For those of you who are regular visitors to this blog, you may have read a piece I wrote some months ago about my maternal grandmother (nani) – or Naan, as we all called her. About a week ago, Naan left us behind, joining my dear uncle (my mamoo), who passed away less than two weeks before.
My life has been punctuated by stories of my grandmother. Even if the memories were not wholly my own, I still felt a sense of ownership knowing that Naan’s life was somehow a testament to mine, that none of us would be who we were without her presence in our lives. Naan reared seven incredible daughters and one amazing son, who all raised their own children in light of her bravery, strength, determination, and fortitude. She was the staunch matriarch of my mother’s family.
As a child, I would stare in wonder as she sat in her armchair and expertly filled her paan leaves with colorful spices and candy-covered seeds, an intrinsic part of her daily ritual at her Dhanmondi house in Dhaka. As she gave me a naku (an Eskimo-like kiss with her nose) before I left her room, she would covertly stuff my pockets full of toffee and candy, which were still cold from their hiding place in her mini-fridge. Naan was a diabetic, but evidently rules never constrained her.
As I grew older and more curious about my own identity (being the Pakistani daughter of a Bangladeshi mother and a Pakistani father), Naan earned an almost folk hero status as I would listen to tales of the British Raj and the 1971 War. She was often the central character of these stories, the dramatic heroine with her perfectly pinned sari. She’d note how the British soldiers who’d camp in the fields near her house “were really quite nice,” or how she learned to shoot a gun when she was a commander in the Women’s National Guard in the 1950s. My mother would laugh as she noted how my grandmother, an avid supporter of the Communist party, would make her daughters all pay their respect to her enormous portrait of Mao Tse-Tung every morning.
This past year, I began to record some of Naan’s rich and vibrant memoirs. It was my present to her, I claimed. But really, it was for all of us. It was a testimony to our history, of how the first-person narrative of a woman we all called our matriarch truly defined our place within this timeline.
One of the last times I saw my Naan, I had just subjected her to hours of my peppered questions. I know she lavished the attention, as she often did, but she was tired and needed to rest. As I helped her into bed, she gripped my hand with the strength of the folk heroine immortalized in those stories. Will you remember me? she asked, her eyes closing. This question was not unlike the one she asked when I first arrived in Dhaka on that trip, except then she had said, Do you remember me? I answered both of those inquiries the same way – yes, Naan. Of course. You’re my grandmother.
I still think back to the simple innocence of those questions. Do we all live our lives hoping to be remembered, wondering if our memories will live on after we are gone? I know in the case of my Naan that she never even needed to ask. I am because she was. And her memory, as well as that of my uncle, will live on with all of us forever.