Nani Jan

Monday, September 28, 2020


My Nani Jan (maternal grandmother) was a beautiful soul with who I was lucky to spend a few moments in my life. Although I left Pakistan at the age of three, I was always in my Nani Jan's thoughts because I was her spoiled and ever loved granddaughter. She held on to the special bond she formed with me because I spent a lot of my early years around her before we left for Canada. She was one of those special humans who left a lasting impression on anyone who met her. 

    I wish I had taken out the time to truly understand how strong and deep her love and attachment towards me was, so I would have valued her time with me even more. I wish I could dig up those memories of my early years and bask in those precious moments that I took for granted one more time. As a child, my mother would put me on the phone and my grandmother would just repeat, "I love you my daughter and I cannot wait to see you once again. When will you come to see me? I am counting down the days every day praying for your quick return to me." Her yearning would leave my child self speechless as I did not understand why she loved me so much because I did not have any recollection of our time together. Sometimes I would even run away when I heard my mother on the phone because I knew she would insist I talk to my Nani Jan, who wanted to hear my voice. Unfortunately, I did not know any better, and I let those years slip by without strengthening my relationship with her. This has become one of my greatest regrets because she was a treasure I realized too late I had lost. 

    She loved to talk about her childhood and had a great fondness for reliving those memories and sharing them. She was fond of her father and elder brother, who she doted on immensely. Her family lived on a large plot of land in the province of Punjab in the pre-partition Hindustan where her father worked as a local physician for the nearby villages. As the middle child among eleven siblings, she pushed boundaries, had a love of playing with dolls, and despised school with such passion she would run away as much as possible. She became best friends with my Dadi Jan (paternal grandmother) who was two years younger than her and lived in the same village in a large household of her own. They became best friends and would regularly skip classes together to hide and play with their dolls whenever they got the chance. Their friendship became well known in the village since they were always together and my Dadi Jan would spend most her time at Nani Jan's place. Their bond lasted into adulthood, which they maintained by writing letters to each other as they moved across Pakistan with their husbands and family. Coincidentally, they both settled in the same town eventually and made their relationship permanent by joining the families together with the marriage of my mother and father. 

    In Nani Jan's childhood garden, there were several rows of the finest mango trees from which she would harvest delicious mangoes every season. They would reserve some mangoes for the annual mango competition, where mangoes were brought from all over Hindustan to determine which species was the sweetest and best-tasting mango in the country. Their mangoes would rate high in the rankings and awarded as one of the best. But it was not all fun and games since she helped raise her younger siblings. Her mother created a system where the older daughters rotated through the different chores regularly each week that comprised cleaning, cooking, sewing, mending items, and tending to the younger children. Her home housed approximately twenty people regularly, so there was also something that needed to be done.

    Once a month her father would hold a dinner for the orphanage children in the town by inviting them over to his home. They would lay out blankets in their garden and provide the children with food and handmade clothes that his daughters worked on that month. Nani Jan described these events as one of her favourite times in the month where the house would brim with the chatter and laughter of all the kids and the house would become a haven of happiness and peace. She lived for these moments and even in her old age, these are the memories she would constantly return to.

    After marriage and the partition of India and Pakistan, her life changed entirely. My Nana Jan (maternal grandfather) was a stationmaster for the government, and they moved to a different town or village every few years. Married life came with its own challenges because her carefree and joyous life shifted into one filled with compromise and pain. 

    As I grew older and returned to Pakistan every few years to visit Nani Jan, she would create a frenzy of excitement for herself to prepare for our arrival. The house would be thoroughly cleaned and she would cook all our favourite meals. The house would fill with the scent of her delicious cooking and would waft into all the corners of her home, beckoning me to find my way to the kitchen for a taste. She would sit on a low stool handmade with the same wicker used in the "charpai' beds she slept on. It would be raised about four or five inches from the ground because the gas stovetop would be directly on the ground. She preferred this over the more modern stove oven combination. Crouching for long periods like that is not an effortless task, especially for those who have not practiced it their entire lives but for her, it was second nature and easier than standing. Drenched in sweat, Nani Jan toiled over the flame in the non-air-conditioned tiny kitchen that did not even have a fan to create a breeze. I would stand there for a few minutes before I would become soaked in my clothes and needed to run towards the fan or the unique cooling system made of dried water reeds, water, and a fan. The breeze from the cooling system felt like heaven as I stood before it bringing my body back to tolerable homeostasis. 

    Nani Jan's stoic demeanour in the face of adversity and difficulty depicted her strength. She loved tending her garden in the evenings, which she nurtured just as lovingly as her children. In the early evening or late afternoon, she would start up her electric well and water all the plants and trees growing around the house by filling buckets of water and carrying them to her flowers. The smell of dampened earth and fresh floral scents of jasmine, gardenia, rose, passionflower and the queen of the night would emanate around the entire house, making her little haven truly feel like paradise amidst the hot, dusty desert heat. It was her hard work and toil that created this because she was the nucleus holding everything together with the never wavering strength of her arms. When she would kiss me, she smelled of sweat, sweetness, and the undying love of a grandmother who would sacrifice every part of her for those she loved fiercely. 

    She was stubborn too, and it was very difficult to change her mind once she had made it up, no matter how much anyone would beg and plead with her. She insisted on living in her home until she could not walk anymore, and even after that she reluctantly agreed to live with one of her daughters. During her time, it was highly unacceptable and cause of ridicule for parents of the daughter to live with their daughter after her marriage in her "husband's home" even though it was expected that she live and care for her husband's parents. Nani Jan did not have any sons with whom she could move in with and she received countless taunts about it during her marriage by her in-laws who even at one point insisted that her husband, Nana Jan, agree to a second marriage so he may have some sons. Because of this, she became adamant about not staying with her daughters for very long periods until the moment she could not perform daily tasks. Her reasons were valid though because moving out of her home into her daughters was difficult since her daughters had their own struggles and families to take care of and it would be a change for all of them. 

    One of her most memorable qualities was her abrupt honesty, sharp wit, and blunt nature. She never hesitated to speak her mind or stand up for what she believed was wrong. She felt helpless against a society that did not cater to the needs or the struggles of a woman, but; she made the most of what she was given. She instilled a lot of her qualities in her daughters, and I see my Nani Jan every time I look at my mother. Nani Jan wore her heart on her sleeve, and it pained her greatly to be distanced from her daughters and family when they moved away. The gate to her home would always be open and there would be a steady stream of people from around the village that would come to drop by and just say hello. She would turn no one away and treated everyone as equals regardless of their class, race, gender, or beliefs. Her fiery spirit meant that she prepared herself for battle if need be and would stand her ground for her own opinions. She would remember everyone's birthdays, her family, relatives, friends, and even famous people like the members of the British royal family, along with the minutest details about who they were showed her vast knowledge and infinitely large and ever-expanding memory. In the twenty-eight years, I knew her, she never missed my birthday no matter where I was.

    The imperfectly perfect, beautiful soul she was is someone who I miss every day because she made a not-so-subtle impact on my life that I will never forget. In an indirect manner, she shaped who I was and gave me someone to aspire to. At her funeral, people came from across the country and different parts of the world. Some guests mentioned they had met her just a few times, but she made a last impression on their hearts with her generosity and cheerful nature. I am happy to have her as a role model in my life, and I continue to celebrate her memory and life by upholding her values and traditions so I can pass on her knowledge and qualities to her future generations. 

Until Next Time,

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash


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