Friday, August 20, 2010
My grand-mother had the saddest eyes. They were caramel-coloured and ringed with hazel and they conveyed depths of pain. She was a beautiful woman and she was kind and strong and hard-working. She was a pathologist who raised four children by herself. And she rarely smiled. I used to test myself to see what I could do to make her laugh.
I’ve been reading my grandfather’s diaries that he wrote in 1945 and 1946. This week when I opened the pages, the smell of smoke from his pipe wafted out. My father’s father was a civil servant and reading his diaries has given me insight into the turmoil in India before Partition (the division of India by the British that led to the formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh) in 1947. He also wrote of the end of the Second World War.
There are many revealing passages about my grandmother, Amtul Hafiz, and her children – my aunts and uncle. I always thought she had four children, two sons and two daughters. My father, Omar, is the eldest.
I was surprised to read that she had another baby, a boy who would have been about 9 months old. In the entry of April 2, 1946, my grandfather writes about that baby named Shahbaz – meaning literally “one who submits”.
My grandfather was away from their home in Delhi, attending a wedding and he received a telegram from my grandmother saying that Shahbaz was ill and weak with an infection. He was a "blue baby", which means he had been born with a hole in his heart and he had been sick and suffering from lack of oxygen since birth.
My grandfather wrote that Shahbaz had a fever of 104. He was very alarmed about his son and couldn’t eat. The next day another telegram from my grandmother: “Don’t worry now. Get the wedding over and return according to your programme.”
The next day at the wedding, a relative pulled my grandfather aside and said, “Shahbaz is gone.” My grandfather wrote: “My poor darling long and patiently suffering boy had gone home. I was not even with him at the end nor by the side of Hafiz.” My grandfather sent a telegram: “My dear Hafiz, I wish I was wish you in this. Courage. Love Nasrulla.” The surgery that could have saved Shahbaz was invented in the 1950s.
There’s much more sadness in this family that followed but it cracks my heart to write it – just to relive what my Dadda-ji wrote in his beautiful artistic handwriting in turquoise ink. I don’t mean to say they didn’t have lovely times. They did. They took holidays, they went horseback riding, had picnics; but it’s the sadness that overwhelms the pages in those trembling post-war days.
When Shahbaz died, I don’t know what my grandmother felt. All I can say is that I was beyond shocked to read about him. I’d never known there was a third son. I cried. I cried because I was ashamed I didn’t know this about her. I cried because I was sad she was alone when the baby died. I cried because I cannot imagine the agony of outliving your own; one who weighs just a few kilos.
I cried because once I remembered the time my grandmother got frustrated with my sister and I. We were pre-teens, visiting her in Lahore for the summer. She said we were soft, growing up in the West and had it easy. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember being angry. And telling her she didn’t know what she was talking about. I think I talked about racism, school yard taunts and fights, about not fitting in, about loneliness. God, how childish I was. She fought dysentery, typhoid, cholera, lived through a World War, food rations, partition, Hindu/Sikh/Muslim riots, British rule, a divided country… What a brat I am.
I loved her so much and today I realize I hardly knew her. How much should a grandchild know a grandparent?
In 1952 my grandfather died of a heart attack. He was 49. He had suffered from hypertension for a long time. He wrote of it in great detail. She was a widow at the age of 35. She was a pathologist and in a very conservative country she went on to raise her four children. My dad became a physician, his younger brother, Jehangir, a general in the Pakistan Army, the youngest sister is psychiatrist who lives in the states. The middle sister (the one born after Shahbaz) lived in Pakistan with my grandmother until my grandmother died on June 17, 2002.
Reading the 1946 diary has taught me some and frightened me a lot. Namely, What will I do with my child?! How will I guide him? I live in Orange County where the biggest thing I have to worry about is, how to raise a kid who isn’t a spoiled brat who expects a new toy every day and a BMW for his 16th birthday.
I am nothing compared to my grandparents. Nothing compared to any of my South Asian ancestors. How do any of us compare to those who went before us? And how are we doing when it comes to looking after those around us?
Today in Pakistan, as anyone following the news knows, 14 million people are devastated. Devastated - is that even the right word? The old, the young, the sick, the healthy, the mentally ill, brothers, sisters, the blind, the good (and I wish the evil) are devastated by flooding. Thousands are dead, diseases about to be spread. I’ll leave the reporting to others but it’s a mad, sad, bad world right now.
I feel as if that I don’t know a thing about anything – not the news, not the world, not even my family. I should try harder. What is most pitiful is that I feel helpless to actually help. Oh sure I’ve donated to Red Cross… but …. Am I really helping?
I didn’t help my grandmother in her lifelong grief. I love her still. She knew so much. She’d seen so much. No wonder her eyes were always sad.
Monday, August 16, 2010
By Amber Nasrulla
After years of interviewing celebrities, I get a kick out of reading star profiles in which writers describe wealthy actors as “so normal.” Newsflash: They’re not. It’s impossible.
Oh, sure they will share their limo, buy you lunch and look into your eyes while answering your questions. They’ll kiss you good-bye and their lips might actually graze your cheek. They’ll complain about the price of gas and the local politician’s latest gaffe, but, let’s face it: Stars aren’t normal. There are as many reasons for that as there are dollars in a star’s bank account. Still, there are a few high-profile actors who are almost average, in a gal-next-door kind of way. One of them is Tina Fey.
In the comedy world, performers traditionally hold specific roles: Mae West was a sensuous vamp; Lucille Ball and Debra Messing, were ditzy klutzes; Mary Tyler Moore and Phyllis Diller had a lock on self-deprecation; Roseanne Barr wore the mantle of angry feminist; Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin were shockers. Now, for the first time, “normal” joins the line-up, and Fey has a firm hold on that category.
As queen of the castle Fey is all tangled up with Liz Lemon, the character she created for the Emmy Award-winning 30 Rock. Both produce a late-night comedy/variety show at a large TV network in Manhattan. Both deal with overbearing bosses and prima donna talent. Both inspire us with the fact that they are brainy, high-achieving women in a field still dominated by men. They are not perfect and don’t pretend to be. And, God, do they make us laugh.
Liz is the most realistic single career woman on TV since Murphy Brown. She’s not the girlfriend, the wife or the hot chick. She’s the boss. Liz isn’t afraid to wear granny underwear and ugly pajamas in the era of Victoria’s Secret. She has dated a beeper salesman and chugs wine while running on a treadmill. Perfect, she ain’t. Normal? Yeah. Relatable? Absolutely. Liz gives us permission to be eccentric, to be okay about ourselves, to do exactly what we want. We can laugh at our mistakes and not take ourselves too seriously. How freeing is that?
And Fey seems to have it all. She is navigating a man’s world, but she has maintained her sense of self, hasn’t compromised her ideals and never seems manipulative or coquettish. You don’t see her purring like Paris Hilton or the Kardashian sisters on the red carpet or flashing her waxed privates to paparazzi in Hollywood. And when she does do something that could be considered sex-kittenish – like the April issue of Esquire with the cover line, “Tina Goes Wild” – she defuses it with a self-deprecatory comment. “What I've come to realize is that when people say, ‘The thinking man’s whatever,’ there’s no such thing. The thinking man also wants to fuck Megan Fox.”
Fey was matter-of-fact when she told Vogue in March: “I feel like I represent normalcy in some way. What are your choices today in entertainment? People either represent youth, power or sexuality. And then there’s me, carrying normalcy.” As a multi-millionaire entertainer, Fey isn’t really “normal.” She was the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live and has won mountains of awards. She created, writes, and executive produces 30 Rock. She writes and stars in movies and makes a point of working with her friends. (And we love her more for her loyalty.) During last year’s presidential election, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more quick-witted political satirist and impressionist. But she projects normal beautifully. She talks of her stable home life. She’s married and has a daughter. She’s self-deprecating and downplays her achievements.
“Tina Fey is a hero to a lot of women,” says Kelley Lynn, a comedian and frequent performer at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York. An adjunct professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., who teaches dramatics and stand-up comedy, Lynn says of Fey, “She’s brilliant. She works hard. She’s not Ms. Plastic Surgery. Her trickle-down effect is positive, positive, positive.”
When I do a shout out to my girlfriends on Facebook they gush about how they relate to Fey. Tara, a film marketing coordinator in Los Angeles, writes: “She doesn't conform to the beauty aesthetic in Hollywood and she has created a sex appeal for smart, cute brunettes.”
Marie Lavallée, a Canadian expat and sales manager in Newport Beach, California, says Fey has “that BFF aura” about her and has created an equally approachable character. “Liz Lemon is the personification of my most inner dialogue and her character makes me laugh at my anxieties.”
Every decade has had a comic social commentator with an artfully contrived look. Phyllis Diller commanded the stage in zany costumes while mocking her looks. Joan Rivers held the microphone in an evening gown, a vision of elegant sarcasm; Roseanne Bar wore feminist rage on her sleeve. And now there’s Fey as Liz: quirky, brainy, lovely.
Jessica Kirson, a stand-up comedian in New York City, who has appeared on The Tonight Show, says that stand-up comics have evolved past costumes and props, and somehow nutty and normal manage to co-exist. “We can be vulnerable – and our audiences want to hear more reality,” she says.
When she won an Emmy in 2008, Fey said, “I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done! That is what all parents should do.”
I feel like she’s parenting us through her comedy, spreading confidence with each quip, improv sketch, and punch line that she writes, and every laugh, giggle, and cackle she brings out in us. Fey is my role model for the 21st century – next to my mom of course. And I’d buy them both lunch anytime.
(TO READ MY AMAZING INTERVIEW WITH MS. DILLER AND MORE ON TODAY'S FEMALE STAND-UP COMICS, PICK UP THE SEPT. ISSUE OF ELLE CANADA)