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 .