Muhammad Yunus was born to a Bengali Muslim family in village of Bathua in Chittagong Division when India was under British rule.
His parents were Haji Dula Mia Shoudagar and Sofia Khatun. Yunus’ dada (paternal grandfather) was a small businessman who had acquired land and a farm in Bathua. But he gravitated towards the jewellery trade and opened a small jewellery business. When Dula Mia, his eldest son, dropped out before finishing high school he went to his father’s business. Back then goldsmithing was traditionally run by Hindus. But Dula Miah worked tirelessly and very soon made a name for himself as the foremost local manufacturer and seller of jewellery ornaments for Muslim customers.
In 1930 when Dula Mia was 22 years old he married Sofia Khatun. Her family were petty merchants, traders who bought and sold goods from Burma. Sofia’s father lived as a zamindar (landowner), leasing out his farmland and spending most of his time reading, writing chronicles and indulging in good food.
Dula and Sofia remained married for over half a century until Sofia’s sad demise in 1982 after a long battle with mental illness. The couple had 14 children, of whom 5 died in infancy. Muhammad Yunus was the 3rd of 9 remaining children (2 daughters, 7 sons). The eldest child was Mumtaz, who was eight years older than Yunus. After her it was Abdus Salam, Yunus himself, Ibrahim, daughter Tunu, sons Ayub, Azam, Jahangir and Moinul Anam. As is common among Muslim male, the boys had 'Muhammad' prefixed to their name i.e. Muhammad Abdus Salam, Muhummad Yunus, Muhammad Ibrahim, etc.
Yunus was born at a time when Chittagong was a hotbed of anti-colonial activities. The famous Chittagong Uprising and Pritilata Waddedar’s attack on Pahartali European Club had occurred only few years prior to his birth. His early childhood was spent in his family village of Bathua which was located around 7 miles south of Chittagong city. He began his education at the local village school.
Growing up in such a large family taught me early on the central importance of babies (sometimes I took care of two at a time), the importance of family loyalty, peer pressure and peer support, but also the value of compromise when living in a large group.
Yunus' family moved to Chittagong city, the business centre of what was then Eastern Bengal. Today, it’s the second biggest city in Bangladesh after the capital Dhaka and is the largest port in Bangladesh.
However, Dula Mia had to abandon the business location after it was damaged by a Japanese bomb in 1943 and moved the family temporarily back to his village home in Bathua.
The Japanese had invaded neighbouring Burma and were at the doorstep of Chittagong, threatening all of India. The air battles over our heads were never intensive. Japanese planes mostly dropped leaflets, and as children we loved watching them from the roof. But after a bombing raid destroyed the wall of our house, my father promptly shifted us to the safety of his family village, Bathua, where I had been born at the beginning of the war.
They returned to Chittagong city the following year and located in 20 Boxirhat Road in the heart of the old business district of Chittagong. This was an extremely busy one-way lane just wide enough for one truck to pass. The family lived in a two-storey house on the part of the road known as ‘Sonapotti’, the jewellers’ section. The upper floor with 4 rooms and kitchen served as the family home, while the ground floor contained the Dula Mia’s jewellery shop in the front and workshop at the back.
Our world was always full of noise, gasoline fumes and the screams of passing street vendors, jugglers, beggars and just plain madmen. Trucks and carts were forever blocking our road. All day long we heard drivers arguing, yelling, blaring their horns. It was a sort of permanent carnival atmosphere. When, towards midnight, the noise of the street finally died down, the sound of low-bit hammering, filing and polishing in Father’s gold workshop took over. Noise was the constant background and rhythm to our life.
Our playground was the flat roof above, with railings on all sides. And when we got bored, we often idled away our time downstairs watching the customers, or the gold artisans at work in the back room, or we would just look out at the endlessly changing, endlessly repeated street scenes.
Yunus's father was a very religious, sociable, and gentle man who always encouraged his sons to seek higher education. But young Yunus’ biggest influence was his mother Sofia Khatun, "the disciplinarian of the family". She was a beautiful woman who was a great cook and had "a gift for telling endless stories". Sofia was also a very generous and kind-hearted lady who always helped the poor people that knocked on her door. Her giving nature inspired young Yunus to grow up and commit his life to the eradication of poverty.
Amongst his siblings, Yunus was very close to his elder brother Muhammad Abdus Salam who was 3 years older than him. Salam was Yunus' "constant companion". Yunus was also close to his elder sister Mumtaz who inherited many of their mother's qualities. Mumtaz got married when she was still a teenager but still lived nearby with her husband for the family to visit her regularly.
Dula Miah, or Father as we called him, was a soft-hearted person. He rarely punished us, but he was strict about our need to study.
...My father was a devout Muslim all his life, and made three pilgrimages to Makkah. His square tortoise-shell glasses and his white beard made him look like an intellectual, but he was never a bookworm. With his large family and his successful business, he had no time or much inclination to look over the lessons. He usually dressed all in white, white slippers, white paijama pants, a white tunic and a white prayer cap. He divided his time between his work, his prayers and his family life.
My mother, Sofia Khatun was a strong and decisive woman. She was the disciplinarian of the family, and once she bit her lower lip and decided something, we knew that nothing would budge her. She wanted us all to be as methodical as her.
She was full of compassion and kindness, and probably the strongest influence on me. She always had money put away for any poor relations who visited us from distant villages. It was she, through her concern for the poor and the disadvantaged, who helped me discover my destiny, and she who most shaped my personality.
In 1944 Yunus enrolled at the nearby Lama Bazar Free Primary School along with all the local boys of his working-class neighbourhood.
All of us there, even the teachers, spoke in the Chittagonian dialect. Then education was limited to those who could afford it. Each classroom had about 40 people.
If you happened to be a good student then you won a scholarship and were asked to compete in nationwide exams which brought the school much prestige. But most of my fellow schoolmates soon dropped out.
Our schools inculcated good values into our children. Not simply scholastic achievement, but also civic pride, the importance of spiritual beliefs, respect for the arts, admiration for the music and poetry of our greatest poets (Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam), and of course respect for authority and discipline.
Salam and I devoured all the books and magazines we could get our hands on. Detective thrillers were my favourite. I even wrote one, a complete whodunnit at the age of 12.
After Lama Bazar Free Primary School Yunus studied at Chittagong Collegiate School (also known as Chittagong CS). The school was much different to what Muhammad Yunus had been used to but he still excelled. He won the Competitive Scholarship Examination by beating all the students from all the high schools in the Chittagong District and received a monthly stipend as an award.
Chittagong Collegiate School gave me first and foremost a change of outlook. The atmosphere, in this secondary school, was completely cosmopolitan. My classmates were sons of government officials on transfer from various districts. They were a much more sophisticated lot than the pupils I had been with before and many went on to high stations in life and became government officials themselves.
At 16 Yunus was elected general secretary of the United Students’ Progressive Party.
This party was confined to our own college, Chittagong College, but it was a dominant party with a good chance of winning the election for the students’ union. We were against the government of the day which was oppressively conservative and exploited the religious sentiment of the people, but this did not mean I was ready to take orders from the highly regimented and secretive underground ultra-left party which controlled us as one of their front organisations. On the contrary.
With the support of my central committee, I engineered a coup d'etat within my student party, and ousted senior functionaries who were manipulating us. It had been quite a feather in my cap to be general secretary, but to use the post to challenge the status quo created a political bombshell in student politics, which sent ripples all through the Chittagong District. Ever since then I had always tried to steer an independent course.
By now India was undergoing radical changes. The 200-year-old British rule was finally coming to an end and the separatist requirement of the minority Muslim population became a reality in 1947. A new nation was formed much to the excitement of 7-year-old Yunus: Pakistan.
Like the overwhelming majority of the Muslims in India, Muhammad Yunus and his family supported the creation of the new country believing they would have a better life.
Father was a devout Muslim but had many Hindu friends and close colleagues. Violent communal riots erupted between Hindus and the minority of Muslims but thankfully there was little of this in Chittagong.
Our political leanings were never in doubt. We were all deeply committed to partition from the rest of India. When my brother Ibrahim, five years my junior, started to utter his first words, he called the white sugar he liked ‘Jinnah sugar’, and the brown sugar which he did not like ‘Gandhi sugar’ (Jinnah was the leader of the partition movement, and Gandhi of course wanted to keep India whole).
Even Mother mixed Jinnah, Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten into our evening stories and her amusing morals and country fables, so that we felt they were almost an active part of our lives.
My brother Salam, though only 10, was already behaving like a political analyst and information source – which he has remained ever since. I envied the bigger boys in the neighbourhood carrying the green flag with the white crescent and star and chanting Pakistan Zindabad! (Long live Pakistan!).
I recall as if it were yesterday, the night when all these dreams and hopes finally came true.
...At the age of 7 this was the first shot of pride and intoxicating enthusiasm for our people I had felt in my veins.
Many more were to come.
For the Bengalis, the reality of life in newly-formed Pakistan would prove to be not what they had imagined - and fought for.
In 1949, when Muhammad Yunus was only 9 years old, his mother was afflicted with psychological illness. Her mental health deteriorated every year and she developed erratic behaviour ranging from talking "disjointed nonsense to herself" to violent attacks on adults and children alike. During this difficult time his dad displayed incredible leadership and took greater care of the family. Elder sister Mumtaz and their khala, mum’s younger sister, became “substitute mum” for the boys.
Sadly, Sofia Khatun never recovered from her mental illness and would suffer from it for the next 52 years.
In her more disturbed periods she started insulting people in a loud voice and often in bad language. Sometimes she would hurl abuse at a neighbour, a friend or a family member, but it could be a politician, or even some long-dead figure. She would insult imaginary enemies, and then without much warning she would become violent.
This was a nightmare for all of us, as she attacked adults and children alike. Usually Father bore the brunt of it. At night while we slept, we were never sure whether it would be an undisturbed and peaceful night, or whether she would erupt in shouts and physical attacks. When she became violent, I had to help Father restrain her, and I also had to protect my younger siblings from the blows and missiles she would throw. After such crises, she would be nice and soft, giving us as much love as she could, taking care of the younger ones.
...The one who shone brightly through this whole sad reality of life was my father. He adapted himself to the situation with grace and fortitude and created a surprising normality for the family within this chaos. He took loving care of Mother in every possible way and in all circumstances for the 33 years that her disease lasted.
He tried to behave towards her as if nothing had changed, and she was the same Sofia Khatun he had married back in 1930 when he was only 22. And he taught us to do exactly the same. He was loyal and good to her all the 52 years of their marriage until her death in 1982.
But even before Mother’s death, with the onslaught of her disease, Father became two persons in one: both a father and a mother in every sense of the term. He never settled for anything but the best for his children’s upbringing.
We are what we are largely because of him.
Despite inherited mental illness and only a 4th grade education, his mother Sufia Khatun, set an example of benevolence to the needy.
While his mother’s situation brought Muhammad Yunus’ life to complete disarray, he never displayed any signs publicly. As a child, Yunus was barely old enough to look after himself. Nevertheless, he did not let the sad and challenging personal situation interfere with his public life.
During his school years Muhammad Yunus was an active boy scout and travelled to West Pakistan and India in 1953 and attended a 'Jamboree', a national or international rally of scouts. In the Boy Scouts, Yunus hiked, played games, participated in variety shows and discussions, and raised money. The Boy Scouts also helped Yunus first see the world. In 1955 he attended the World Scouts Jamboree in Niagara, Canada as part of the Pakistan contingent. On the way back, he travelled through Europe and Asia by road. Four years later, Yunus once again travelled as a boyscout but this time to Japan and the Philippines. That would be his last foreign trip as a boyscout. In 1966 Yunus would travel abroad for the third time - to USA - but this time he was a grown man and all on his own.
Yunus became very close to the assistant headmaster of Chittagong CS, Quazi Sirajul Huq. He admired him deeply and Quazi Sirajul Huq remained a lifelong role model until his tragic death in newly formed Bangladesh.
Chittagong CS offered one of the best educations in the country. But my particular attraction to it was the encouragement it gave to boyscouting. The scout den of the Collegiate School became the hub of my many extra-curricular activities.
I especially recall a train trip across India on the way to the First Pakistan National Boyscout Jamboree in 1953, when we stopped to visit important historical sites and relics. The journey became a time-travel through our history, almost a pilgrimage to meet our own true selves. Most of the time we sang and played, but standing in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, I caught our assistant headmaster, Quazi Sirajul Huq, a man beloved by his students, weeping silently. The tears were not for the monument, nor for the famous lovers who are buried there, nor for the poetry etched on the monument in white marble, no. He said he was weeping for our destiny, the burden of history that we were carrying and not knowing what to do with it.
I was only 13 but I was infected by his passionate imagination. Quazi Sahib became my friend, philosopher and guide for life. With his encouragement, scouting began to take over all my other activities. I was a natural leader, and Quazi Sahib soon let me set the pace. I made many of my life friends in the movement, one of whom, Mahbub, worked with me later in the Grameen Bank. But Quazi Sahib electrified my imagination. He had a sublime moral influence on all of us in his care. He taught us always to aim high, and he channelled our passions and restlessness. He did not do this through preaching, but through deeds and heart-to-heart communication which had a lifelong effect on me.
I had always been a natural leader but Quazi Sahib's moral influence taught me to think high and to channel my passions.
Yunus passed the matriculation examination in Chittagong Collegiate School, securing 16th position among 39,000 students in East Pakistan. In 1955 he enrolled into Chittagong College, a government college started by the British in 1936. It was one of the most highly respected in the subcontinent and is the second oldest in Bangladesh after Dhaka College. Here he spent "the most exciting two years of my life" and was active in cultural activities. He enjoyed a wide range of creative interests, including theatre, art, photography, and writing and got awards for acting in dramas.
In 1957 Muhammad Yunus left Chittagong and headed off to the bustling capital of East Pakistan, Dhaka, where he enrolled in the Department of Economics at the prestigious Dhaka University (DU). He completed his BA in 1960 and his Master's the following year. However, his time spent at the university was not particularly memorable nor exciting.
In 1957 I went to DU, but the four years that I spent there were uneventful and dull.
In 1959 Dula Mia built a new family home called 'Niribili' in the then-new Pachlaish residential area of Chittagong. During the latter stage of his life Dula Mia lived on the ground floor, while four other apartments were occupied by his sons. Niribili has been a special place for the family and a constant "source of family strength and unity" for Muhammad Yunus.
Niribili means peace and quiet. The house rises behind a protective garden wall, surrounded by a ring of lush green trees: mango, betel nut, banana, teak, guava, coconut, and grenadine. Niribili is huge. With its vast verandahs and wide-open spaces, I have always felt that it resembles a transatlantic steamer.
Despite its constructional oddities - the rooms are too big, the the hallways too lavish and not functional enough, and many things could be improved, but we love the place.
In 1967, while Dr Yunus was a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt University in America, he met Vera Forostenko, a student of Russian literature and daughter of Russian immigrants. The pair married three years later and travelled to newly-formed Bangladesh in 1972. But within months of the birth of their baby girl Monica Yunus in 1977 the couple divorced and Vera returned back to USA with their daughter.
Three years later, in 1980, Dr Yunus married Afrozi Yunus who was then a researcher in physics at Manchester University, UK. She was later appointed as professor of physics at Jahangir University, Savar, Dhaka. Their daughter Deena Afroz Yunus was born in 1986.
Yunus's brothers are also active in academia. Younger brother Muhammad Ibrahim is a Professor of Physics at Dhaka University and the founder of The Center for Mass Education in Science (CMES), an NGO which has been empowering disadvantaged adolescents across 20 districts in Bangladesh since its formation in 1978 http://cmesbd.org/.
Another younger brother, Muhammad Jahangir, is a popular television presenter and a well known social activist in Bangladesh. He is also the moderator of several Talk show programmes in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, eldest daughter Monica has grown up to be a famous opera singer. She has forged a glittering career as a soprano based in New York City and performing worldwide...
In June 2009 Monica married fellow opera singer, tenor Brandon McReynolds, but still retained her surname.
My grandparents were Russian immigrants, so I went to Russian school on Saturdays and learned to speak and write Russian and other languages including Italian, German and French.
My grandmother, Nina Forostenko, had a beautiful singing voice, and she’d take me to church every Sunday to sing in the choir with her. So I grew up with the arts from a very early age, and always liked to sing.
It [the interest in opera] started when I was pretty little and my mom and I would sing in the car. One day when I was about 10 she said to me, "Wow, you are really good at this. You can hit high notes that I can’t reach. Is opera something you might want to pursue?" So we decided to give it a try.
Dr. Yunus resides permanently in Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, as an eminent global personality, he is often found travelling around the world delivering lectures, attending events and ceremonies, etc.
I like to joke with him that he lives on an airplane. He has a relentless travel schedule, and it’s hard to keep up with where he goes. But I went with him to Russia, Spain, and France. It’s incredible to watch him in action.
As a teenager Dr Yunus found time for creative hobbies, including photography, drawing, painting and graphic design. At one point, he even apprenticed with a commercial artist whom he called Ustad, or "Guru" (meaning teacher).
At home I arranged my easel, canvas, and pastels so that I could hide them from Father at a moment's notice. As a devout Muslim, Father did not believe in reproducing the human figure. Some art-loving uncles and aunts in the family became my co-conspirators, helping and encouraging me.
As a by-product of these hobbies, Salam and I developed an interest in graphics and design. We also started to display our stamp and convinced a neighbouring shopkeeper to display our stamp box in the front of his shop. With two uncles we frequented theaters to see Hindi and Hollywood films and to sing the romantic folk songs that were popular at the time.
Our culinary delights were not highbrow. My favourite dish was fried 'potato chop', or roast potato, with the inside mashed, fried, filled with onion and flavoured with vinegar. We usually ate this with a cup of jasmine tea at a simple tea-stall around the corner from the house.
Mumtaz prepares the best sweets of all. This year she has made my favourites: creamy rashomalai, with tiny white poppy seeds and a rich mango pulp mixed into kheer, a sort of thick evaporated milk. I savour her yoghurt and chira, delicious rice flakes, complemented by sweet mangoes and bananas.
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