I have always loved listening to stories. But my favorite kind were never make believe, the ones woven into the fabric of fairy tales. They were the ones that unveiled pieces of my family’s history, that contextualized the very young histories of Pakistan and Bangladesh, where my father and mother are respectively from.
My favorite character of all those stories was my nani (maternal grandmother). In the tales my mother and khalas (aunts) told, Nan was a sharpshooter, a progressive feminist, a fashionista, and yes – even a Communist. She was both a warrior and a drama queen – a scary combination, to say the least.
Today, my nani is frail and small. At first glance, she seems a far cry from the strong heroine in those stories. But if you were to look a little harder, you would see that spirit is not just preserved in the decaying colors of old photographs. Nan may be over 90 years old today, but her eyes, magnified behind large wire-rimmed glasses, are watchful. Her papery hands still grip yours with surprising strength, pulling you closer. She misses nothing and remembers everything.
When I was in Dhaka a few weeks ago, my mother and I sat down with my nani one afternoon. Armed with a pen and notebook, I tell her that I want to preserve some of her stories. In true Nan fashion, she first smiles, closes her eyes dramatically, and says she didn’t know where to begin. But a split second later, it is story time.
Before the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, my mother’s family lived in India. When the countries were cleaved in two, they moved to what was then-East Pakistan, quite simply, Nan said, because they were Muslim. My grandmother was young but strong-willed, married to a man (my nana) who not only encouraged her to be her own woman, he gave her the tools to do so.
She was an anomaly, wearing the finest and most elegant saris but also choosing to join the Pakistan Women’s National Guard soon after its inception in 1949. My grandmother, chosen to be a commander of the National Guard, went door to door to recruit other women members, who all underwent army exercises and learned how to shoot and handle a rifle.
Nan smiled when she related a time when there was a shooting competition between the Pakistan Army and the Women’s National Guard. A lady, who Nan identified as “Nur Jehan from Chittagong” came first among both the men and women competitors, hitting the bulls-eye five times in a row. Later, Nan told me, that same young woman ended up marrying a general in the Pakistan Army.
While Nan’s own aim was admittedly “good but not great,” she would practice on flying birds and passing deer (Note: When she saw how wide-eyed her animal activist granddaughter got at that remark, she added that she would just shoot at the deer’s legs), stowing her rifle underneath her bed for safekeeping.
When Bangladesh’s Liberation War began in 1971 (see here for my piece last year on the Liberation War Museum), Nan was a widow and a mother to eight children, many of whom were then fully grown and married. She and the rest of my family were fierce supporters of Bangladesh’s independence movement.
My mother, the youngest and unmarried at the time, was a university student and activist in Dhaka. The Pakistan Army, knowing my mother would sometimes read the English news over the radio, would come looking for her at our family’s old house in Dhanmondi. They wanted young girls to read the news in order to paint a rosy and glossy picture of the war. They wanted the public to think everything was okay. When they did come, my mother was told to stay inside while my grandmother marched resolutely to the gate, telling the soldiers that her daughter wasn’t home that day.
But Nan soon realized they would have to move from house to house to ensure their safety. The war, for the Bangladeshi side of my family, was marred by daily tragedy but also dotted with simple pleasures, like playing cards with a flashlight underneath a quilt after “black out” time in the evenings. One night, my mother’s second eldest sister (I call her Mejo Kama) was at a function. The Mukhti Bahini, the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, were told that a Pakistani soldier would be at that same event, described as a light-skinned man wearing a suit and tie. The man they ended up shooting was not a Pakistani soldier, but another man, also light-skinned and wearing a suit and tie. He was Mejo Kama‘s husband.
I still get chills when I hear how my cousin, Mejo Kama‘s daughter Lipi Apu, ran screaming into the street that night. My family was an enormous supporter of Bangladesh in the Liberation War, and although they continued to be after the tragic death of my uncle, that moment shook them all. It was an illustration of how much blood is spilled during the cacophony of war. The Bangladeshi fighter who killed him, upon learning of his mistake, tried valiantly to beg for my aunt’s forgiveness. To this day, he still comes to ask Mejo Kama for forgiveness for what he did.
I decided to relate these stories not only as an effort to preserve my own family’s history, but also as an attempt to understand where I came from. We are all enriched by the stories of past generations, and those stories gain even more meaning when placed within the time line of history. I am a Pakistani, raised by a Pakistani father and a Bangladeshi mother, and my journey to understand my own identity has often led me to probe further into the stories my nani told.
At the end of this particular session, Nan’s eyes begin to close. She is tired, she tells me, a sign that story time has now come to an end. I take her hand and lead her from her sitting room to her bedroom next door. As she lays down in her bed, her creased face smiles goodbye, pulling me closer for a hug and a kiss. “You’ll remember me?” she asks, in true dramatic Nan fashion. I weave my fingers through her’s, an overlap of young and old, and say, “Of course, my nani. Always.”