It seemed Badi Ammi was going to live forever.
We were so used to her.
The shore that tells you to traipse along braving the storms, helps you comprehend your mess, allows you to walk over it, the rock you know is there to push you to learn to lean on your own shoulders and not anyone else’s, the proverbial friend philosopher and guide who shows you how to trudge along with your feet full of thorns, with a smile.
Meet Mrs.Fatima Anees, educationist, columnist, Principal of Anjuman Khairul Islam Girls High School, Mumbai, who also happened to be the first Muslim woman to pass her matriculate from the city of Sholapur.
My Badi Ammi [Elder Mother] sister to my mother Qamar, passed away on August 6, at the age of eighty-five.
She was a unique kind of a human being. How many people do you find today, who literally can call out your bluff to your face? Would speak the bitterest of truth without mincing words and with extreme nonchalance? Would roll on burning coals whenever they saw injustice?
Mrs.Fatima Anees was all this and more.
Born in 1934, she was the eldest child. Her father Husain Sahab Josh, was a school headmaster, called Congressi Janab, with the white curved cap over his small head. Wrote patriotic verses and of the love of Imam Husain, and sent his four daughters to school in the early 40s.
Sending girls to school? In the late thirties it was treason. For this ‘crime’ Mr.Hussain Sahab Josh and his family were boycotted, communication was banned with the rebel family. No wedding invitations came their way. But Mr.Hussain was a tough guy, he declared, I have four sons and one daughter, I am sending all my sons to school, what is your problem? He was referring to his four girls and a son. The freedom fighter was drunk on Gandhism, he wore khadi and Gandhi cap became his trademark. Simple living was something that came naturally. They had little money to speak of anyway!
But little girl Fatima would be apprehensive on her way to school. There she would make it a point to walk along with her teachers to enter and leave the classroom, to avoid being jeered. Soon a day came when she became the first female Muslim matriculate. Today her name is taken with much pride. Whenever I see hordes of girls in blue chequered uniforms and two tight pony tails, leaving schools in the evenings, almost choking the roads, I smile almost instinctively and send a prayer for my Badi Ammi.
She was I think literally the one and only woman whom I never saw making usual complaints on and about in laws, and other relations. Never! She had faced hard times, a divorce and then widowhood at a rather young age. Despite this, have I ever seen her bickering about fate etc. No , absolutely no one heard her complain.
Oh, yes, but she would incessantly complain about how pot-holed the roads were, how injustice was being done to people and how one could better progress right and high, if one used one’s brain properly. Anyone commenting foolishly would be taken to task immediately.
She worked hard. Her daily rituals were quite elaborate. She would be up and about at 4 a.m. and washed sacks full of clothes. Her daughters pleaded her not to, but when it is Fatima Anees, it was hard to make her stray from the path, she had chosen for herself. She continued this 4.a.m. ritual until she fell down in her home, this March and got bedridden.
She was a damn interesting lady. The one quality that distinguished her from other ordinary mortals was her courage to speak the truth almost blatantly. She spared no excuses and no one to say what was necessary, to be said and which most of us shy away from uttering. It happened on a railway station, she is being asked to advise and welcome the new daughter in law in our family. She promptly begins to grumble , why is it that only women need to be advised? Then she turns around and tells the groom, her nephew, Be the best in your behaviour to your wife, repeating the Prophetic saying, “The best among you is the best to his wife”. The bewildered expression on the faces around still makes me giggle. The mother of the bride looked dumb struck for a prolonged minute.
After my young daughter Sanaa’ s demise, she called me after a month. Listening perhaps to my forlorn voice, she chided, “Don’t you know how many children are being killed in Iraq? Don’t you mourn for them? What about those mothers who don’t even have the luxury of mourning?”
That was my Badi Ammi, her personal was always political. She was not capable of thinking selfishly and her pain was all encompassing.
Towards the end, she spent most of her time at home. Punctual to the core she reached on time even at the weddings! Last year, she decided to attend one and obviously was on time, the first to arrive at the empty hall. When the groom arrived, stopping his father, she gave an earful, on being ‘so’ late. Both looked sheepish but didn’t mind it. Everyone knew she was Fatima aapa, always expressive of her mind and could never hold it inside. We all knew her to be this way and never ever regretted her chidings. In fact we enjoyed such encounters. Her ‘anecdotes of truth’ have become part of our family folklore, relished each time we meet, and we have a huge repository of them!
Almost everyone in our family owed to her big way for some help or the other. Despite hardships ,personal losses she raised her three daughters perfectly well as a single mother.[ Her husband Mr.Ghafoor Anees who worked for TOI, had passed away when the kids were quite young.] she never had complaints on how she was doing it alone, no irritation, just a dedicated fervent desire to work and work some more. I have seen her writing her columns once she returned from school. Sitting on the sofa, with papers and books spread all over. Writing a column every week, with a job, raising three girls single handedly, and all the household work she preferred doing herself; can you even imagine?
What an enigma! And she did all this, nonchalantly, without making a fuss, without a word on how good she was at doing things.
She has left behind a huge legacy of education, of compassion, of the good work, and of speaking the truth, least bothered about the consequences. In fact she didn’t even understand consequence in her own innocent way.
Dr. Asma Anjum Khan from Maharashtra teaches English, a motivational speaker, has written for prestigious national and international publications and websites on social, ethical, and gender related issues. FEEL (Foundation for English and Ethical Learning) is her NGO that wants to bring change by equipping people with the language of English. Twitter: @AsmaAnjumKhan