In Loving Memory of My Nana

He always insisted that I must return to bury him irrespective of whichever part of the world I lived in! He said he would tell others before his death to preserve his body until I returned home to throw the first fistful clod of earth on his grave…

Since my childhood, I have always been snoopy about the dark disfigured patch in the middle of his pate. Every time I asked him how it came to be there, he never failed to narrate with amusement the story behind this curious adornment. He was a mere twenty-day old baby when his mother died (the gossip had it that his father forced down her throat a paste made from poisonous leaves as he was gearing up for his next marriage!). He lay abandoned on the earthen floor as an army of ants made a feast of his tender pate. He was to retain that mark all his life. I never sensed an iota of displeasure as he would patiently narrate his childhood stories of loss and pain, seamlessly merging his childhood tales with those of mine. A childless aunt from the joint-family adopted this forsaken child and reared him up as her own son.

He grew up in a land-owning family. As his foster-father died when he was still young, his mother had to resort to selling land, the only source of livelihood they had. In a village where people somehow managed to make ends meet, she still managed to send him to school. He was sharp and got through to his eighth grade without much trouble. The old lady ran out of her resources and he had to contend himself with looking after the little land she was still left with. His life-long love for learning continued as he was determined that his own children must study. He would often tell me how much he struggled to send his own children to school. It was amazing even to think that coming as he did from a conservative Muslim village he managed to send his eldest daughter (my mother) to school in a near-by town.

He was married off early to an unlettered woman who bore him four children – two daughters and two sons. After the birth of his fourth child – a son – he traveled to Calcutta alone for vasectomy. He would narrate to me with relish how he heard about vasectomy as a means of family-planning on radio. While many in rural India, especially in Muslim families, did not take very kindly to the idea of restricting family sizes, he found merit in having a small family as he was keen on giving his children the best he could afford. I found this openness striking in a man who was born in the third decade of the last century.

Life had never been kind to him. A growing family could not be fed and clothed for long on subsistence land-economy. As he would tell me later, he was offered a job of primary school teaching twice. But he refused both the times fearing that the meager salary of a primary school teacher might not be enough to sustain his family. (However, in the last few years of his life, as his sons went their own ways, he would often regret for not taking up the job. That would have assured him of a pension in his old age!) After spurning the job offers, he cast his lot in business. My nani told me how this would entail his long absence from home. He worked hard at his business but was never worldly wise. His business got folded up pretty soon. He, however, never tired of telling me how once he had an opportunity of making a handsome amount of money just by hiding some transactions from his business partner. His partner would never have come to know of this. His friends advised him to go for it. But he stood his ground. He would often tell me the importance of being honest to oneself. He lived a life of near-poverty but was proud of the fact that he had been honest, sincere, and hard-working all his life. He had done the best that he could do for his children!

When it came to marrying off his most favorite child – his eldest daughter and my mother – he wanted the best for her. He married her off beyond his means. Every time I met him, he would tirelessly narrate how when my mother was undergoing terrible birth-pain, he ran to a well-known village fakir who gave him a tabiz and told him that his daughter would give birth to a son who would make a name for himself! This he never stopped telling me despite my embarrassing protestations! I was his most favorite grandchild. I spent most of my childhood in his house. How I looked forward to being there in that kuchha house filled with my nana’s indulgence and nani’s unending stock of folk-tales! For him, I was always a precocious child who could rattle off poems effortlessly, grasp things beyond his age. He always made me feel special. Even when I met him for the last time about a month back for my sister’s wedding, he reminisced my childhood: how I would wake up early in the morning and taking my small lantern knock on his door; how I would curse him and refuse to leave his house when my parents came to take me home.  He was my most precious repository of my childhood memories.

He was never a practicing Muslim in the strictest sense. He attended the Eid namaz but rarely fasted during ramzan, and started attending the Friday namaz (Jumma) only toward the end of his life. But he would narrate with relish stories about the life of prophet and other mythical stories. His striking memory would never fail almost until the last day of his life: he could recite with flair the poems he read in his school days, narrate with ease stories that he heard from other people or read sometime in his life. Whenever he came home, he would bury himself in reading novels in Bangla (as he could not read English!). With an almost childlike innocence, he would recount the places and people that he came across on his annual journey to Ajmer Sharif in the last few years of his life. For me, he stood for a fluid and synthetic Islam that people of my generation have almost forgotten about.

As I woke up late from sleep today (21 August, 2010) morning, I missed the first two phone calls from my mother and elder sister. As I was getting ready to leave for the library, I got a third call from my younger sister in England. She informed me of the inevitable. A lump in my throat is all I felt as the news started sinking in. I remembered how he always insisted that I must be there to bury him, that he would ask others to preserve his body until I returned home! I frantically looked up the online booking sites for a ticket to India. I informed my mother that I wanted to be there beside him to see him for one last time. My mother called up my mamas and other people in the village who informed her that it would be unwise to keep the body un-interred until Monday afternoon by which time I could hope to reach my nana’s house, my childhood pleasure-dome.

Nana, I have betrayed you…I couldn’t be there beside you for one last time. Forgive me! You were mine when you were alive; in your death, you belong to all! But nobody will make me feel a prodigy like you did…nobody will make me feel special the way you did! You will always remain special for me…the only thing you forgot was to tell others that they must wait for me to return to throw the first fistful clod of earth on your grave and shed a few drops of tears in memory of our times spent together! You have robbed me of my childhood memories as you have taken them away with you!

You are gone in this holy month because you were pure of heart! May Allah rest you in peace!


Here are a few lines for you:

Six by Six

Some things never go right

You travel through continents
sail across oceans
fly high in the sky

To return to your childhood
a six by six dingy cell

A lonely figure
deciphering the rejections
on the wall

There is no return

A journey from one cell to the other
is all that remains.

[I write this as I struggle to heal myself and write with the hope that it will reconnect me with the memories of my beloved nana.]

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7 Responses to In Loving Memory of My Nana

  1. Bina Shrestha says:

    It was heart rendering to read your childhood memories spent with your loving nanaji; there are very few people in our lives who can make us feel so special. I am sorry for your loss, and especially for the fact that you couldn’t be there at his burial, even after knowing that was one only thing he had asked from you.
    I don’t want to imagine the pain you are going through ……………………….I have been through it myself and I know what it is like not to have someone you have taken for granted all your life! One day they just leave you alone, exactly like you have said, ‘ You have robbed me of my childhood memories as you have taken them away with you!’

    There is one way you could pay tribute to your nanaji; by living by the ideals and principles he believed in and passing it to your children the same kind of values. This way, you can feel a liitle bit closer to the ones that you have lost, because in someway he/she continues to be a part of your life.

    My heartfelt condolences for his sad demise, and pray that his humble soul rests in peace.


  2. Mary Ann Chacko says:

    In Nana’s death I feel as though I have lost not only a grandfather but also a friend who loved me unconditionally. Everytime I would go to see him and Nani in Dadanpur he would immediately ask someone to get a chair for me so that he and I could sit and talk. I was his favourite grandchild’s wife and that made me extremely special in his eyes. He would talk of me and to me as though I was flawless. He didn’t have money or gold but the immense love and affection with which he would look at me and talk to me made me feel like a princess.

    Nana was for me too the repository of the stories of my husband’s childhood . This is my all time favorite memory: My husband spent most of his childhood in Dadanpur. In those days the village was a close-knit community and everybody knew everybody else. When there was function in the village there would inevitably be a mike and sound system. My husband, the little scholar that he was, would take his book of poems and go and recite poems in that public venue. The thought of a little boy in his shorts running to the mike to read poems while his village listened never ceases to amaze me. I also love to imagine nana and his little grandson walking hand in hand through the paddy fields in the morning. Nana always told me of how the little one would go and wake him up in the morning with these words, “Ethbar nana, Ethbar nana, ut.” (Ethbar nana, Ethbar nana, get up.”). Nana’s name was Ethbar Khan.

    I met nana for the last time during my sister-in-law’s wedding. After lunch nana was waiting for a car to take him back to our house. He waited for a long time and finally lost his patience and became quite angry. Someone came and told me that nana was getting very angry. I was a little scared as I had never before encountered an angry nana. But I went to him and surprising even myself I went and hugged him. I say I surprised myself because in our part of the world you won’t find many daughter-in-law’s hugging their husband’s grandfather. One maintains a respectable distance. I was thinking of this as I was hugging him and was scared if he will be offended. He, however, only told me that he was upset because he was tired of sitting. I told him that I will arrange a car to take him home as soon as possible and he calmed down immediately.

    I will miss nana. But I feel blessed that I, who was born and brought up in a Christian household in Kerala, thousands of kilometers from his village, was blessed to know him, to love and be loved by him, and become a part of his family. For me, he will never die.

  3. Bina, Thank you so much for your kind words. They make me feel better.

  4. lindahdolan says:

    I just wanted to say that I am sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful tribute to him and an honest and important grappling with the loss – thank you for sharing it.

    I know how strangely difficult it is to grieve miles and miles away from the places and people that made up your loved one’s life. But even though you could not be there and cannot be there through the grieving time, your written tribute is a different way of being a part of his interment. From what I hear, you don’t ever stop missing someone completely . . . but the memories and lessons he’s fostered in you will continue as well and can never be taken away by death.

  5. Usha says:

    Very heartfelt writing, Mosarrap. I’d always wanted to write about my grandmother. She passed away in 2006 and I miss her even now. I do hope to write about her someday. Not only the retelling of the memories of our childhood but also our childhood goes with the passing away of the older people in our families. I wish you strength to cope with your loss.

  6. Thanks, Usha! Yes, what I have lost is not just a person but those memories of my childhood that only that person could recreate for me. It’s sad and difficult to accept. You should write about your grandma. It’s cathartic.

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