Today is my mother’s birthday. A major milestone in my life. I am who I am because of her birth and because she nurtured me and was my champion.
Some years are more significant than others and serve as milestones in the history of the world. Nevertheless births and deaths are milestones for all of us, which mark the paths of our life as indelible markers. We relate instances that happened before or after them.
People in Arabia still mention the year of the birth of Prophet Muhammad pbuh as being the year of the Elephant.
Abraha, a Christian king from Yemen decided to invade Mecca and lay the Kaaba in ruin so people would be redirected to the huge and imposing Cathedral that he had built in Yemen. A very large Elephant led his magnificent and imposing army and lost. This event went down in the history of Arabia as a major milestone. What happened to that army is described in Surah Feel.
A very special baby (Prophet Muhammad pbuh) born in that year marked a pivotal point in the history of mankind. He (pbuh) was sent to illuminate the world and would be a mercy to Mankind for all times. To this day the Arabs remember him (pbuh) as being born in the Year of the Elephant.
The year of my mother’s birth was marked by my grandfather, a surgeon to learn the technique to use X rays for therapy for certain diseases (radiation treatment). He was the one and only in-undivided British India to have this expertise at that time. Patients came to him from far and wide.
Such a man was “recruited”: forced or voluntary it is not clear but this new father was to join the British army as a surgeon and was sent far away after the birth of his first born.
The British were in the throes of the First World War pitting Muslim Arabs against Muslim Turks. This was also the year when the US entered the war against Germany and Russia exited the war.
In those days my mother reports, that her mother (my grandmother) had told her that children would come running into the village and say “Goray andey nay” “The whities are coming” there would be a flurry to find the male children and teens and hide them. The British carried a 4 ft. ruler and anyone who was 4 foot tall was “recruited” into the British army as cannon fodder.
My grandfather was a surgeon and that was the draw for the British army to recruit him. He left after my mother was born. He took his wife and his First Born back to the village where his parents owned several hundred acres and left them in their care and rode off on his horse into the horizon for 5 long years.
My mother’s demeanor was very accommodating and she would take a lot of flack from people without saying a word. This would irk me and puzzle me to no end.
She would say “Live with Ehsaan it is better”. I was obviously different: born in a non-war era, though the fifth child but much-awaited first girl in the family; I could never fathom why she would accept second best.
It is when I piece the first five years of her life through vignettes related by close relatives and cousins, a picture emerges. Seeing her without a father for the first five years of her life living in her paternal grandparents village waiting…… for life to begin. I begin to understand why and how she came to be who she was.
Her father would send his entire salary to his mother (my mothers paternal grandmother) who would dole it out to my grandmother (my mother’s mother) at will, which was the culture of the village. However for my grandmother, who was a city girl this loss of independence irked her to no end. She was someone who lived where the roads were paved, wore high heels, and silken clothing at home,and had servants to do stuff around the house.
Suddenly she was a new mother thrust into a primitive village where the road from the highway to the village was not even paved. They ate grains and simple food, which she was not used to. The smell of the livestock and the burning odor of the cow dung by villagers would drive her fastidious senses crazy.
Even though her in laws were landowners, they lived a village life, which was a far cry from the city. My grandmother felt like a transplant in new unfamiliar soil with no husband to mediate the path to this new culture.
This was related to me by my mother at an event when I was frustrated with her “patient” behavior with some misbehaving ill mannered folks. I felt she should give it back to them in good measure. She smiled and related this story from her first five years of life:
“Once my mother was carrying me on her hip, I was either 18 months or two years old. My father’s sister (my paternal Aunt) was carrying my boy cousin roughly the same age. My mother and my Aunt were talking to each other while the two toddlers were facing each other. At his point suddenly the boy cousin, reached out and slapped me on my cheek. I started crying. His mother got angry with him and slapped him and he started bawling. My mother now relates what my grandmother said about my response with amusement tinged with exasperation: “ Mahmudah stopped crying and started patting her cousins cheek and saying “its okay! Its okay! “ I said to Mahmudah “he hit you! Why are you pacifying him?” Mahmudah said“ but he is hurting”.
She was an amazingly compassionate child and became an amazingly compassionate adult. That was inherent in her nature.
Today I think about her under the red Georgia soil so far away from her home in Indian Punjab, from which she was uprooted by the Hindu riots of Partition and relocating to a home in Pakistani Punjab.
As a dutiful wife she supported my father’s move to Karachi and took the helm of educating children and young adults in the teeming city of Karachi whose children had run out of schools. The mass migration of people from Bharat or what is called India today had filled Karachi, which had minimal educational resources.
She went on to raise six highly educated children and I don’t remember her ever telling us to do homework, it would have been heresy against her gentle soul to think of not doing our schoolwork.
She spread the pearls of education in the city of Karachi which was hurting for schools, by opening two small elite English Medium private schools and administering thirteen free girls schools under the umbrella of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA)
Her students and teachers are sprinkled all over the world. On one trip while flying back from Pakistan a young man in a designer Italian suit approached her at a European airport transit lounge. He came up to her and asked her if she was the Principal of the school and named her private school, then he gave her full name and asked if that is who she was? When she said “yes” he hugged her and wanted her to know that he remembered when he cut class and created problems for teachers, she had sat him down and talked to him instead of expelling him from the school which is what was expected. He said he was so affected by her act of caring that it changed his life attitude. He worked hard from there on and he said giving her his card “ You will be happy to know that I am now a Hollywood Director”
As I walk along the river I remember her joy at inhaling the heavy scent of honey suckle and asking “ what is that that fragrance? It reminds me of motia (Pakistani jasmine)”
Honeysuckle still reaches out to you with its fragrance in some of the untouched parts of the riverbank, reminding me of an era gone by when in the hot humid summer days of Georgia, life was harsh but the flowers and people were passionate.