What can I, a 21st century woman, possibly have to learn from a woman who never studied past the 8th grade, never held a job, and barely travelled? As it turns out, quite a lot.
My first and most enduring memory of my Nani – my maternal grandmother – is a beautiful picture in my head. She is sitting serenely on the sofa in her lounge as we arrive from the airport, tired and longing for a shower. She has a table in front of her, a colander full of vegetables in it, and a peeler in her hand. Her thin white hair is tied in a plait which snakes down her permanently bent back (when she walked, it remained parallel to the ground). Her eyes light up as we enter.
Nani was never one to dish out cuddles, hugs and kisses left right and centre. Touchy feely was not her thing. But the kindness in her heart was unmistakable, if you cared to look. Mother to ten children (though one died in infancy), and each one ready to lay down his or her life for her – she was the flame to her moths. They knew only too well how much she had suffered, how great her struggles had been.
While still young, she had married a man who was highly educated and too intelligent for his own good. It was an arranged marriage and love never blossomed – he had married beneath him, and he never let himself forget it. What could a man who had travelled to the USA for further education possibly have in common with a woman who had never even finished her schooling?
During the partition, when Pakistan came into being, they moved to the new and promised land under harrowing conditions. She saw Sikh men with swords enter the train and butcher all the Muslims on board. They only managed to survive by hiding beneath a corpse and pretending to be dead. In Pakistan, she quickly had to learn how to manage life with a growing family, and her deteriorating health. Though she was young, she suffered the most incapacitating pain which left her immobile for minutes at a time. Relief finally came when a doctor suggested she have all her teeth removed; miraculously it worked, though I am sure the decision could not have been an easy one for a young woman in her twenties.
The political turmoil in Pakistan meant that my grandfather, a man of strict principles, was threatened with the loss of his job unless he did the bidding of the corrupt establishment, and finally that threat came to pass. With a wife and nine children to support, one can only imagine how they survived. By this time, Nani’s health had worsened, and she now had a permanent stoop. But even with their meagre resources, they managed to feed, educate and have all their children married – no mean feat. Nani often told me how she had helped her middle daughter get married – clothes, wedding feast, the works – with just 200 Rupees to spend.
What really touches my heart is her treatment of her servant boy. He is now a man with children of his own, but when he first came to her, he was just a child from the wrong side of town. She taught him how to read the Qur’an and raised him under the guiding principles of Islam, filling his heart with love for Allah (SWT) and His Prophet (SAW). She taught him to read and write Urdu, so he could study the newspaper and wake up to the wider world around him. She taught him maths so he could balance his own books when the time came. When he grew too old to be around young girls in the house, she had him moved to my uncle’s workshop in the city, where he ran errands and helped out with administration duties. When he discovered his wings, she did not hold him back, but encouraged him to leave the nest and find his own way in the world. He never forgot what she had done for him, and to this day he visits with his family, and refers to her as his mother.
Her daughter-in-law once told me that she didn’t miss her own parents anymore, because Nani had filled her heart with more love than she had ever known. That is testimony indeed of her greatness. I spent nearly every summer in her house, and heard many fascinating stories of her childhood, of a place and time that is totally foreign to me. She taught me how to crochet and sew, but more importantly, she taught me the true meaning of patience and kindness. When I was pregnant with my first child, and thoroughly ill, she couldn’t bear to see me suffer; she stayed up all night rubbing my back though she was even more ill than I.
When my grandfather became paralysed, she showed him the true meaning of devotion. Turning a blind eye to the years of ill-treatment she had received from him, Nani prepared his meals as he liked them, and fed him with her own hands. His growing senility and loss of memory allowed them to make a fresh start, and he insisted that she be the only one to feed him. He would get worked up if he hadn’t seen her for a few hours, and felt at peace when she entered his room. Of all the years they spent together, perhaps these were the happiest of her life. When he passed away quietly in bed one afternoon, she was genuinely heartbroken. Life seemed to drain out of her. Her illnesses overtook her, and as soon as her iddat was over, she left this world to join him, insha Allah in a happiness and love that will endure for eternity.
Though she lived in another country and I only ever spent my summers with her, I loved my Nani and miss her greatly. Her funeral is proof of the esteem she was held in by everyone who knew her – there was not one dry eye in the house. Every servant, every daughter-in-law, every neighbour was sobbing.
I have no doubt that Nani was very close to Allah (SWT) – a simple, humble woman who gave everything away to others, who had no need for any fineries and luxuries, and who devoted every day to looking after her family and worshipping the one God. Of all worldly things, the only one she prized was good health – “If you have your health, you have the universe,” she often used to say. She was never distracted by dunya, never took her eye off the ball. Many people have told me that they have seen her in their dreams, and she is always wearing bright white robes, sitting on a field green and lush as far as the eye can see, with pearl slippers on her feet. Most importantly, she has a smile on her face.
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Based in Berkshire, Safia A. is a mother of two with a background in graphic design, interior design and creative textiles. She loves painting, writing, reading, baking and is very keen on a healthy lifestyle, with raw foods, yoga and tae bo at the top of her list. Her work has been published in various Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, and she is currently in the process of writing her first cookbook.