What my nani taught me about being a woman

It was the day I was leaving for university in Oakland, California after my winter break in Pakistan. I had gone to spend the day with my nani before I left for the airport. I have always been shy about showing affection publicly, so as soon as I found myself alone with her, I put my hands on her arm and tried to tell her I was leaving for the airport soon to go to uni. I wasn't even sure if she could understand what I was saying or if she was upset with me, a girl, for leaving my family and studying miles away in a different country. Deep down I wanted her to be proud of me but I had not heard her talk in weeks if not months.     
There was a pause before she turned to say in her frailest, weakest voice, "dil laga kar parhna, bohot mehnat karna aur apna khayal rakhna" - put your heart into your studies, work hard and take care of yourself.   
I wasn't sure how to react, my heart was pacing with excitement and I wanted to run out and call my mother and my uncle and say "look nani amma still does understand everything. She spoke to me." I was also shocked because perhaps I was too naive then to understand how such a traditional looking woman could push herself so much to convey her thoughts despite her weakness. It was the most genuine reaction I had ever received.  
My nani suffered from Parkinson's disease, which I felt became so severe towards her last few years that she was not just bed-ridden but also unable and unwilling to say a single word for days. We forced her to sit up regularly so her body benefited from some movement. She looked at us intently but I don't remember her sharing any emotions or words. In her last few years, she wouldn't even stir if the room rocked in laughter. All of us grandchildren in Karachi were encouraged to surround her bed daily without miss, talking and laughing to keep that sense of life around her.       
It was during this time that I would watch her and regret I did not get the time with her when I was mature enough and she was fine. I was intrigued to know what her youth was like in unpartitioned India, how women participated in the Pakistan movement, and what they hoped for the future.
It was an extremely painful process seeing someone like her decline as she did. At the hands of Parkinson's we lost a strong woman, highly intelligent and intellectual in her own right. Her knowledge of Persian and Arabic always surprised us. Our family has deep pride in Urdu and while growing up, but when back in the dial up days, I was once writing an email to my aunt, I giggled to myself when Nani Amma dictated her message in very-British English. In her old age when she was fine, she could answer all the tough multiplication questions I hurled at her.
Nani Amma completed her matriculation in 1945 from Patna University and admiring her calibre, was immediately invited to teach English and Maths to the girls of Patna High School. She managed to achieve all of this after getting married while expecting her first-child. She taught during the time when Muslim students were resisting Hindu hymns in school assembly, and bowing to Gandhi's image - my cousin being one of them in the same school. I was told stories about her being extremely fearful for and at the same time proud of the Muslim girls of her school playing their part in the struggle for their rights. She was a keen observer of politics, an ardent reader of "ismet", a monthly journal founded by Allama Rashid ul Khairi, in which Dr. Shaista Ikramullah  regularly contributed, whom my nani greatly admired.   
My handsome nana, a student activist of his time, captain of his Aligarh medical college cricket team, proposed directly to my nani's father for her hand in marriage admiring her intellect and wit. My aunt tells me how my nana always laughed that in their house a curry was cooked in three different pots - my nani would be so engrossed in her books, that she would have to save the meal from burning by tranferring it to another pot before it was fully cooked. 
I remember my nani laughing and telling my mum how if I was so fond of Turkish people, then she should just find me a Turkish boy to marry. I was 13 and had just returned mesmerised from a vacation in Turkey. My mother was livid at the suggestion "corrupting my mind" and I was so impressed when she said "what's wrong? They are Muslims, there is nothing wrong with my suggestion" and smiled at me. 
It was almost as if that generation was more liberal yet stronger in their identity, more forward thinking and yet more grounded than maybe even the generation after them. Perhaps it was because theirs was an era that understood why Pakistan was needed for the Muslims of the sub-continent, witnessed the caliphate fall in Turkey and Palestine being taken away subsequently. This was the generation of men and women that joined the struggle for Pakistan and won it because of their unity, passion and integrity. 
I am proud of being the grand daughter of a woman who admired education in girls like it was meant to be. Now when its been 5 years to her death, and I am married (to a Pakistani mind you) and settled in my own life, it has become clearer than ever before the role my grandmother's personality has had on me and my life. I wonder if I would have ever been as moved by world politics and its plight and inequalities if I had not been born in her family. I wonder if my mother would have had the same strength of identity which she engrossed in me as a child.
Every time I think of my nani, I think of that precious moment we had together before flying off to university. I just kept staring at her, her lips moving in mutters as though making dua - I wanted to take all of her image in before I left. She was no longer there next time I returned to Pakistan .


Shazia Yousuf said…
All this went sraight to the heart Fiza! Great people create great impressions, on hearts and on personalities. Your nani was one such gem of a person, definitely.

I just hope we do the same for the coming generation. We can atleast try...
Unknown said…
This is beautiful Fiza! Nani's are amazing and its too bad that ours had to leave so early...how I wish my Babo (Nani) was around right now so I can ask her, in detail, about her life/struggles/accomplishments etc. My Nani also passed away 5 years ago and it was the saddest days...may they rest in peace and be granted Jannah (Ameen).
Sarah Asghar said…
I just finished reading the article you wrote about your nani amma,on your blog . It was so beautifully phrased and captivating that anyone who would not even know her in person,like myself, would enjoy going through the article. By the time I finished it, I was smiling at the sweet memories u have shared....Absolutely loved it, and it is indeed a priceless piece of writing!
Maliha said…
From what you've written and who you are, I'm sure your nani would be very proud of you!
Noaman said…
Asalam ao alaikum Fiza

Really nice piece. I am writing from office :-) so will be unable to put my thoughts in order ( I won't be able to proof read what I write so excuse my english and and flow of thoughts). Your article is amazing and I feel that it is unfair that Express is not publishing it as it is. May be the liberal newspaper is threatened by your "Islamist" overtone :-).

Personally, for me nani amma's parkinson was more painful than her death. A woman who most probably played a more important role in our upbringing (Adnan's, mine, mana appa's and mina) than ammi. I was always awed by her knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic. And there is no doubt that her math was better than many of the math guru's in our family (read Fayez). It was nani amma that we used to find respite in when ammi used was angry. I still sometimes feel that nani amma will come running up the stairs to stop ammi from scolding us. I also have no doubt that all the patriotism that runs in our family is because of the love that was intilled by Nana abba and Nani amma in their children and grand children. I am proud that my forefathers played a role in the creation of this ideological state.

I always feel that Nani amma exactly knew what was going around her while she was suffering from Parkinsons. It was "silence" that she opted for. I always feel that she chose it as an option. For me it was philosophical. For me her silence was a statement from her. She used to express herself very nicely when it mattered. I remember that when we (Farheen and I) decided to go for Hajj. This was my second hajj and I was doing it for nani amma. I went to her house in ihram and she smiled at me and called me chota hajji (mind you I was 29 then). She was proud that I was going for her hajj. The pride and satisfaction was right on her face.

I also used to find it very shocking; how inspite of her Parkinson's she used to enjoy Farheen's company. Farheen loved meeting her as well. But for me it was very difficult. I knew nani amma as a woman in control. A woman who loved talking and who exactly knew how to steer her family. Nani amma opted for silence to keep that calm in her family. Why silence? I feel that after nana abba's death and her fall (which broke her will to walk) -- she still wanted to keep the calm around in her family. Silence was the best way to maintain that calm.

I was in Saudi when I heard about her death. I was not by her bed side when she died. Niether did I watch her dying moments (that I did of nana abba). I still remember the numbness in me when ammi broke the news of her death over the telephone. It was a feeling of guilt that I still carry inside me very strongly. The woman who influenced me greatly went away with silence. A form of speech that I find very powerful. She gave us ample time to serve her or to ask for her forgiveness. But the aura in her silence did not allow me to take advantage of the opportunity. She went with grace. As far as I am concerned -- I still feel guilty for not paying back a bit.

May Allah grant her a high place in jannah. May Allah grant me her company in jannat al firdaus.

Naiyer said…
Dear Fiza and Noaman

Fiza, Firstly I would say that your write-up was remarkable with full of touching moments. I was also wondering why this was not published by the "Express Tribune". It is better that you now sent this to DAWN for publication in its Sunday's IMAGES.

Noaman, yours brief was very moving. You and Adnan and then Salmana and Tahmina were very fortunate that you people got all the attention from your nani amma. I hope that her younger grandchildren would keep remembering her as told by their seniors and elders and to follow some of her qualities like love and affection to each other.

I am personally pleased with you, Fiza, that you have written so nice 'obtituary' of her.
Omar said…
It was a pleasure and honor living with her during the last few days of her life. Unfortunately, I was not with her at her death bed, since I was in the UK at that moment. Dadi Jan was pretty much active both physically and mentally until the year 2000. That was the year I was admitted to medical school in Karachi. As being a medical student back then, I very well understood her medical issues and specially now after qualifying as a doctor even better when I see it all retrospectively. Dadi Jan was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in the 90's (If am not wrong).

Parkinson's Disease (PD) is a degenerative disorder of of the brain resulting due to certain chemical imbalance (Dopamine). It's symptoms are related to impaired movement; these include shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty with walking and gait. Later in its natural course, cognitive and behavioral problems may also arise, with dementia commonly occurring in the advanced stages of the disease. Other symptoms include sensory, sleep and emotional problems.

Dadi Jan's general health started deteriorating after 2000 when she had a hip fracture which was related to Osteoporosis. Since then, despite having her surgery for the fracture she was unable to walk independently. Her PD worsened over time to the point that she was bed ridden. She was in her advanced stages of the disease towards the end of her life. There were clear signs of dementia. Amazing, she were still able to express her feeling by little gestures whenever she heard of any good news or even death of a dear relative. I vividly remember the day I graduated with my MBBS. When she heard of this news, she was so happy (I could see her eyes full of joy) raising her frail hands, asking Phophi to distribute sweets. It was a touching experience.

Now that she is no more, her presence is immensely missed. May Allah give her place in Jannah. Ameen!
Qaisar said…
Fiza - this is excellent. Thank you for sharing. I also wish we could all go back to the forward thinking and enlightenment that your Nani represented, in her own way.
Fayez said…
This is very well written – the best I’ve seen from you.
Fareena said…
I just read your piece about your nani - that is amazing! I did not know any of that about her and I now see so much of her influence in you - :) nicely written and very touching.
Amna said…
Absolutely beautiful. And one thing I wanted to relate to, when you said that maybe their generation was more forward-thinking than our parents'. I see that my nana and nani are also quite chilled out by the idea that I want to study abroad than my parents.

Popular posts from this blog

Why the urge to burn a Holy Book?

Celebrating my friends this Ramadan

You may be kicked for mourning in Turkey