by Tannaz Mahreen
Nuzhat had never understood the Instagram textposts that romanticized the summer. The people who wrote verses upon verses on mangoes and humidity that felt like a lost loved one’s embrace had clearly not lived through a Guwahati July. The classroom she was sitting in helped her imagine what the witch in Hansel and Gretel had felt like when she had been shoved into that oven. Such wicked children.
Nuzhat’s mind had just dissociated into making a mental list of figures in history that had died in a fire when she felt the atmosphere in the classroom shift. She hadn’t been paying attention to her Sociology class today, partly because of the heat and partly because Barnaali Ma’am had a particularly droning and monotonous manner of speaking that did little to rouse her from the semi-stuporous state she was in.
When she felt everyone suddenly straighten their backs, Nuzhat decided it was about time she stopped zoning out. “-and since this contributes to all 20 marks of your internal assessment, I believe it is best for you guys to over-prepare-”, Barnaali Ma’am went on, “You are sincere students so, I don’t have to remind you how important this assignment is. A 20-mark head starts in your 12th boards can open the doors of hundreds of colleges for you. The assignment itself is fairly simple; explore the societal role that women play in your immediate environment. I recommend using the qualitative methods of data collection; like interviews or case studies-” Nuzhat zoned out again, she’d get the technical details from the group chat later. Great. Another project glorifying women.
She had had this conversation with Sara on a call, a few days ago. “What is the world’s obsession with feminism anyway? Shouldn’t we be looking for equality?” Nuzhat had asked in exasperation. Her friend had sounded confused, “Nuzhat, feminism is equality.” Sara had said with exaggerated patience as if she were explaining two plus two is four to an extremely emotional toddler. “No, it isn’t”, she insisted, “everyone is always talking about ‘respecting women’, why? Respect should be earned, naa? Women have all the rights that men have, this is not the 1800s anymore. So, we should earn our respect now, why try victimizing ourselves and hide behind feminism?” Sara had paused cryptically for a while and asked, “Why do you carry a safety pin with you whenever you take a city bus, then?”
Sara always had a way of completely missing the point, Nuzhat had sighed, “That is just for safety, arey! I’m talking about respect.”
Her friend sounded like she was smiling,
“How can there be safety when there is no respect? Treat the disease, the symptom will automatically disappear.”
Then, Aunty had yelled at her to come for dinner and the call ended.
The angry feminist types had always been outside Nuzhat’s periphery of comfort. Sara along with her other friends had often urged her to read more, consume different content, saying that would help her understand. But frankly, she didn’t want to understand. She had seen women with immense strength who had never even heard of feminism.
Her Naani was one of those women, resilient enough to give up her education to raise her three sons; social enough to be the life of every dua, wedding, and milaad even in her sixties; sturdy enough to not shed a single tear even when nana had passed away five years ago, they had been married for nearly fifty years, then.
Naani had always been an integral part of Nuzhat’s life; she adored the trips to her ancestral home only to see Naani. The electricity in that tiny town was sporadic, the bugs aplenty, and there always seemed to be one pre-schooler or the other that wanted to play games on her phone. However, she braved all of this and more to go see her beloved grandmother. Naani in turn adored her daangor maaina and would wait for her arrival with her bisoni in hand, making more varieties of pithaa than Nuzhat could count.
This train of thought made Naani the glaringly obvious subject for her Sociology assignment.
The porch in her grandmother’s place had always acted like a sedative for Nuzhat’s nerves. There was a timeless air around that porch. Chairs made of cane were always present, making it the source of most of the town’s gossip. For as long as she could remember, all sorts of discussion took place on that porch, ranging from political to matrimonial. Nuzhat was sure that when the world ended because of an eventual nuclear fallout, her Naani’s porch would still be standing. Especially with the grey skies that hinted at an oncoming storm and the slightly unhinged breeze that came with it; sitting on the porch had traces of ethereality, today. She straightened her back and pressed the voice recording button on her phone, “Alright, Naani, let’s begin.”
“Aaijoni,” Naani said with some apprehension in her voice, “I have forgotten almost everything I had learned at school.” Nuzhat looked up from perusing the list of questions she had prepared to ask her, “Huh? School? What does that have to do with anything, Naani?”
“Well,” she fidgeted with the end of her mekhela sador, “you said you needed help with your homework. I don’t know how much I can help after all these years. It’s not that I was a bad student!”, she flared up with sudden defensiveness, “I woke up at fajr every day so that I could have some time to study before helping mai with housework. I always paid attention in classes, never disobeyed teachers, our geography teacher had said I could even become a professor, someday! But,” she faltered, “but it has been decades since then. Furthermore, you children study in English, I don’t remember much of my English. I really want to help you, maaina, but, I think it’s better if you ask your Amma or Abba.” Naani said through her poignant smile.
“Oh, Naani, no, no; you misunderstood me!” Nuzhat rushed to assuage her innocently distressed grandmother. “You just have to answer a few questions; about your life. No other subject, just you.”
– “Like in the news channels?”
– “Exactly like in the news channels.” Nuzhat let out a little laugh and stopped the recorder. It would be more convenient to transcript it when it is without disturbances, “Why did you get so defensive, Naani? Shouldn’t have stopped studying only if you were going to be like this.”, she teased her grandmother.
“Well, it’s not like I had much of a choice”, Naani replied in the same playful tone. But, she meant every word and that made Nuzhat uncomfortable. That didn’t seem right, Naani abandoned her education, no, sacrificed it, because her mother had passed away, making her the sole caretaker of her younger siblings. ‘Her elder brothers still finished their education, though’, a snide voice in her head reminded her. How can it be a sacrifice if she didn’t have a choice? She pushed the voice away. Why would she not have a choice? And if she didn’t, why did she sound so at peace with it? She shook her head, mentally and started recording again.
“Good morning to you, ma’am. Please state your relationship with the interviewer.”, Nuzhat asked. Her grandmother giggled at the sudden role-playing and answered in an overly anglicised accent, “Yes, gwood mwornin, this interviewer is my maajoni, my youngest son’s eldest daughter, she used to speak forforiya English ever since she was 3 years old and she reads the big big books from her Nana’s library since she was 11 and once when she was 6-” “Yes, that’s about enough Naani, thank you”, Nuzhat said cutting her tirade short. Her grandmother made sure no stones were unturned when it came to bragging about her; she won third place at a school Olympiad once and when she returned to the village the following summer, everyone started congratulating her for winning at the Olympics! Nuzhat didn’t even play a single sport! Although it was embarrassing to convince the village that she had done no such thing (some still believe she was lying out of sheer modesty) , if there was one thing Nuzhat was sure about, it was that her grandmother was proud of her.
“Secondly, how old are you Naani? What is your date of birth?” Abba always said his mother was in her teens when he was born, and Abba was the youngest of three sons. Going by those calculations, Naani should be in her late 60s to early 70s. “The first Monday in Phagun, a few years before the World War.” she recited as if she had said this a million times before. “A few years?!” Nuzhat asked in astonishment, “What do you mean ‘a few years’? How can you not even know the year of your birth?!”
Naani laughed lightly at her surprise, “Not everything is the same as today, maaina. You all get your birth date, hour, minute, second recorded; we didn’t. We had to rely on the bormaa in the neighborhood who had the strongest memory.” That made sense, the times were different, however- “But, Nana had an exact birthdate! I remember seeing it on his obituary, and he’s older than you by a decade!” Nuzhat asked again.
“Well, Nana is Nana, isn’t he?” her grandmother answered with a tone of finality. That didn’t make any sense to Nuzhat, what was it even supposed to mean? ‘But, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?’ The snide voice in her head returned, this time she pushed it away with even more force.
“Okay, moving on,” Nuzhat started again with a deep breath, “what is one of the greatest challenges you have faced as a woman?” “Ohho…” her grandmother laughs again, “if women start thinking of them as challenges, it only gets harder. Think of your obstacles as opportunities to prove your worth. When your eldest uncle passed away, I wanted to die every single day. Everyone blamed me, and rightfully so; I couldn’t even protect my firstborn. But, I had an opportunity to be a better mother to my remaining two sons, and I took that eagerly.”
Nuzhat had heard of her uncle, her father’s eldest brother who had passed away after falling into a river, as an adolescent. She had heard how his death had impacted her family, but this was the first she had heard about Naani being responsible for his death. “Were you around him when he fell into the river?”, she asked gently. “No, no,” she answered solemnly, “a week before his death, I started doing my prayers even when I was menstruating. Everyone told me it was bad luck and that I should stop but I wanted to prove that if murderers and thieves could read the Quran, a menstruating woman could, as well. I don’t know what had gotten into me.”, Naani wore a smile so riddled with sadness that Nuzhat would rather see her cry.
There was something very, very wrong with this conversation. Naani was supposed to be her affirmation against the rising ‘misogyny is responsible for everything!’ trend. But with every question, the snide voice in her head kept making more and more sense. She felt a chill creeping up her back and starting going through her questions frantically to distract herself. “Oh,” Nuzhat exclaimed, “I skipped the very first question. What is your name, Naani?”
A flicker of some strange emotion suddenly came over Naani’s eyes but it was for a fraction of a second so Nuzhat convinced herself that she had imagined that. “You know that was the first question you asked me in English, you came home as a kindergarten kid and suddenly started asking me what my name was and what class I was in. I was more than a little impressed and scared”, she giggled at the memory. Nuzhat laughed, “How do you remember everything about us? Anyway, yes, your name?”
“Wow, you learn a little English and suddenly you want to call your grandmother by name?” Naani said in her usual teasing manner, but there was an edge to her voice. Suddenly, there was an odd ringing in Nuzhat’s ears. “Arey, how else are we supposed to call you?” she insisted.
“You call me Naani, your parents call me Amma, your father’s cousins call me maamiti-” Naani went on almost frantically, she was swinging her hands and frowning really hard. The ringing in her ears started increasing with every word her grandmother said. A terrible thought occurred to Nuzhat, “Naani…”, she started shakily.
“And on your Nana’s side of the family so many people call me bormaa, there is also brother’s family which calls me borpehiti-” it seemed like her grandmother couldn’t even hear her over her own rant, while the ringing in her ears had reached an unbearable pitch “Naani! Listen to me!”
She quietened down, “…just write ‘My Grandmother’”.
“Naani,” Nuzhat paused the voice recorder, “What is your name?” Her grandmother looked down at her hands on her lap and said in the softest voice, “I don’t remember anymore.”
The ringing in her ears stopped and gave way to a deafening silence. She felt numb all over and at the same time felt like a thousand ants were crawling on her back. “What do you mean you don’t remember your name anymore?”, she asked with chilling calm.
“Well, I remember my parents named me after a flower, but I forget which one. Nobody used it, after all!”, she chuckled again, “At home, I was called baaita and aaijoni, outside I was Ahmed kaka’s daughter. Then, I got married to your Nana and became the ‘nau-suwali’, outside the house, I was now Mrs. Rehman. Slowly I became a maahi, a pehi, a bormaa and eventually everyone’s naani. In all of this mess, I forgot the name my parents gave me.”
Nuzhat was gripping the handles of her chair hard enough to turn her knuckles white, “Naani, does that make sense? What about the documentation? You can’t be Mrs. Rehman or someone’s maami on your voter identification.”
Naani smiled her dejection-laced smile again, “You’d be surprised my child, my father told me what the few electoral rolls under the British looked like. The only women there were listed as “Wife of…” or “Daughter of…” and those were only the property-owning memsaahibs. There was a time when nobody in our village was allowed to vote, maaina.”, she paused to take a breath, “The first time they came to make the electoral roll to my house, they took my father’s and brothers’ name, I remember serving tea to the officers. The second time they came to take my husband’s name. The third time they came, we lived in a free country; they asked for my name. I said I couldn’t remember so the officers made up a name of their own. That is the name on all my documents; ‘Jeenat Rehman’, I don’t even know what it means and nobody has called me that a day in my life.”
Nuzhat took a few steadying breaths and looked at the woman in front of her, who gave and gave so much to the world around her, that she couldn’t even hold on to her own name. Furthermore, Naani wasn’t even bitter about it, she had just accepted her faith and gone along with her life. She knew she ought to be impressed and inspired by this but all Nuzhat could feel was anger. She was angry at the world that could take so much from a person. She was angry at her family for not only not acknowledging her pain but rather glorifying it as ‘sacrificial’ or ‘heroic’. She was angry at herself for being so caught up in her own narrative that she had forgotten to even let people tell their own stories. And most of all, she was angry at her grandmother. She was angry at her for being so tolerant that the people around her assumed everything was fine. She was angry because Naani hadn’t had the privilege to be.
“Okay,” She gathered up her stationary and looked at her grandmother, “I’m hungry now so let’s take a break. Do you have more tekeli pithaas? I love the way you make them.” Naani stood up as if she was waiting for the cue, “Of course! I am alive now only to feed my daangor maaina. I know you love the gur ones. I taught your mother how to make them, you know? but she has her office work, as well, I suppose…” Her voice trailed off as she walked into the house.
Nuzhat fumbled with her phone to call Sara. She was going to read more, learn more, do more. She still didn’t agree with half the things the feminists said but she didn’t want this system to continue. The system took away education and opportunities. The system that demanded so much and then instead of apologizing for the demands just kept glorifying their ‘sacrifices’ and kept asking for more. The system that made people into goddesses, but never gave them the chance to be human.
(Translation for the Assamese Words used : Dua, Milaad: Prayer Ceremony
Daangor: Eldest child
Bisoni : Hand-fan
Pithaa : Rice Cakes
Aaijoni, Maaina, Maajoni: Terms of endearment (towards children, usually)
Forforiya : Fluent
Phagun : Month in the Assamese Calendar (February to March according to the Gregorian Calendar)
Bormaa, Maamiti, Borpehiti, Maahi: Aunt (Usually used to refer to any elder woman)
Baaita : Elder sister
Kaka : Elder brother
Nau-suwali : New daughter, a girl newly married into a family.
About the Author:
Tannaz Mahreen is a 2nd-year student of Philosophy from Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She has been writing fiction since 2016 and have had a penchant for socio-cultural subtexts in her stories. She has written for a number of publications including The Assam Tribune, Teen Ink and Youth ki Awaaz.