Ammi

My grandmother passed away last Friday.

We had been prepared for many years in a way. My grandmother had been through a lot. She was a two-time cancer survivor, came back from a multi-week coma, and dealt with numerous hospitalizations – but lived for decades after. I saw her in the hospital three and a half years ago, and then we had wondered if she would come back. But she did. She had this amazing streak of near-death experiences where you could have written her off but she never let you do it.

My family remembered at her passing how she had always talked about having a big funeral, where she wanted to be buried, who she wanted there. She was planning for death, but with every passing scare her threats of actually dying became less and less credible. So even in the last two days, as her health became critical, there was still some hope that this too would be one of those times where she bounced right back.

I have not faced a lot of death in my life. I went to bed expecting that I may wake up to bad news. Despite this feeling of preparation, I was overtaken by the immense emotion of the event. Part of the emotion was about her passing, that did not need explanation. The rest was not about her passing but about her entire life. Just the sheer scale of it, all the people she saw and influenced, the difficulty of her last few years, all the ways I had been touched by her. Inevitably one is also forced to think about the many ways you failed a person who has now passed. We wrote to her, which was a way to communicate after she lost her hearing. I wrote, but not often enough. The last time I saw her she asked me to write, so I sent her a note a few days after seeing her. But these last few months of her life saw a deterioration of her awareness such that she would often not internalize writing. It was nice to see her on video calls a few times after that, and to hear the persistent question of whether my lack of decision to shave was in fact a decision to have a beard. We never quite agreed on where to draw the line.

The biggest fear at someone’s passing is that you will forget – events, words, feelings. The best way to allay that fear is to share memories with family, where you realize that collectively you are able to paint a picture better than anyone can paint on their own. I was lucky to be able to do that with my own family.

The consensus of our memorial was that my grandmother was a force of personality. None of those who have been the subject of her keen eye would dare to disagree. My extended family shared the amazing times they’d had at my grandparents’ house. Her memory was impeccable; she read fiction voraciously; had stacks of movies and music; loved nice things.

We called my grandmother Ammi, which is what my mother called her. Ammi would tell me as a child that I should become an architect. I thought about it pretty seriously for a while, and did some other things. But eventually, not even thinking about it, I landed at an architecture school. In her bedroom she has a little sitting area with a wooden floor that has a curved edge with the rest of the room. And she was taken by the artistic flourish of our architect that drew it freehand in front of us. She did have a keen eye. The other reason she told me to be an architect was because she would always say that she didn’t want me to not study and end up running a paan shop. I’m not sure the success of Jaidi’s paan shop would have convinced her otherwise.

She taught me how to play cards, I’m fairly certain also introduced me to sheesha smoking, would take me to Quran classes at a nearby university campus, and would play mahjong with me. I made many trips with her to her tailor, whom she also used to get us all tailored pajamas with candy-cane trim.

Reading these activities it should not surprise you that Ammi loved a gathering. Nothing made her happier than a party. Conversely, she would be devastated at people leaving. Not just emotionally, but even physically her health would falter as someone got on a plane. I cannot help but think that this has something to do with the amount of separation she witnessed. As a teenager she left Delhi for Karachi at the partition of India. She moved to Dhaka at her marriage, then moved back to Karachi at the partition of Pakistan. On the sudden, unexpected death of her husband, when I was about three, she came to Lahore to live with us. We grew up with stories of these cities and these times, and of Calcutta and Bombay.

As a child I remember asking Ammi what she would ask for in paradise. To be together with everyone, she said. I am moved to think of this last departure as not a departure at all, but as a union.

One of my favorite memories of spending time with Ammi is staying up late in her bedroom watching old TV plays – Pal Do Pal, Paddosi (which we’d jokingly pronounce with hard ‘d’ instead of the Urdu ڑ because of the awkward transliteration), and Dhoop Kinaray. I’m attaching below the theme song to Dhoop Kinaray, which is Nayyara Noor singing Faiz:

رات یوں دل میں تری کھوئی ہوئی یاد آئی

جیسے ویرانے میں چپکے سے بہار آ جائے

جیسے صحراؤں میں ہولے سے چلے باد نسیم

جیسے بیمار کو بے وجہ قرار آ جائے

(Translation)