I think of my mother, only 17 with her first child. I think of my grandmother, Nani, only an adolescent with her first child. I think of how she did her best in the most trying of times.
In the ninth month of my pregnancy I realized that if I didn’t have a girl, my mother’s lineage was going to end with me, her only daughter. I was filled with an unusual grief. I felt compelled to find out more about my Nani’s story.
This is what I found out. My Nani, born around 1924, was about eight years old playing outside when her parents called her inside. They told her to change her clothes because she was going to get married. After her Nikka (marriage contract), she went back outside to play. A few years later, around the age of 13, she moved to live with her husband’s family and consummate her marriage. They lived in pre-partition India. Where? I don’t know.
In 1947, the year that Pakistan was partitioned off from India, my Nani migrated to Karachi with her husband, my Nana, and three of her children. Did they walk? Did they take the infamous trains that had been filled with deadly violence during partition? I don’t know. They were too poor to have traveled by boat.
After their migration she soon had another child, my uncle. In 1951, my Nana, just 35, died one day while walking on the street because his liver failed. Did he die right there or was he taken to the hospital? I don’t know. He was an alcoholic and my mother never met him. She was still in the womb when he died, just about to arrive in the world.
These family details are hazy. Stories of loss and pain are like that. Will I tell my children what I endured? Perhaps. Perhaps I’ll be less inclined to keep secrets as I know how quickly things are forgotten.
We don’t know what compelled my Nana to drink. Was he drinking before he had to migrate? Apparently, he was not unkind to my grandmother or his children. But he couldn’t quit the habit. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and drinking is forbidden for Muslims. There was a lot of shame around his drinking. My mother never told my Nani that she had started drinking as well.
My Nani was in her mid-twenties when my Nana died. She had five children and a determined heart to persevere against all odds of poverty in a developing nation. My mother saw my Nani physically abused by her brother-in-laws and in turn my Nani would abuse her children. My mother sometimes received the worst of her wrath. When I came around, the youngest of her youngest child, I imagine she had had her fill of grandchildren. In my memory we never had a conversation even though she died when I was 15 years old. She was a stoic woman who lived an impoverished life, very different from mine of economic privilege. I remember her as an impermeable presence, not loving, but not unkind.
My Nani did the best that she could. Just like my mother and just like I am with my children. In Islam we are taught a prayer for our parents. “Please Lord have mercy on my parents as they did on me when I was little.” Yes, my mother has given me this legacy of pain but she has also sustained my life in her body, labored to bring me into this complicated world and has advocated for my equality in a society and family of male privilege.
I had thought that I could heal my mother-daughter wound if I had a girl. This wound that is not just mine, but my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and all the mothers in my ancestral line that I will never know about. But I didn’t have a daughter.
I realized I’m not going to heal in some phantom future with a fantasy daughter but right now by working on the relationship with my mother while she is still alive.