On the morning of Friday the 14th of March, my mother’s father, my grandfather, Syed Moinuddin, passed away. He was 91 at the time of his death.
In 1923, he was born into an India that was held by an imperial foreign power. King George V of Britain claimed to rule a land he visited but twice, and that was enough to brand my grandfather a British subject. The Mughal dynasty had faded away long ago, and along with it, the last barrier to foreign rule. The last Muslim ruler – Bahadur Shah Zafar – died in 1857, exiled in Burma, denied the right to be buried in his own homeland.
India was very different in 1923, stretching from the Hindukush in the west, buttressed against Afghanistan and to the east against China, in the north against Russia and Mongolia, it stretched to the south all the way to the very tip, standing on one foot on the rock of Sri Lanka. There was no Pakistan, no Bangladesh, just India. But India was not really Indian anymore.
My great-grandfather, it’s said, was a man of wealth and means, and my grandfather received a princely upbringing and a fine education. There is a legend I heard as a child from my grandmother. Whether it’s about my great-grandfather or not, I don’t remember.
Once upon a time, she said, a rich and powerful land lord with great swaths of land and villages to his name had no children. He lived in a manor surrounded by great orchards, where peacocks would preen and show off their feathers and the family gathered on the high veranda surrounding the house to look out over their vast properties. Traveling between villages in his carriage one day, the land lord came across a beggar walking in the road. For whatever reason, he offered the beggar a ride, and gave him the two pomegranate seeds that he had remaining to eat. Reaching the village, the beggar stepped off the carriage and smiled at the land lord, “May Allah grant you as many sons as the seeds you have given me.” Two sons were born then, to the land lord.
My grandfather had one brother who died in the late 80s, I think. It doesn’t matter if the story is true in fact, it’s true in other, more important ways. It was the story I told my son the night he was born, while my wife slept, and I walked him in the dark of the hospital room, trying to shush his crying. He listened attentively once I began speaking in Urdu, blinking his new-born eyes at me, and then fell asleep. The next day, my grandfather came, and held him.
I visited those ancestral lands once, twenty years ago, and all I remember is a warm clear blue sky, fields of golden corn, orchards hanging low with mangoes and guava, and a thin blue stream bubbling down to the Ganges somewhere to the west. An old, peeling, one-room brick mosque stood among the trees, with small minarets, graves behind the prayer wall, names fading on the tombstone. Who knows if any of that still exists.
And, I know, these aren’t the true ancestral homelands, that would be the water-starved town of Gardez in Afghanistan, or before that, maybe even the deserts of Arabia. Who knows, really, and how greedy can you be with cultural appropriation? Indian, Afghan, Arab…
70 years after he was born, in the mid 90’s, he visits me in my college dorms and tells me of his hazing in college. “They made me stand up on a chair and recite poetry.”
His love for Urdu poetry and writing was, I think, his great personal joy. He wrote in Urdu, and kept his long handwritten notes in a cupboard in the living room, and sometimes I looked through them but never quite understood the twisting, convoluted truth that writhe in Urdu poetry. Words with double purpose, phrases that turn on each other, devouring meaning but illuminating revelation. It was far above my head.
Sometimes I wonder if my own doubt and shyness about my writing isn’t inherited from him, why I write and put away things instead of showing them to other people. A few years ago, my uncle collected my grandfather’s materials and printed a collection of his poetry in India under the name my grandfather assumed for his poetry. My grandfather was so happy to hold the book in his hands, hear the poems read aloud.
His appreciation for English literature was also a deep and passionate thing, one he passed on to me. He frequently read Charles Dickens and Walter Scott; Great Expectations and Ivanhoe being the books he read me the most often when I was little. I think while he appreciated the Victorian novel, he loved the medieval stories best, stories and poems of knights and battles in far away lands he never saw. My son Samir is quite blond and when they met, my grandfather – his great-grandfather – called him Sir Samir. “You look like a knight,” he said. It’s easy to picture the kid’s shaggy blond hair in a suit of armor atop a horse with lance in hand. They shook hands with great solemnity.
Last year, his eyesight was too far gone to make out words on a page and so I read aloud the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson. I don’t think I did it any justice, but he smiled to hear it anyway.
Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…
In 1947, after the freedom and during the partition of India, he was living in North India. He was married with one son. The country was violently tearing itself apart as Pakistan split off. They lost everything – the lands, the villages, the mansions, the wealth (if it ever really existed), all reclaimed by the Indian socialist government from those they considered to be British collaborators. The family broke in two in a desperate bid for survival, his younger brother went to Pakistan and he moved south to the city of Hyderabad. In that city, three year later, my mother was born. Three other children followed and 27 years after my mother, I was born.
My brother and I grew up in the modest house my grandparents had built for their children. It was a lovely place, surrounded by walls with doors into neighbors yards and fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in the back. The bougainvillea bushes covered the front wall with purple flowers alongside tall trees that I can see but can’t remember the names of. There, he taught me to read and write in English, Urdu and Arabic, he helped me memorize long Arabic passages for prayer, passages I still remember, though I seldom if ever put those memories to use anymore. The house is gone now, sold to a land developer who knocked it down, and built condos where where… well. So much happened. The house was called Jamey Gulshand.
When my grandfather died a week ago, it was after a long, bitter, cold, and cruel illness that left him a shadow of the active, energetic, passionate person I knew. The man who laughed frequently, and would lie in bed, singing Urdu ghazals to himself in a deep tone, occasionally he would speak in Farsi and my grandmother would laugh, asking me if I knew what he said, a man who would rather walk than take a bus, no matter the distance or the heat.
That man was long gone, and the one left behind was a pale, pale ghost. I was grateful for the end to his suffering. He never had many possessions but in the end, he had very few belongings left to him. Among them was a small ball of dried mud that he would hold sometimes, mud collected from the Ganges delta, the river that gave life to the verdant valley of his youth. I wonder what he remembered when he held that ball of dirt in his hand.
He was born an English subject in a rural, occupied India and died a celebrated patriarch with 5 children, 13 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren in his son’s home in America. He was buried the next day in a foreign land but alongside his wife of 65 years. He was a man who prayed 5 times every day even when I hated the thought of him bowing to a god who would allow him to be in so much pain. His faith was absolute, while mine dissolved and ran like water colors into the gutter of disbelief. Even so, he never begrudged me anything, never asked me why. I loved him for that.
Now with both my grandparents gone, it feels like the most decent, honest, humble, good people I’ve ever known are now lost and I’ll never know anyone like them again. It feels like the end of something big. Though my parents are both here, I can’t help feeling like an orphan. A piece of history ended last week.