The grandmother I never knew.

Piecing together the past, from letters exchanged between the siblings of my father’s mother, and from correspondences between her and her husband, I have learnt a little bit about my Dadima. Her name was Sakina, the eldest child, with big expressive eyes and a soulful expression, something we can only tell from the few pictures of her in my father’s collection as, sadly, we never got to meet her….

The Rangoonwala family sometime in the 30's. On the extreme left is Yusuf (younger son), then Sakina (the eldest daughter), Shirin (her sister), and the young man on the far right is Hatim (the older son). Seated on chairs are my great grandfather Akberali with Sughra (youngest daughter) on his knee, and my great grandmother, Mariam with my father, Mohammedi sitting snugly in her lap. Sughra grew up to marry Qadir, the boy standing behind her, her cousin and the son of her father's brother and his wife, the couple standing behind.


These are a few pictures of my Dadi Sakina taken by her husband, my Dada, TayyebAli.

Sakina with Bano who was born when my father was 7. She died at the age of one. I wonder how different life would have been for my father had he known the company of a little sister...

One of the biggest regrets in my father’s life was that he had no recollection of his mother. Whatever little he knew of her had been gleaned from his grandmother and his aunts and uncles. Little did he know that his uncle Hatim had been entrusted with holding on to her correspondences or burn them, whatever he deemed fit…

Hatim mamaji called him over one day in 1985 thinking it was time he showed my father those letters he had preserved from all those years ago. As you can imagine, my father went through an intensely emotional experience then. He still does, as I witnessed today, when he was reading some of the letters out to me since I can’t read them myself (they’re in Gujarati), and his voice choked up as he read some of the passages describing his mother’s funeral in a letter written by his dearly beloved aunt Shirin to her brother Hatim, who was away in Poona at the time, studying to be a doctor. This is what he wrote to someone back home the day after being informed of her death…

a letter from Hatim to an undisclosed person, dated 10th January 1946. Sakina passed away on the 9th.

She died of tuberculosis of the intestine, a condition that began with a pain in her stomach that persisted for months. My father remembers them splitting aloe vera leaves in half and tying them onto her stomach to ease the pain. He also remembers the confusion he felt in what were to be her last hours in this world, when family members urged him to recite the aza’an in her ears and to ask for her forgiveness. What was he to be forgiven for? What had he done? It was all very strange and inexplicable.

My grandfather, Tayyabali was one of two sons by his father’s first wife, and from bits of information from here and there, we gather that he was a bit of a scallywag, and not in the good books of his father at all, a man my father refers to as Dada Bawaji. He had studied agriculture from a university in a town close to Sidhpur and wanted to be a farmer, for which his father gave him a plot of land to experiment on. Sakina must not have been too convinced of his prowess as a farmer after they married, and declared her desire to see him doing some big business for which he had to go away from Sidhpur and work elsewhere, a place he described in one of his letters to her as somewhere ‘there were no people of their community, and no one spoke Gujarati.’ He meant Madras.

Tayyebali (looking rather debonair) with his better half πŸ™‚

In the meantime, Sakina lived at Dada Bawaji’s house with her step mother-in-law and hated it. The wrath Dada Bawaji felt for his errant son probably rubbed his bahu the wrong way and she longed to live separately. She wrote to her husband, telling him Dada Bawaji had scolded her for something and told her to leave the house and go back to her mother’s…..which she did, along with her little son.

When my father read about this, so many years later, he was outraged. How could Dada Bawaji drive his daughter-in-law away this way? But his anger subsided when he read the letter from his Shirin Masi, where she revealed how Dada Bawaji stayed with Sakina the whole night as she lay dying, praying, and reciting the Quran…

She died around 3 am on the 9th of January, 1946. According to Shirin Masi’s letter, her funeral prayers were led by none other than Syedna Taher Saifuddin, who not only sent a handful of blessed earth for her grave, but also headed the sipara for her on the third day after her death.

Hatim had sent Rs 150 enclosed in a letter with instructions to his mother to use the money to fulfill a ‘minnat’ she had made to perform ziarat at the grave of Syedi Fakhruddin Shaheed in Galyakot, so her first-born would get better. But before this promise could be fulfilled, it was too late. Shirin asked her brother what she should now do with the money. She was instructed to use as much as was needed to order a tombstone made of marble, the same as for their father Akberali (who had passed away earlier the same year), and 25 rupees from the same were to be donated to the local library.

Mohammedi was to be given his love and regards, and was not to to be made to feel the loss of his mother by anyone.

Even so, my father still remembers being met with sad faces and pitying words everywhere he went, reminding him that he was now an orphan.

27 thoughts on “The grandmother I never knew.

    1. Abbaji asked me yesterday, all of a sudden while poring over his file if I would like to go with him to Sidhpur some day….I told him I’d love to. It was such a sweet, spontaneous thing, and I was touched.

  1. I can only imagine how reliving this journey must make you and your family, particularly your Dad feel. Hats off to him and to his courage – then & now. And kudos to you M for bringing the story to light in such an authentic way.

  2. Yesterday, while listening to my father tearfully read some of the letters, I tried unsuccessfully to hold back my own. I think he feels his loss more deeply now than he did when he was younger… or perhaps he is okay with us witnessing his vulnerability, that now peeks through the brave facade he maintained all his life.
    All my life, my mother’s humungus family overshadowed my father’s sparsely populated one. We have no uncles or aunts from my father’s side, though he has a whole bunch of cousins who regard him as a brother in many ways….we make do with them πŸ™‚ they’re all lovely people, and I wish we could be more in touch….
    I like listening to my father. And I feel it is imperative to do so, and to record all his stories. Then there are so many amazingly historical photographs, each one telling it’s own little story. I can’t wait to delve into each one!
    And I’m grateful to have readers who leave me these lovely appreciative comments πŸ™‚ They go a long way indeed.

    1. I don’t know you or your family, but your writings have dragged me in a totally different world – an Ivory Tower maybe. There is a lot of things running inside my mind that I am unable to categorize as, and one of the deepest questions inside me, to know about Life Experience, is stirred up again by your writings. They do not have answers for my questions though, but there are pointers that are helpful in a way that is not easy to explain.

      Thank you for your diligence.

      1. My parents’ world is a different world for me too Azar, which is why I enjoy delving into it. It does funny things to me, you’re right, it’s hard to explain.
        Thank you for reading….and for your comment. Makes me realize I have a wider audience out there.

  3. Abbajee and his file of correspondence. I love the absorbed way he pores through those letters looking for interesting tidbits to share with us. When abbajee read these letters to me, we both sat opposite each other and cried and cried for a very long time. I did not move to console him. This was not grief that needed condolence. These were tears for a past not lived but missed out on… these tears were the much needed water to wash over and soothe a lonely soul tortured by memories and the lack of them…. as i sat watching abbajee’s trembling lips and tear drenched face I thanked God that we have a past……..

    1. ‘This was not grief that needed condolence. These were tears for a past not lived but missed out on… these tears were the much needed water to wash over and soothe a lonely soul tortured by memories and the lack of them’

      Wow, Sax. That’s beautiful. And exactly how it is.


  4. Dear Munira,

    The story brought tears to my eyes for the masi I never knew. My mother talked a lot about her dear sister, about how beautiful, how vivacious she was.

  5. I’m not surprised you were moved Nafisa ben….it’s a sad story indeed and hard to hold back tears, even though it was a long time ago…
    What else did Shirin masi say about her? Do you remember anything else? She was beautiful indeed, I can tell from the pictures….but vivacious? She cuts a rather tragic figure from her expressions in most of the photos, don’t you think?! Though perhaps she loved striking sultry poses for the camera πŸ™‚ I don’t think it was deemed proper for people to smile much for pictures, hence all the dignified demeanours!

    Writing about the past makes me wish I could go back in time, sometimes. I should probably go and talk to Hatim mamaji and Yusuf mamaji and Sughra masi for more details…..maybe they can shine more light on the mystery that is Sakina Rangoonwala….

  6. Dear Munira,
    I too was moved reading this. You are doing an excellent service to all our relatives by capturing these memories. I wish I had done the same with the memories of my mum…..We miss her so much that life feels incomplete without her. I can well imagine how my brother, Mohammedibhai feels. You also have a great gift of writing skills…..:)

    1. I never thought this blog would take off the way it has Moiz bhai….I feel as though it has led to us having this connection that transcends time and space.
      I read the little book compiled by your family in the memory of Shirinmasi, and I loved it. It was such a warm and loving tribute to her. I felt like I got to know her more because of it.

  7. I am not of your family, or your community, yet i feel a relationship … not the right word… feel an empathy??!!

    Whatever… i am longing for my own mum and dad, never knew my grandparents on either side.
    Love the way you write, have you written or published a book?

    Let me know thanks

    1. I agree for you to write a book – not necessarily a biography of your family, but just in this random fashion, the way you have put up your blog.

      It just reminded my Jamila Gavin’s “The Track of the Winds” novel, based out of the partition scenario and such.

      Please let us know if you do intend to write, would love to read in a book style.

    2. Your sincere comments reinforce the sense of kinship I feel with most of the ‘minority’ communities, though I’ll admit I have never had many Christian friends, much to my regret…
      Thank you for making my day Stella πŸ™‚ Until I end up writing a book, I hope you continue to come back and read and enjoy my blog.

    1. Just came across your comment again Kulsum (after two years have gone by!) thought I should let you know I have made your orange nankhatai four times in the last couple of weeks and spread the joy πŸ™‚ Love them and love your photography and have subscribed to your blog and followed you on instagram πŸ˜‰

  8. Hey Munira… excellent piece of work… I could literally fill in the parts of the jigsaw which my Father in Law would sketch often about our family history… the famous pic (the top most one) which i think we all have is a wonderful introduction to our heritage and you’ve wonderfully done justice in introducing them…

      1. It’s fascinating! All we hear about Pakistan in America is suicide attacks, the Taliban and the similar men in the north, and how Bin Laden was found, and now, of course, Mahlala is all over the news and the social media. Sometimes it gets hard to remember that normal people still go about their lives. That’s one. Second: it’s such a completely different place from what I know, so even the little things are interesting, because those are not the things you hear or see in tourist accounts.

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