A memory comes to me quietly, like a small shy child slipping her hand in mine ~
My maternal grandmother. who is Nana to everyone: Nana to her daughters Nana to her sons Nana to her brothers and Nana to her then only grandchild – me – gives me dried coconut to chew on so that I may stop crying. My young aunt, Meam-Khala, herself barely a child has been given the job of bathing me. I am screaming, uncooperative and for that she admonishes me. Me?! The golden child – apple of my Nana’s eyes, I scream even louder, enraged!
When my Nana hears of this she reprimands my still adolescent aunt and I get a hug, the dried coconut and comforting words of grandmotherly love. Exclamations in Kashmiri of how she would wrap her soul around me like a shawl ‘vound maya zoou’ – how she would take upon herself all the bad that fate may wish to hurl at me.
My maternal home is full of delights – Mama, a school teacher, leaves for work every morning and I am free to wander barefoot, play with Nana’s ducks and help feed her chickens. ‘Tutti tutti tuuuti’ she calls to them, with a soft clicking of her tongue and I love to imitate her. There is a beautiful black and white calf which they tell me is mine and I understand then that we are friends because we are both the little ones. I cry when they won’t let him feed from his mother – Nana explains they are saving the milk for our tea and what of the warm cup of milk that I must drink every morning? But I don’t care if I don’t get my milk. I call him ‘Boya’
I cry again next year when I go back to visit and he has grown up so much faster than me – I won’t believe them when they say ‘See? This is your Boya’
I play with the neighbourhood children –we make dolls from sticks and dress them in a myriad of colourful cut off cloths left over from the local tailor’s shop. I make a small pot out of mud and Nana places it to harden on a hot tin roof next to slices of tomatoes and aubergines drying out in the sun. I bask in the warmth of her love, my little four year old heart swelling with pride at her respect for my little mud pie of a ‘pot’.
In those days my mother is the only figure of authority to be afraid of. I see her coming back from work, recognising her walk even under her burka, and I fly in from the courtyard to sit with Nana in case Mama asks me, as she often does, what I have been doing all day- secure in the knowledge that Nana will defend me.
My Nana tells me stories at night and she always has her fingertips in my hair playing with it gently here and there – I have grown up equating that feeling with complete rest and respite.
Years later when we are in England and I can not get to sleep I bribe one of my sisters to play with my hair. I am the eldest child, but it is me who my parents find late at night standing outside their bedroom door, tears streaming down a sleepy face because I dreamt of Nana and I want to know – Why are we living here? When can I go back and see her?
And it is only now I think how those old arthritic hands never ached and never let me feel I was a bother. How easily I would fall asleep with the presence of her hand on my head like a blessing. And I wonder how she gave me so much physical comfort without wanting anything in return. Then, in my child’s mind, I never questioned this unconditional love and care, I expected it the same way I expected to be given water to drink.
My parents write letters home and ask us if we want to add our messages. It has become a family joke that I once asked if any of Nana’s grey hair had turned black again yet? I must have known she was ill and maybe I thought her hair regaining its colour would mean that she was getting better.
Another picture comes to my mind of a white hospital bed in Srinagar SMHS hospital and Nana is lying asleep on it. My Uncle has taken me to see her. What is with me still, as sharp as it was that day, is the hospital smell. Since then that ‘white’ has turned a dirty kind of beige in real life and when I have visited SMHS – that room with Nana seems like a different world. Is it because since then I have seen other hospitals more white, more clean, or did it really change so much?
When my Nana dies, we are in England. We all knew she was ill. Long standing diabetes, chronic arthritis and vascular disease had all taken their toll. I am 15 years old and I know her grey hair will not turn black again. In those few days Mama is very quiet. Papa books an airline ticket. We pray everyday that she will survive for a little longer – at least until Mama reaches her. I am convinced she will be okay – selfishly I am almost sure she will give me a chance to see her one more time.
I can’t comfort my own mother; she keeps herself in her room shut away alone, I think, even from my father. She is packing to leave, I want to touch her in someway but, in that strange way it is with my mother, I can not even hug her … I write her a letter in my broken Urdu, seal it in an envelope and slip it into her hand luggage where I know she will find it later. I write that, God-willing, Nana will be fine, I write that tell Nana I love her, I write that tell Nana that I will see her when I come again next year.
But Nana breathes her last while Mama is still journeying towards her. I don’t know what happened to my letter – Mama never mentioned it. It has been so long now and we still haven’t talked about Nana dying. We still haven’t held each other and cried mother to daughter over our loss of a bond that enveloped us together.
When Papa tells us, he is ready for my reaction. It was the day Mama had left. My father sits in the middle of the sofa, his four daughters all around him in various stages of the childhood acceptance of death. He holds me, his eldest 15-year-old daughter, in his lap and just lets her cry. The youngest, Zareen, is four and has no real memories of the lady who, I was then realizing, had made my childhood, sculptured it lovingly with her own hands.
I am 33 years old now, a mother myself and my mother the ‘Nani’ to my children. I don’t have to wonder anymore the reasons why of hands giving comfort without wanting anything in return, my own hands spend all day shaping the answer to that. Just like my mother did from her mother, I now live in a different country from her and I put my children through the same sweet sorrow of parting sweethearts, for who could be more in love than a grandparent with their grandchild?
With my first born cupped in his hands my father says ‘Shur che badam, shur sund shur che badam sun gooje’ It’s an old Kashmiri proverb meaning ‘Your child is the almond kernel from the almond tree, your child’s child the sweet almond fruit inside’
In front of my mother, I reprimand that same child, now 6 years old for sneaking yet another ice-lolly from the freezer. You must listen to your Mama I warn him and he reluctantly returns the tantalizing treat. Two minutes later I see him rummaging again and before I can utter my disapproval – he turns to me with the most satisfying of smiles and says ‘Nani-Mama said you have to let me take another one. And she said you must listen to your Mama. So there!’ It is perfect logic, with which argue, I can not.
I see again my mother not as grandmother but as that woman navigating her way through young motherhood and I feel now what I didn’t see then, a heart full of gratitude that her child has this chance to feel the shade of her own mother. Behind the stern looks and many rules I see now what I didn’t see then, the stern look turned into a smile.
It is said that parenthood gives us a chance to live our childhoods again. Through our children, doing with them things we wished we had experienced, protecting them from some things from which we wish we had been shielded. And in some way perhaps grand-parenthood is a chance for us to live our parenthood again, making up for those times we wished we had let our child have that extra ice-lolly, wrapping grandchildren in extra hugs for those times we wish we had hugged our own child a little more.
Mama takes a bottle full of pumped milk and is feeding my newborn. She eases the bottle teat into the baby’s mouth, looks up at me and in a rare moment of sharing raw emotion says – ‘Sumaya – it’s as if he were borne of my own womb’. I know everything she means in that statement. Like the Russian dolls my sister likes to collect, we are all born from the wombs of our mother’s mother’s mother’s. Mother.
The same womb that in the Quran is linked to the Divine Creator. Rahmaan-ni-Raheem. And indeed it is a sign for those who reflect.
In a HADITH QUDSI it is reported that the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said that Allah said:
أَنَا الرَّحْمنُ خَلَقْتُ الرَّحِمَ وَشَقَقْتُ لَهَا اسْمًا مِنِ اسْمِي، فَمَنْ وَصَلَهَا وَصَلْتُهُ وَمَنْ قَطَعَها قَطَعْتُهُ
‘I Am Ar-Rahman. I created the RAHAM (womb) and derived a name for it from My Name. Hence, whoever keeps it (family ties), I will keep ties to him, and whoever severs it, I will sever ties with him.’.