She entered my world when I was six years old. But I am certain that there is a place in my memory bank where she resides from earlier times but I can’t see her face or give any vivid details of that time. Its just a feeling – just a whiff of a delicate perfume you once smelled and could not let go.
I do remember, though a telegram arriving one morning, bringing the news that she had a fall while taking a bath and broke her hip. The next day we all took a train and went to Rawalpindi, where her younger son – my mother’s brother – my maternal uncle lived. She was hospitalized. My mother visited her in the hospital. I do not remember if she stayed with her in the hospital. My uncle had quite a number of sons and daughters but they too are missing from my memory; we all stayed in the house. How long were we there? I don’t know. Its a vague, hazy memory; or may be I heard these snippets in family conversations over the years and connected them with what was in my memory place. I remember that it was winter and their kitchen table was black – wood. In the morning we had our breakfast of eggs and buttered toasts and chocolate milk on that table. Can we eat on this table? A thought came to my mind while warming my hands on hot chocolate cup. Somebody peed on this table last night. What?? where did it come from? But my real memory of her has no such ghoulish thoughts.
It was a very cold and wet afternoon in Gujrat, a city not too far from Lahore. Lahore – where my nani ma’s older son, my mother’s brother and my maternal uncle lived and with him at that time my nani ma was living. She was coming to Gujrat to see us all and stay with us for a couple of weeks.
We were all sitting in one room. My mother was sitting on the takht – a kind of settee, knitting quietly. Aroma of Kashmiri chai was wafting from the Samovar. There was a big coal burner in the middle of the room resting on a cast iron low table. We the children were sitting on the carpet, subdued by the falling rain, click clacking of my mother’s knitting needles and most of all; by the wait… Malik and Nawab deen, along with my brother had been sent to the railway station to receive my nani ma. Every now and then the rain would become heavy and mother would glance out the door, beyond the veranda to the big and heavy, metal door. Rainwater was already filling up the inner court yard. Red color of cobbled walkway was washed clean and looked lovely. Suddenly there were voices outside the metal door and then slowly the small door in the big door opened and an umbrella emerged. Then someone wearing a pale green head cover and pearl white shawl stepped on the red cobblestones. A beautiful smiling face, thick rimmed eyeglasses and white and brown shoes. I was mesmerized. Mother put her knitting down and stood up; then went out of the room in the veranda.
Mother and daughter hugged each other, then she came in the room to us. It was hugging time all around. laughing, fussing, hugging some more… talking… inconveniences of a train journey, rains on top of that and freezing cold weather. No, she would not like to sit on the takht. Yes a hot cup of Kashmiri chai would be perfect before dinner and she sat down on the carpet near the coal burner, with us, that is, my sister, my little brother and myself. A blanket was put on her knees. Then my brother came in and sat down with ma on the takht.
Ah! that was just what I needed. I am nice and warm now, she took the last sip and handed the cup to me, leaning back on the bolsters, she closed her eyes. Just then there was a loud thud behind us and ma screamed “Snake” Like a flash of lightening my nani ma threw back the blanket and pushing us all forward, ran to the next room and we all jumped on the first bed which happened to be the smallest of all the three beds there. It broke and we all four of us went down with it. Holding on to each other we all kept screaming and jumping up and down…snake… snake …snake.
Then ma came in the room. Amma, amma, there is no snake. come back to the room. It slithered out. Nawab and Malik have gone after it. Come, lets go back to the room.
Finally we calmed down; climbed out of the broken bed and went back to our warm, cozy family room. It was a snake alright. A real one. Poisonous? Yes, deadly.
The theory of a snake falling out of a fireplace went like this….
Rain water flooded his home and he was forced out. For protection it climbed on the tree that was touching our roof. He felt the warmth coming out the chimney…. Slithered down the chimney … lost footing and – thonk,- there you go! landed right in the coal basket … freaked out seeing a room full of people…. zoomed out the room on the double, leaving a black streak on the blue carpet. We all had a good laugh. Ma told my brother to send the word to the office in the morning to send someone to cut the branches that were touching the roof of the house … he said that he would wait till father came back from his official tours but ma wouldn’t listen. Ma’s ma was afraid of snakes and the tree branches had to go. Nani ma was again leaning against the bolsters with eyes closed and an index finger resting on her lips listening quietly for a while then without opening her eyes or removing her finger, she said in her soft voice. “light of my eyes, its not good to argue with your elders, especially if its your ma.” The next morning there were two khaki clad men working on the tree.
Before going to bed that night, nani ma summoned malik and made him look in each corner of the room carefully .. over the beds, under the beds, in the wash room and only after she was fully satisfied , she let him go. At the door he turned and said that snakes are only snakes and …. but before he could complete his sentence, nani ma stopped him. “don’t mention the name .. not at night. say ‘rope’ if you have to talk about it. And don’t leave the door open, close it behind you. When he was gone, she raised her right index finger and said a prayer for protection, then she smiled at me from across my siblings beds. “sleep well my child. I put a ‘hisaar around ‘ Allah protects us all”” I closed my eyes and instantly fell asleep.
This was my nani ma who, many years later, suddenly sat up on the bed she was lying on, against four white pillows; with eyes shut and an index finger on the lips. A wooden back scratcher resting beside her and said “daughter, have you lost your senses? the whole world is going forward. Women are finally finding their voice and you want your fourteen years old daughter to start wearing Burqa? whats wrong with you?” ma started crying. she is not a child anymore, I look at her and my heart stops beating with fear. People don’t dare think bad when the fathers are alive. Her father is dead ma! what am I supposed to do?
“Crying is not going to solve anything. Your crying will make them weak .. make them lose confidence. Now you are a father as well and fathers don’t cry … or maybe they do. Now how do I know that? You lost your father two months before you were born. I was even younger than you but see things worked out, your brothers had good education, you both the sisters got married to good boys. come sit here with me” and when ma came she kissed her forehead and said, “don’t worry daughter, you will be fine. everything will be fine I will not be around to say ‘didn’t I tell you that’ but you will be surrounded with warmth; with happiness…. enjoying your grandchildren. Now wash your face and we all will have a happy cup of tea.” ma smiled, she knew tea was her ma’s favorite ‘food’ and she was ready for a cup anytime.
And this was also my nani ma, lying on her beautiful, clean, white bed with her head resting on four white pillows and an index finger on her lips when I brought the news home. She was the first one I told my High School results. I had passed tenth grade with good grades. She opened her eyes and smiled at me. then she told me to lean over her. I did and she kissed my forehead. Then took out her wallet from under her pillows and gave me a ten rupee note. It was big money at that time. I was happy. Next day when I brought her breakfast tray to her bed she held my hand and looked at the wrist, then smiled at me. “We have to do something” she said and started drinking her tea. When ma came in the room she put her cup on the saucer and looked ma in the eye. “daughter, get her a wrist watch. Soon she’d start college. she has to have a watch on her wrist.”
“yes ma.” my ma bowed her head “we would do something about that.”
When my other siblings came home from school they were treated with barley sugar candies and a rupee to spend. She always had goodies for the special occasions. My uncle, her older son was a Major General in Military accounts. He used to buy European made chocolates and candies from the commissary. Nani ma hardly ever ate her share. It was always put in her leather purse, resting on the side table and was opened only on special occasions like these.
I got my first watch in my fourth year of college but my Nani ma was not there to see it looking good on my wrist. She had died two years ago. At night I pulled my blanket over my head and put my arm out in the dark room and whispered, “look Nani ma! it really looks good on my wrist”
She loved all of her grandchildren and they in turn swarmed around her like bees. She was always there for each and everyone of us; lying on her pure white bed, resting her head on neatly stacked four pillows, with eyes closed and an index finger on her lips, so peaceful, so quiet but she would know if you came near her bed to talk to her. And why was she always in bed? She had a bad right shoulder and could move her hand only in a certain way. She developed this condition in her late fifties.
She was the one who gave me my religious education. And she was the one who taught me to knead the flour and make small round “phulka” – a round flat bread. Both her son’s had armies of house maids and house boys and if she wanted she could bring one to help her around whenever she came to spend some time with us. Now I think about that and marvel at her common sense. She didn’t want us to get used to something that now, with our father gone, we could not afford and secondly she was giving me lessons on things that might come handy in my future. Which would have been difficult to teach with a maid servant around. Her own mainstay diet was a ‘phulka’ with a thin broth like soup and a bottle of soda water. She loved bananas and tea. She never had an extra ounce of fat on her body. She was seventy eight years old when she died. Her Younger son by her side and her feet in my ma’s lap. She quietly transcended from this world to the next. She had willed to be buried in Lahore in the family graveyard. Her grand children – young and old – wouldn’t let the caretakers take away her body.
We all knew it was coming but no one was ready to accept it. The next night no one wanted to go to bed. It was like she was not the only one dead, we all had died with her. Everyone was sitting in his own private world thinking about her, times spent with her, or something. Suddenly someone laughed: “you remember….” and soon it was a living, laughing, crying and smiling, talking group of people who had lost a very special someone only a day and a night ago. Even in her death she didn’t want us to be unhappy or gloomy. Always a kind smile, a little laugh, an encouraging word!
And that was her … my Nani ma!! They sure don’t make grandmothers like that any more!
How about me? Unfortunately, I never had a daughter to make me a Nani ma. And secondly my daughter in law said, ” look ma, you had your time, now its my turn. I will take care of my children”.
She is a good mother. Takes good care of her daughters. So I didn’t say anything but took a step back and picked up my pen again. Which was good in a way.
march 16, 07