Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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In that small box, amidst a few torn dresses, some letters from her daughter and sister, and a picture of her husband’s funeral lay fifty-five rupees that Firdosi Begum was saving in order to someday perform the Muslim pilgrimage.  To this day, these few mementos are a perfect description of how she lived her life:  surviving extreme poverty, loving unconditionally, and fulfilling the dreams of others while strangling her own.
Tired of his wife’s inability to bear him any children, my great grandfather asked his uncle for his thirteen year old daughter’s hand in marriage.  Officially wed at thirteen, my great grandmother was considered too young to go live with her fifty year old husband and was told to remain at her parents’ house for some time.  Arriving at her husband’s house around age fifteen, she learned that his previous wife, who had given birth twice within those two years, firmly believed that my great grandmother was most responsible for wronging her.  As her vengeance, she did everything in her power to hurt the young girl and isolate her from society, a fight the meek little child was bound to lose.
Due to certain political and religious conflicts between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority of India, well-known lawyer and head of India’s Muslim League Muhammad Ali Jinnah demanded a partition of India.  As a result of mass bloodshed and the largest human migration in history, Pakistan came into formation and officially gained its independence from India on August 14, 1947.  Maintaining the nation, however, proved to be an uphill battle as Pakistan was being continuously flooded by Muslims from India and had absolutely nothing to support them.  Amidst all this, twenty-one year old Firdosi Begum, now widowed and accompanied by three children, came to Pakistan.  Deciding against remarrying, seeing as how doing so back in those days required abandoning one’s own children, my great grandmother suffered from extreme poverty.  An uneducated woman from a small rural village near modern day Mumbai, she was unable to find work in the city and survived on the little money that her deceased husband’s brother provided and whatever her eldest son could earn.  While they could have been much better off had they been able to procure the property that my great grandfather had left behind, no one listens to a widow or a young boy and all their property, save one small house and one shop, was claimed by others.
“Just get me a ticket today, I can’t stay here anymore,” she would often say, in a fit of grief and anger, to my grandfather.  When it came to raising children, my great grandmother was one of those rare anomalies back in those days that could not stand to see parents using physical force to discipline.  Throughout her life, she showcased “an instinctive kindness [that] forced her to love everyone.”  She would often bring home starving animals to feed them, stay overnight at people’s homes to help nurse their sick, and take away children whose parents were hitting them and keep them until the parents came to apologize.  “I’m sure she loved me the least out of us all,” says her eldest granddaughter, “but she still stayed up for many consecutive nights whenever my coughing got out of control and rubbed [the medicine] on my throat for hours on end.”  So long as she could, she kept meeting with and doing favors for all her relatives, no matter how they treated her.  Be it the brother who turned his back on her, the sister in law who only cursed at my great grandmother and accused of her trying to poison her children, or even her husband’s first wife, who never stopped trying to verbally and mentally abuse her at every opportunity, Firdosi Begum loved them all as her own.  Whenever my mother would assert that her father was a cruel man for having agreed to such a marriage, she would defend him and reply, “you are crazy, laundia, why would he do that?  He loved me.”  She, in the truest sense of the term, loved unconditionally.
She wasn’t particularly observant of religious practices, but her faith was unyielding.  While not noticeably regular in praying five times a day, it was a common sight to see her struggling with, desperately trying to read the Islamic holy book.  Never having learned Arabic, my great grandmother could barely read the Urdu translation.  She often broke up the words and read them so choppily that any comprehension on her part was highly unlikely, yet she still read every day without fail.  She firmly believed that only Allah, not humans, were responsible for what happens in the world and that anything that happens is genuinely for the better.  With this faith, she spent her life without any regrets, content with both Allah and humans alike.
One can’t say, however, that she was alone in this struggle.   Throughout her entire fight for survival, her eldest son, my grandfather, proved to be an unbending pillar of support.  Having lost his father at the age of six and becoming the sole supporter of two siblings and a twenty one year old mother, my grandfather’s family lived on very little money until he started working at the age of twelve.  At that point, the money was still not sufficient but the dependency upon others declined and my grandfather was established as the man of the house.  Working to support his family while going to school, his childhood was sacrificed in favor of his family and his own survival.  Yet, despite having to face all this, he never left his mother’s side, always fulfilled her wishes, and did not tolerate even the slightest injustice against her, unless she asked him to.  It was upon her request that he, even after her death, continued to meet with and take care of the stepmother that had tortured my great grandmother to no end.  One time my great grandmother was cooking and my great uncle’s wife, who was allowed to live in the same house because my great uncle couldn’t afford to live separately, rudely told her to “stop using so much oil, it’s expensive.”  My grandfather stood up, brought the whole month’s supply of oil in front of his mother and said to her, “Kick it all down.  You decide what goes on in this house and no one tells you otherwise.”  He even sacrificed his fatherhood in her name, virtually handing his son, my eldest uncle, to my great grandmother for her to raise as her own without any interference.  She loved my uncle more than life itself but, when it came to nursing ill children, she had the tendency to “do the exact opposite of what the doctor ordered.”  While my grandmother greatly disliked this technique, rightfully fearing for her son’s life, she never fought with her mother-in-law, knowing how important that woman was to her husband.
On days my grandmother felt particularly hurt because she was not the one raising her eldest son, my grandfather told her, “Don’t worry, they are your kids and they will always be yours.  Just let her have this joy at the end of her life.”  However, as luck would have it, she saw signs of those children separating from her in her lifetime.  Those grandchildren she had toiled for her entire life left her to be with their mother.  It was my grandmother’s right, to be sure, but my great grandmother didn’t deserve to see this pain so late in her life.  As her youngest grandson says, “every action of hers showed love and nothing else.  We, every last one of us, sometimes display emotions like anger or annoyance, but all she showed was love.”  Yet, despite all this, one can’t be surprised that her life ended in such abandonment because that was her life: living in pain, loving unconditionally, and never seeing any joy grace her life for too long.