A Tribute to my Great Grandmother


A Tribute to Apa Jan

One of my earliest memories of Apa Jan was in Islamabad when I was around 12 years old. I had gone over to see her and, as always, she hugged me affectionately. I inhaled her scent – a fusion of cigarettes and perfume.

Later that day, I was walking past my father, when he stopped me- glaring suspiciously. “Have you been smoking?!”, he asked. I denied this ridiculous accusation and wondered why he would think so. That was the moment I realized Apa was to blame! I did not think to give the explanation to my father, but instead, proceeded to strategize how I could avoid such circumstances in the future. To this day, I always carried a small perfume bottle in my bag, which I would religiously spray on myself after I left Apa Jan’s room.

My visits to Apa Jan never failed to amuse me. She demanded I lose weight when she saw me upon my return from my first year of university; we had numerous conversations about finding me a life partner who she insisted she must approve of before I make any final decisions; not to mention, her standard question (which was really more of an exclamation): “kaun lay kay jai ga iss motti ko?” (who will take this pearl away?); and several discussions about how I need to be less naïve and a little more chalaak (clever) if I want to survive in this world.

While Apa’s family was well aware of her sagacity, anyone who met her acknowledged her breath-taking beauty. The Hal Bevan portrait that her grandchildren have shared on Facebook is only a fraction of Apa’s glamour- a mere hint of her compelling green eyes.

Petmans painting has depicted Apa in her prime, which I never personally experienced. Thus, I have painted my own portrait: Apa perched on her sofa, legs hanging limply, cigarette-pinched lips, lowered gaze towards her Urdu newspaper- a stack of magazines on one side, an old-fashioned radio on the other. I am warmly welcomed with green eyes, a beaming face and a whiff of fragranced cigarette smoke. This is how I remember Apa, in all her glamour and charm, and of course, the tête-à-têtes that I associate with this scene.

During our conversations, Apa would often tell me that daughters are the greatest gifts from God, whilst admiring her own daughter’s unwavering love and support. She would express her gratitude towards having such accomplished children, considering she never received the quality education they did.

Today, I want to express my gratitude. Thank you, Apa Jan, for being a part of all of our lives. Although you have departed (99 years, 5 children, 11 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren later), you have left behind three entire generations through which you will live on and be celebrated. I will always be the 12 year-old girl who you once nearly got into trouble, and you will always be my great grandmother who taught me love and resilience.

Here’s to you, Apa Jan! Celebrating you today, and everyday!

A Tribute to my Great Grandmother

The Show

Moonlight tinkling from every bell on my ankle-bands, I walk through the darkness—a whisper that hushes the crowd to stillness. The sitar’s melody swells across the still air of the stage and I- dancer, storyteller, all- raise my eyes to greet the audience. The announcer is speaking over the harmonium’s heavy-throated thoughts, ‘…every performance in Kathak is a story; the dancer assumes the different characters in turn…’

Salaam” (peace), begins the dancer: arms braced, eyebrows arched. My heel knocks upon the earth, my arms sweep down–palms blossoming lotuses–down, down, down to the earth: “this earth which formed (our) home, and fed (our) bodies, and made (our) gods.”  I rise to position and find myself on a busy street in Montreal.

I walk towards McGill campus. All eyes follow me marching through these grounds, trailing the bagpipe’s melody. It is my graduation ceremony and I stand with a range of academic interests, life experiences and an unforgettable four year journey of love and learning. I have made a home away from home- I have broken a barrier. I am Pearl S. Buck- foreign but local, global but native. I am a builder of bridges, a speaker of tongues- the ocean in a drop, the world in Pakistan.

The bagpipe’s skirl fades into the dull beat of Pakistani tabla. It picks up and my feet match every note – assertive, precise, eloquent. I am standing next to Eve Ensler, passionately speaking into the microphone: “…Marital rape. Stranger rape. Child rape…”. The string of words pours out of my mouth. It is V-day, even in Islamabad, and the stage is mine to share with Eve Ensler’s monologue, “A memory, a rant, a monologue, a prayer”. A woman apart, unaffected by the powers that oppress women in my religion and society, I am a voice that rises above the din. I am the power and liberty to articulate feminism in Pakistan. I am the empathy that offends and objects. I am a writer; my words flow from the pen.

I am the inheritor of my grandfather’s prison letters, the author of his father’s orphan biography, the invoker of ancestors who traded stories and spices on the silk route. I am a historian, a whirling dervish, spinning new futures from my past, seeking spiritual enlightenment in dance. I am a performer with a message, a musician with a mission.

My fingers dance off these keys: calm movement and fading notes. My hands withdraw, lights fade, and the gnarled silence that applauds me and breaks my heart gives me new strength. I see only one girl: claw-like hands, twisted fingers, frail legs dangling limply from her wheelchair. Mehr, my student, is unable to clap or speak except in broken, fractured syllables. My ovation is the hollow banging of her knuckles on the bench beside me. Here is pathos, a whole sonnet’s worth, her pain and patience like poetry.

The Show