Our beloved Nani, Ammi Jaan. I didn’t know her by name, true to Indian culture.
Ammi Jaan was one of the simplest, most clear-hearted women I have known, of the kind that otherwise is only part of Indian folklore about the people of old. She loved her family and wanted everyone to live together, nearby, in the same hamlet, in the same town, close to each other. What’s the point of your education, she said, or your job, if it moves you away from those you love. I have been away from my family for a long time – over nine years now. And almost every time I saw her, she would hint at how I should move back in with my family. You should open a “shop,” a doctor’s office in her language, in Mysore, she said, of my sister and her husband, doctors in the UK, so they could live close to family. . She raised my sisters when our family was away. They have many more fond memories of her than I do – her Dosa with extra ghee, her walking to my sister’s school for two miles every afternoon to give her a fresh, hot lunch, her loving smile.
Ammi Jaan knew no malice. She was delightfully innocent. To her, the world was full of kindness, empathy and care, just the way she was. When I talk about caring for others, she’s on top of my mind as someone who embodied unconditional love when she cared. She grew up in a now-small village of Srirangapattanam, where everyone knew each other. Contrary to other parts of India that saw Hindu-Muslim clashes, people were simple, nice and loving here, best known for one of India’s greatest heroes in the 18th century, Tipu Sultan, who fought the British colonial forces and brought in new technological innovations. She took great pride in her hero, and spoke of how, if Tipu Sultan had continued to rule, Srirangapattanam would have been London. Of course, London still seemed the center of the world to her, having spent a significant part of her life at a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. As someone who loves history and wants to experience life the way others did, she was a treasure trove to me. She spoke of how everyone following the World War 2 on the radio thought Hitler would win, as the Luftwaffe were ravaging London.
Ammi Jaan was also deeply religious. My sister said she pretended to sleep next to her while she prayed – she heard Ammi Jaan pray for every single person in the family several times a day. Her most painful time that I knew of, was when her only son, our Mamu, passed away young in front of her. She never seemed to recover mentally from the trauma. To those who cared for her, none more than my aunt, it was a painful period until her end. Her dementia worsened with time. Her prayers had become meaningless to those around her by now, because she forgot how to make the Muslim ritual prayer. She would ask the same question every five minutes, and ask silly questions, providing some comic relief and rest to an aunt who was otherwise overworked caring for her. She failed to recognize her own children and grandchildren many times. She perhaps never understood what my mom went through – in her long and painful cancer treatment. Near her end, she forgot how to swallow, or use the restroom. She had several health complications and was in considerable pain in her last days. My cousin talked of how, even at her end, Ammi Jaan would always answer queries about her health the same way – “Allah ka Fazal hai,” “Good, by God’s grace.” Her faith was embedded in her personality.
When they told me her days were numbered, deep inside, I felt that was probably the best for her- an end to her suffering. But God knows best, so I prayed for what was best for her. My mother had been very emotional. I didn’t know how to comfort her, but I decided to take the plunge anyway. Two minutes into my conversation with mom, when I talked about how Allah gives us what is best for us, she burst into tears and hung up. If I was calm about Ammi Jaan all this while, I was crying seeing my mother cry. It has been about a week since I have spoken with my mother, something that has happened very few times in life.
And then, the news came as I was driving out of state – Ammi Jaan had passed away. Hours into my long drive, I couldn’t hold back my tears, turned around and went back home.
In the messaging thread that I used to inform my cousins of her death, the previous message was of the birth of a baby in the family. It struck me how two consecutive messages for the family were about birth and death. That sums up the life of this world – it is but a brief period between birth and death. It is temporary.
Through the ups and downs in life over the past year, one lesson I have learned repeatedly has been simple – life goes on. And life ends when it is meant to. Old gives way to new, each with its own benefits and challenges. Until then, all we can do is make the best of our time and circumstances, preparing for an eternal life in future.
The prayer that I always make had found the best time for it – Ramadhan – may Allah unite all of us, everyone I love, in eternal paradise again. Amen.