Friday, August 20, 2010

Pakistan - Family Flashbacks & Floods from 1946 to 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.

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