Twelve days ago my mother passed away. It is with great sadness and heartbreak that I share this news. Since then, I have lost my words.
But it has been important for me to gather the story of her life and her impact. Too often the stories of (immigrant) women are lost. Not having been ‘leaders’ or documented for ‘firsts’, having lived what are too easily dismissed as ‘ordinary’ or ‘unremarkable’ lives, these are in fact women who built our families, communities and yes even our nation. They were the women who created the transition to women having more choices, independence and public presence, and whose ways of womanhood have much from which we all – men and women - can learn.
I have written this in my most candid register, not constrained by thoughts of how language will be received, the Arabic, religiosity or the cultural elements. I have written this in full and open heart to honour the ability to be our full selves in public at our most intimate moments. And to honour the fact that my mother – despite her shyness and lack of confidence – was never anything less than herself.
She was a beautiful, kindly, gentle soul, who was constantly smiling and an unending source of positivity. In fact, there was never a moment when she wasn’t smiling, and in that she resembled her own mother, my Naanima.
She was born in Tanga, a then thriving town in the north of today's Tanzania close to the border with Kenya. At that time it was Tanganyika, part of the British Empire. Her maternal grandfather had migrated from Gujarat to Tanganyika where her mother was born. Her father also came from India. That area of Tanganyika had been under dispute between the British and the Germans, and my mum used to tell me how her father had German bank notes stored, but to his horror discovered that they had been gnawed away.
Mum was – according to her recounting – the first girl to get a bicycle in the town and ride to school. This was considered shocking – a girl on a bicycle! - but her father said it was better to be safe on a cycle than walk.
She left school at 14. She loved to tell me that she excelled in English and that was her favourite subject.
Mum learnt to sew and was an extremely talented seamstress and dressmaker. Along with her older sister, may Allah grant my aunt Paradise, they set up a shop in Tanga making clothes. Later, after she got married and moved to Dar Es Salam with my Dad, she set up another shop with her younger sister. Both shops were extremely popular for made to measure clothing and she would work late into the night to keep up with the orders. Till today people come to tell me about those shops. She also hand-embroidered the entirety of her wedding sari in silver thread and mirrors, which we still have until today.
Mum and Dad moved to London in the late sixties, keen to experience excitement and adventure. They had British overseas subjects passports and decided to leave behind Tanzania which was transitioning to independence. They were excited by the snow, visited the Christmas lights and complained at how backwards accommodation was that toilets were at the end of the garden.
Mum enrolled for a sewing course at the London College of Fashion. She recounted to me her tutor constantly wondered why she was doing the course because her sewing skills were superior to his own. She was particularly proud of her piped buttonholes (extremely difficult to do) which were perfect.
She sewed haute couture garments for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Sasha Hetherington on Kings Road which was then at the height of its global iconic status. I often reflect on how South Asian and Muslim women like my Mum were and still are derided for their image and style. And yet it was precisely through the immense talents of her hands, her creative vision and her incredible artistry – my Mum was an utter artist that created phenomenal beauty out of nothing, but society would never recognise her as such – that the UK’s global status as a fashion leader was built. We must remember the central contribution of women like my mum, without whom there would have been no fashion industry.
I have many memories of sitting with her as she sewed white taffeta silk wedding gowns, or added the boning to raw silk cocktail dresses. She would be at her Brother sewing machine making these clothes as though sewing with such finesse was the easiest thing in the world. And I would sit next to her at the overlocker, and she taught me how to make net petticoats, how to sew shut by hand the gap between the bodice and skirt of a large flouncy dress, or how to iron flat the seams for a flawless finish.
She would make me new dresses for every occasion at the mosque. We would visit John Lewis or Southall and choose fabrics together, and then lay patterns on the cloth, cut them, and then she would somehow turn them into magical one-of-a-kind dresses, perfectly tailored to fit. We always had to be careful with money so fabric lengths were carefully calculated, and ensuring all the pieces could be cut from the limited material was like laying out a jigsaw puzzle for us to solve.
She was my best cheerleader and she instilled in me a sense of self belief and value. For a woman who had been brought up in a different world where women did not take centre stage, and who by nature was humble to the point of being self-effacing, this was remarkable.
My role in public life is due to her and my Dad’s encouragement. My public speaking, my community work and my aspirations and activity in the workplace are all from her. To be an active member of the community was implicit in the ethos with which she brought me up. And this went hand in hand with being a powerful and vocal public voice advocating for change. You have to use your talents, she would tell me.
She probably saw herself as housewife and mother, and perhaps others did too. But she was what we would describe today as a working from home mum, ahead of her time.
She was unfailing in her encouragement for my public role, my education and being out and about working – an encouragement she always had for all women, as she believed in working, in being occupied, in the importance of women fulfilling themselves and having their own path in life to travel.
Yet I constantly ponder of the fact that the greatness in her life was in the doing of every day acts. It was in being a mother, wife, grandmother, hostess, community member. It was in the calmness, resilience, gentleness, positivity, humility and grace with which she carried out these roles that her power lay.
Despite the many and immense challenges she faced in her life, she was an ocean of forgiveness. She did not hold a grudge, and never had a sense of entitlement. She was on her path, and the actions and impacts – negative or positive - of others were absorbed into her vast heart. She simply continued, and retained her positivity and her constant encouragement and service to others. She was extremely hospitable and during the condolences many mentions were made of her samosas and her home made Indian sweets.
We think of religion as passed down by scholars and books. But for me it has been in the softness of the hands of my mother, her wisdom and her encouragement, in the seat next to her at the prayer mat, and the duas she recited for me. It is in the stories of religion she told, and the way she lived peacefully, truthfully, with sweetness and smiles, and faithfully.
Too often we see gentleness as weakness. We think being ‘out there’ is more important and more impactful than being ‘in here’. For women of my generation breaking the barriers in the public space has been important. But for all of us – both men and women - living in a world of toxic masculinity, of asserting power and boundaries, of ‘you do you’ and exhibiting everything in public, the power of Mum’s softly spoken, gentle encouragement as a way of being a human being is a reminder to me to reclaim what we might call the ‘softer’ characteristics.
It seems we do not cherish, value and nurture these attributes, and we can see the results of the huge deficit we have of them in society. No wonder society is full of loud public bombast, polemics and keyboard warriorship, and people causing disruption for the sake of it.
In Islamic tradition, the 99 Beautiful Names of God are sometimes described as falling into the Jalal (Power) and Jamal (Beauty).
If there is one thing I’d like to advocate for as a result of Mum’s life is to revive the value we need to place on the Jamal qualities like being compassionate, loving, gentle and subtle.
One of the names of God that she reminded me of was ‘Quick to be pleased’ (Saree’ ar-Ridha) because even a small act of kindness towards her, or a tiny effort at good made her so quickly and hugely happy.
What really mattered to Mum was her education in Quran and religion. One of her favourite stories was as a young girl reciting Suratul Insan at the mosque in front of the whole congregation. Qur’an was her lifelong love, and later in life she became a madressah teacher of Quran every Sunday morning. And many children would come to her home to practice their recitation with her after school. She also taught me to recite and she would ensure I practiced every day. She studied Qur’anic Arabic and she could explain the meaning of any verse to you.
While she always wanted me to be in public and make a difference, she herself was very shy. When I was six years old she had trained me to sing some long prayers in Arabic for the whole mosque congregation. She said to me how at six I had sounded calm, but she was standing next to me shaking. Whenever I was due to speak in public as a child, she would make sure I practiced with her. She would ensure that I would have opportunities to speak publicly, and always encouraged me to do so. She continued this with her four granddaughters and has been their best friend and cheerleader too.
I have got to know my mother in a different way since her passing – through the words and experiences of others. Each person who came to give their condolences has shared a story of how she complimented them, of the sweetness of her words, of her humility and how even though she was an understated person, of how her personality would change the room.
I have of course been blessed to experience all this myself, but to learn of her impact on others through this seemingly small, everyday and yet constant and consistent actions has been a beautiful gift. It has also been a reminder that it is in our passing remarks and small actions that we leave a mark on others and the world, and that the grand gestures do not need to be our goal. In this way, even after her passing, I am learning that being a centre of light and positivity is one of the most powerful things you can be; that it is how you make people *feel* that they remember.
For every kind word she shared, I hope it will blossom into a beautiful flower for her in the eternal garden.
She loved nature and beauty, and saw in each element of nature signs of the Creator. She was happiest when she could lay her eyes on water, especially the sea. If we went to the beach, she would insist on dipping her feet into the lapping waves, which somehow brought happiness to the innermost depths of her being. Sadly she never learnt to swim, but perhaps in the eternal abode she will have the chance to do so.
She would go and sit in her garden several times a day, and would call people to come and join her. I would take her for drives and we would sit in the car together at a viewpoint and look at the surroundings beneath us, enjoying the beauty we could behold.
My Dad grows the most exquisite deep red roses which have the fragrance of roses you might imagine from a romantic fairytale, or indeed what I imagine roses would be like in paradise. When I think of her, I think of that rose, almost perfect in its shape and colour that fills the eyes with delight, the perfect velvet softness that is the feeling of happiness, and the scent which beautifies everything around it. In November, my parents would have been married sixty years. Please continue to keep my Dad in your prayers.
Mum absolutely would not want me to post a picture of her. Instead, here is a glorious rose that reminds me of her, and here also is my father gifting a rose to my mum after she returned from a long stay in hospital.
One of my greatest privileges was to be able to look after her in her final years, and I spent several hours each day at her home for more than two years caring for her. Being a sandwich generation mother meant it wasn’t always easy to balance caring for her, my own children as well as work and life. But even in caring for her, I learnt from her. I learnt the value of service - that it isn’t what you say out in public, but it is what you do in the small moments of your life when no-one is watching, the hard physical graft, and how you serve others. That if you do it happily or begrudgingly, only you and the person you are caring for (and God) will know, and therefore doing it for love and compassion, and being present in each moment is so crucial, even if it is incredibly hard. Otherwise, if you are not kind, and you do not do it for compassion, grace and love, and for the service itself, then what is the point?
I also learnt an important lesson for the future from serving her - that our innermost character becomes ever more apparent as we age, because our filters and our social artifice are gradually stripped away. We show exactly who we are. And the sobering thought is that character needs to be rooted in our innermost being from the earliest age possible so that is what inevitably shines through. Even through age and illness what I was blessed to benefit from is the ever greater exposition of her kindness, gentleness and contentment with what God had planned for her.
My seven year old reflected on her grandmother’s passing “Nani loved gardens, and now she is going to live in a garden.”
In the Islamic tradition, when someone passes away, we quote this verse from the Qur’an:
اِنّا لِلّهِ وَاِنّا اِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُون
From God we come and to God we return.
Please raise your hands for my beloved Mum, that she lives in peace, happiness and His Mercy in the Eternal Garden.