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Now you see me, now you don’t…(Sidhpur 1944)

10 May

There’s something wrong about the date in this here letter. The year can’t be 1934 as it so says, for the simple reason that my father was born in 1935, hence probably not even a twinkle in my grandfather’s eye yet. ­čÖé ┬áTherefore, it must be 1944. Whatever the case, it was written by a most elusive figure in Little AJ’s life. Here it is, in all its yellowed, fragile, historical glory…

I asked my father to read it aloud to me so I could transcribe it into a form that is understandable by those who cannot decipher the quaint Gujarati script, and this is what it says:

”Waala dikra Mahmibhai,

Tamaro kaghaj malyo chhe. Waanchi khushi thayo chhoon. Tamaro aanglo saaro thai gayo hashey. Tamari Ma lakhave te parmaanay saara akshar thi kaagal lakhta rehjo.

Aam lakhwaani aadat paarsho tou akshar shudhri jashey. Roj time sar madrassa maa parhva jaajo, anay ghar maa Master paasey dhyaan thi sheekhjo.

Mota Bawaji ne roj salaam karva jaajo. Moti Ma batavey tey kaam kaaj baraabar karjo. Lucha chhokrao ni shohbat maa farta nai.

Kapra bau saachvi ney perhva joiyye. Kapra mela kari faari naakhta tou badhha chhokrao ney aavre chhe, parantu sambhaal thi dar waqte nava lagay tem saachavta bahuj ochha chhokrao ney aavre chhe.

Tey tame jaano chho?

Sughrabai temaj Zaitunbai saathey hali mili ne rehjo.

Dua go, Tayyabbhai Mulla Abdullahbhai.”

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There. I think that should be understood by my family and all the Bohris and Parsis out there…perhaps even some of the Khojas and Memons. I do realise the unintelligibility of both these versions to everyone who does not understand Gujarati, so I shall proceed to translate it into a language that is, I trust, pretty much universal…

”My dear son Mahmibhai,

I have received your letter and was very happy to read it. Your finger must be better now. You must keep writing letters in good handwriting as your mother dictates to you.

If you keep writing this way your handwriting will surely improve. Do go to madrassa on time every day, and pay attention and learn from your Master at home.

Go to Mota Bawaji for salaam every day. Do everything Moti Ma tells you.

Do not hang about in the company of naughty idle children, and do not spoil your clothes in games and play.

Clothes should be worn with care. All children know how to dirty their clothes and tear them. But very few children will know how to be careful and to keep their clothes looking new every time they wear them. Did you know that?

Stay close to and behave well with Sugrabai and Zaitunbai.

Best wishes, Tayyabbhai Mulla Abdullahbhai.

——————————————————————-

My father’s name is Mohammadi, so Mahmi was a nickname. What amazes him is the formality with which he has been addressed by his father when he was so very young….. Also the way he ends his letter…with his full name. That typically Sidhpuri, Gujarati formality is quite lost in translation.

Mota Bawaji was Tayyabbhai’s father, and Moti Ma refers to my father’s Nani, my grandmother Sakina’s mother.

The ‘Sughrabai’ referred to in the letter is my father’s aunt, his masi, who is actually just five years elder to him, and Zaitunbai is his father’s step sister. Sughrabai and Zaitunbai were the same age, and were more like playmates than aunts to my father.

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Nanima's house (photo taken in 1988) in Sidhpur.

the door of Nanima's house

Abbaji on the doorstep of the house he spent his childhood in (photo taken in 1988)

Mota Bawaji's house in Sidhpur (photo taken in 1988)

the upper windows as seen from the street outside

Isn’t it simply beautiful?

And this is us, inside Nanima's house when we visited Sidhpur in 1979...and that is me, the little girl in green (and the author of this blog) sitting on the left

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The grandmother I never knew.

18 Mar

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 ­čÖé

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.

The Accident. Sidhpur, 1946.

11 Feb

[My father. whose name is Mohammedi, and whom we have always called Abbaji, shall be referred to as Little AJ in this story, for reasons of brevity and cuteness. Also because it is impossible for me to call him by his first name, no matter how little he was when this story unfolded, a story he recalls vividly, and was told to us in his mesmeric voice, in colorful Gujarati, the predominant language of the Bohra community of India. I hope to convey it as effectively in English, the chosen language of this blog. The setting for this story is a Bohra mahalla in Sidhpur, a small town around 103 km from Ahmedabad in the Patan district of Indian Gujarat. More on the history of Sidhpur and some beautiful images of its architecture can be found here and here.]

Little AJ could never step over the threshold of the school-gate; he liked jumping over it. Only, today he seemed to be out of luck. He knew it the second he jumped over and saw the puddle of wet earth.

He slipped in such a way that the slate he carried in the crook of his elbow somehow slammed against his ulna upon impact with the ground, as a result of which it broke. And I don’t mean the slate.

Little AJ picked himself up, and noted with horror the strange way his arm dangled, yet he made his way to the classroom and took his seat, and sat there in grave pain. Thankfully, the kindly teacher took one look at his poor, stricken, blue-tinged face and immediately sent another kid to walk him back home.

Now, Little AJ was an orphan. His mother had passed away earlier that year and his father (who worked in Madras) left him to live with his Nanima, his mother’s mother, who looked after Little AJ with all her heart in a little house located a 10-minute walk away from school. Nanima was very upset and distraught by his injury and instructed the boy who accompanied Little AJ to take him to Sheru, the local ‘haad-ved’, a bone doctor,┬áright next to Allah Rakha’s paan ki dukaan.

Sheru ‘fixed’ Little AJ’s arm as well as he could and bandaged it, but the pain stayed all day and he couldn’t sleep all night.

The next morning, Nanima thought it best to send Little AJ off to his Dada Bawaji’s house, (his paternal grandfather) who lived in the next mahalla, a few minutes walk away. Dada Bawaji was quite old himself and all he could think of was to send little AJ across to his neighbour, a man called Najam Kapadia, with a request to see what he could do. It was decided he should be taken to Ahmedabad,┬áthree hours away by train.

So off they went, catching the first available train, and got off at the train station at Ahmedabad. There was a bazaar near the train station with a row of Parsi ‘haad-ved’ shops. They walked into a random shop and the Parsi haad-ved man there unwrapped Little AJ’s arm and surveyed the damage.

‘Must have hurt some, chhe na?’ asked the Parsi doctor. Little AJ was distracted by the doctor’s small talk and was taken by a jolt of surprise when the man suddenly (and very expertly) yanked his arm and set the bone in place.

Miraculously, the pain completely disappeared and soon they were on their way, back to Sidhpur.