A few days ago, my cousin discovered piles of old family photos in Dhaka – images documenting my mother’s family history from the 1930s until today. Technology and communication being what it is, she scanned and uploaded a number of them on Facebook, to share with our relatives now spread across the world.
Growing up, I was always mesmerized by my parent’s stories, not just about their own childhoods, but also about their parents and their families. Through the charismatic storytelling of my father, I experienced the glamour and carefree innocence of Karachi in the 1950s and 1960s – the nightclubs, the cinema houses, the musicians, and the scavenger hunts on the beach.
I imagined I could hear the sweet and calm voice of my Dadi (my father’s mother), who passed away before I was born. Who I was named after. “She was the kindest woman imaginable,” my father would tell me, his own voice faraway in the memory. “She never raised her voice, and she would give all she had to the poor.” In elementary school, when asked to list the one person I’d like to meet dead or alive, I told the class without hesitation, “My grandmother, Kalsoom.”
One night when I was younger and staying at my aunt’s house in Dhaka, I lay awake as my mother unveiled glimpse after glimpse into her childhood – how she would insist as a little girl on sleeping in the arms of her father, my Nana Bhai. How she and her sisters (and one brother) would watch in awe as he treated my grandmother like a queen. How my grandmother (my Nani) was widowed at only 36 years old, left to care for eight children. Since that day, my Nan – who once wore the most fashionable and bright saris – has only worn white.
These stories became black and white snapshots in my imagination, immortalized moments that acted as a testament to where I came from and, to a small extent, who I am today.
When my cousin posted the aforementioned photos yesterday, I was struck by two pictures - one of my Nana Bhai with the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and another of my Nani with Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. The juxtaposition of two major figures in Pakistani history next to my grandparents was a shock, to the say the least.
According to my aunts, who I probed for more information, my grandfather – who was in the civil service before and after the British Raj, was working in Shilong, in Assam, India, where Jinnah came and stayed for three days. The above photo was taken before the 1947 Partition – before my grandfather moved his family to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) when he opted to join the new state.
Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of Liaquat Ali Khan was a tremendous activist for women’s rights. In 1949, she formed the Pakistan Women’s National Guard, which served to protect women during the Partition period, when several riots and killings occurred. In the above photo, taken in 1949 in Chittagong, my Nan, who was a commander of the National Guard, walked alongside the PM’s wife as young girls (including my mom’s sister, pictured on the right) did drills. It was during this time that my grandmother learned how to handle a rifle, and during the 1971 War (which I’ve written about here), she would sleep with a rifle next to her in bed, in case looters tried to ransack the house, or the Army decided to make an unannounced visit.
I wanted to share the above images not really to showcase the well-known figures, but to point out how our own personal histories can contextualize the timeline of our nations. The first picture of my grandfather with Jinnah is, in my opinion, a testament to the faith our families put in the fledgling nation of Pakistan, a state that was still just a concept at the time of this photo.
While the second image exemplifies broader issues of women empowerment and emancipation in the early years of Pakistan, it also solidified what I already knew about my grandmother – that she was a warrior. To this day, she is the most fearless woman I know. And if I could live my life in the footsteps of either of my grandmothers, I’d consider myself blessed.
To end, I wanted to share my absolute favorite photo of the album – my mother (the smallest one in the middle) dancing with her three sisters (the two on either end are meant to be playing the “men” in the sequence):