The Things We Keep

Boaba’ my paternal grandmother, is a loud, ‘like it or lump it’ kind of woman. While other elders wear somber pherans of various mothy hues, her signature pheran is a loud turquoise blue. Being a child in her vicinity, how captivating it is, to see her hand dip inside the pocket of that pheran! Often there is a penny for me or a ching’gam (bubble gum ), a hard candy to suck on, sometimes a walnut or two ready to be cracked. Always a surma pouch filled with pestled kohl she has ground with her own hands, for sure a box of matchsticks and finally a  hand made wooden handled pocket knife of a rough and simple design.

The knife comes out for all manner of things. My favorite – to peel an apple in one sitting. The iron grey blade running all the way round and round the apple body, leaves Boaba with a red ribbon of peel which she saves for herself while she carves the remaining naked apple in slices and places them piece by piece in my chubby grubby five year old hands. Together both of us delight in the sweet sour crunch, making light work of flesh and peel, destroying all evidence of its existence. Like a secret not to be shared with anyone else.

I can’t remember how old I was, a teen probably, when as usual the knife came out for some task and I reminisced with her how much I used to love watching the knife form that ribbon of peel. She laughed and said –

‘Lagï balāi’ (her usual term of endearment for me –  ‘let me take on all the misfortune fate may have in store for you’) then she folded the knife and placed it in my hand. ‘Thav pānas æthι’

“Keep it with yourself’. 

Back home in England, I placed it inside a carved walnut wood box. It lay in the red velvet lining,  unused for years. In moments of nostalgia for Kashmir  I would open the box, anticipating the initial resistance and then the still lingering smell of wood mixed with a faint tinge of mothballs and freshly ironed cotton. With every opening of the box I worried at the future inevitable loss of this fragrance captured in time.  In my English bedroom of powder blue flowered wallpaper, strewn with the usual books and belongings  from a teenage girl’s life, the knife sat incongruous. As if an artifact from another time.

Boaba dies in the same house that I spend hot summers of childhood running barefoot through cool cement floored corridors. She is the only grandparent whose passing away I am in the presence of. 

For four days the house is host to guests who come for ‘tehzeeyat’’ condolences. Visitors shuffle in and out of various footwear, leaving the  front veranda strewn with slippers, and leather sandals, rubber slip ons and a myriad of flimsy blue toed chappals.  Men and women come and go separately. The men in whispers, never staying long enough to fill one room. 

The women stay longer. They settle down to sit on the floor, retracting arms inside pherans for warmth and a sign that imminent departure is not the intent. The older ones are offered a cushion for their back against a wall, both for comfort and as a sign of respect. The women fill up the rooms, at first with a light constant chatter and then, one of them, Boaba’s friend and comrade in ‘jajeer’ (hookah), addresses my grandmother, with a sudden cry –  out loud as if she were looking  for her somewhere amongst the crowd.

 ‘Where did you go my sister ? !”

The question heralds the start of louder laments and cries of grief. 

Sometimes there is a song. A ballad where Boaba’s name ‘Zuna’ is used as if the song was crafted especially for her and maybe it is. I am confused by the increasing hubub, the LOUDNESS of it all. As the granddaughter I must sit in the room and allow all the women to come to me, take my hand, embrace me, kiss me. We are all floor sitting so it is a constant dance of standing up to facilitate these touches and sitting down again. My Poph, paternal aunt, seeing my discomfort, tells me – 

“Let them make noise with their grief.  If they don’t show emotion like this how will the neighbours know there has been a death…otherwise it seems there is a marriage.”

I begin to see there is an art to it. Now there is another wail turned lyrical. A woman I don’t know describes how Zuna was carried into these ‘four walls’ as a bride and she would leave the same house as a ‘bride’ again. Washed, groomed and ‘dressed’  by her best friends and sisters in faith.  

Some of the younger girls tell me – yes as the older generations die – there is less and less ‘clamour and songs’ because “we just don’t know how to do it”.

 I spot two children In the midst of swapping candy. You know Daadi is died says one. Her playmate looks at her incredulously for a second  and replies  –  Don’t be silly she has gone for Hajj.’ 

When I married, the knife came with me to NYC, crossing yet another ocean, still in the same box, still unused. On opening the box there was the same resistance and then that waft of nostalgia that never did disappear and still lingers to this day.  I would look at the knife sometimes, like a relic, a turnkey, imagining what it would be like to travel back in time and across oceans to the cool cemented corridors and slivers of apple peel, to touch the powder blue flowered wallpaper, now long gone. 

My sisters come to visit me in New York . They build the crib and unpack gifts from my mother. They help me pack and repack a hospital bag that has been ready for days. When the time finally comes to take the bag, I slip one more thing into the inside pocket. Quietly, like a sharp knife shaped secret.

Sometimes I marvel that I haven’t lost it yet. The wooden box is for jewelry now. Still unused,  the knife is put away in some higher corner so as to not accidentally come into the hands of a child. My parents have transformed into the grandparents now. Delighting in their first grandchild with a joy I recognise now from another time when I myself was the grandchild.

One day the child wants to sharpen his pencil and his pencil sharpener is either broken or nowhere to be found. As it is with three year olds, there is no room for negotiation. The pencil MUST be sharpened, the scribbling Must Go On. The tears threaten to dismantle a quiet morning and I say the only thing that would stop them – ‘Do you want me to tell you a story? 

What story?

Of when Mama was a little girl and had a broken pencil just like yours?’ 

Still the big teary eyes but accompanied now with a nod of the head and a climbing quietly on to my lap.

‘What happened Mama?’

That day I tell how, when not much bigger than him, whenever I cried my Boaba would say ‘Lagï balāi’ while wiping my tears with the corner of her head cloth and then reach into her magic pocket for a way to fix my problem. 


Magic pocket? What was in there? 

A Knife 

A knife? Why knife?

To sharpen the pencil , 

His eyes widen with hope, then look down. He thinks it’s the only knife in the world that can sharpen a pencil. A magic knife.

‘I wish we could do that’’

Yes, yes we can dear child. 

I bring down the knife, trying to remember the way she would hold it with her right hand, the pencil, its nub resting on the index finger of her left hand while her thumb guided the bladeto gently chisel it back to shape. 

And that is how easily joy slips into our moments like the soft chiseling of a pencil, like the wish of a child. Like the prayers of a grandmother. Like a small gift, placed in one’s hand, by another beloved hand.

Thav pānas æthι . Keep it with yourself .



Also – ‘Your mother, Your mother, You’ .

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  • Reply Afeefa January 2, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    My heart is full with this remembering both my pheran -ed grandmothers and now as a Boaba myself. I have the taste of sliced apples they showed me to eat with freshly cracked walnuts on my kashmiri tongue.

  • Reply Alice October 6, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    So sweet. May God have mercy of the beautiful soul of your grandma

  • Reply Andleeb July 27, 2020 at 3:36 am

    So beautifully written!

  • Reply Leila July 25, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    You brought me back to watching my grandparents in awe as they peeled their fruit in a single ribbon ♥️

  • Reply Uzma July 24, 2020 at 10:56 pm

    Simply beautiful…. I wrote teary eyed.

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