would take more time before the child was born and Sanjay left.

Razia's child was born at around 10:00 at night. Her brother Fazlul Huq was sitting in front of the house. Razia called him inside. Laughingly, Fazlul said, "Razia, your son has such good sharp features, you won't have to pull his nose! His hands and feet are nice and long too!" Suddenly Razia gasped, saying that she couldn't breathe. Razia's family called 999 and got an ambulance.

And then? Moutala union is 12 kilometres from Kaliganj upazila. By the time they reached Kaliganj, Razia was no longer speaking or moving. But there was still a long way to go. When they reached Satkhira Medical College Hospital, the physicians said she had died on the way. Fazlul returned home with Razia's dead body. He stopped in front of their house. How many times Razia had come back from playing for national team and halted in front this house. When she would emerge from the vehicle, there would be celebrations all around.

My head was spinning with a myriad of thoughts. I was thinking Bartley, Maria's little boy in John Millington Synge's 'Riders to the Sea'. The eldest son Michael had been swallowed up by the sea, his shirt and socks washed ashore. Nine days passed, but the rage of the sea did not lessen. There was not a grain of food at home. The entire family would have to either all die of hunger, or Bartley would have to go to the wild sea to catch fish. The mother kept holding Bartley back, but then... where would the food come from? Bartley rushed out of the house, never to return.

Our Razia went on to play, three months expectant. She would get Tk 8000 a month, if not, nothing. What would she eat then, what would she feed her child, her family?

The wings of her dreams took her on. Her playmate Yasin Sardar's son had started to toddle around. Razia would look at him and say, "Your son is so cute! When I have a son, just see how well I look after him. He will play football too." Razia never managed to look after her son or take him to any football academy. Eleven players on the field never managed to thwart her, but she finally was defeated by poverty. She escaped death in the earthquake in Nepal, but could not escape the poverty that drove her to death.

I took leave of Razia's family. Najma's two-year-old was walking barefoot around the yard. They are finally cooking at home after three days. The menu? That same rice and boiled papaya. They did not have money to buy a drop of oil even. Abiran Begum held her daughter's medals and certificates and cried, "She would always say, good days are ahead, ma. Where are the good days? Why didn't you tell me that you were leaving, silly girl?"

Also Read