The presence of those now absent

How our loved ones remain with us even after their death

The columnist’s late mother-in-law as a young girl. Photo: Courtesy Natasha Badhwar
The columnist’s late mother-in-law as a young girl. Photo: Courtesy Natasha Badhwar

I have read three chapters from an English edition of the Quran this morning and then moved on to typing here. Green glass bangles tinkle on both my wrists as I angle my hands a little awkwardly on the keyboard.

Exactly one year ago today, Ammi, my mother-in-law, had passed on. I am sitting in her home, surrounded by all four of her adult children, all her grandchildren, sons-in-law, and her husband. My parents are on their way to be with us. It is early morning and most grown-ups are reading the Quran, participating in a ritual called Quran Khwani. It is the month of Ramzan and almost all of them are also fasting. Most of the children are still asleep. The house is being cleaned and the kitchen is abuzz with preparations for the day.

In private, we are all mourning Ammi’s absence. In public, we are also celebrating her presence in our lives.

On the wall next to the dining table, there are photographs from Ammi’s life. She was her parents’ only surviving child and is photographed next to her father in many of his formal studio portraits. In one of them, she is a nine-year-old girl, sitting between her father and uncles. It could be a black and white photo of one of my daughters. I can never walk past it without looking at the child that Ammi once was. Allahabad, 12 February 1939.

A few months after Ammi passed on, I realized for the first time that there is a purpose to death. It fills the life of those who are left behind with the words of those who are gone. It felt like a blasphemous thought. I didn’t dare share it yet, but I kept it with me. I felt Ammi’s presence more than ever before in my life. I had internalized the permissions I had received from her. Be beautiful, be bold, be you. You are loved. You are special.

After three months, I brought Ammi alive for me again. I began to talk about her in the present tense to new people in my life. “My mother-in-law has sent this chane ka halwa,” I shared with my film crew, when actually it had been sent by her daughter from Ammi’s kitchen. I brought up references to her in conversations with my children and quoted her casually. I took out the glass bangles that I used to wear only in her presence, and wore them all the time because both Ammi and I love bangles. Ammi was with me all the time now.

Wanga chada lo kudiyon, mere daata de darbar diyan, sings Arif Lohar in a Punjabi folk song popularized by its recent Coke Studio version. Bangles as a spiritual connection, as a symbol of surrender to a higher power.

As a host, I was kind to someone I didn’t like because Ammi had always welcomed her. I had confronted Ammi about her a few times. “Why do you let her behave so badly around you? She is younger than you, you should tell her off,” I had said to Ammi. She would laugh and say nothing. I realize now that this person is like Ammi’s damaged child. They have a shared history that made Ammi immune to her tantrums. If Ammi had the grace to forgive, I could do it too.

Visiting Ammi’s home, when she is no longer here, I realize I was also a little afraid of my mother-in-law. I must have made her nervous too. Look at us in our sociocultural context and it won’t be hard to imagine why. My patriarchal upbringing has warned me since early childhood to fear the disapproval of my in-laws. I have been trained to try to please and impress the family I would marry into, and be prepared for rejection and bitterness.

This is a formula for failure, designed to perpetuate a destructive hierarchy within the family. It sets the stage for mistrust and resentment. It pits women against each other, making sure all of them lose. I reject it intellectually, but I found that I had to take it apart into little pieces and unlearn it systematically.

Ammi’s love was her power. Her wisdom protected all of us.

Over the years of knowing her, I would find out more about her. I had always known Ammi only as an elderly woman, but story by story, I discovered how adventurous and young her spirit was. The woman who ostensibly lived in purdah in her marital home would travel alone with her four children every summer as a young woman. She would carrying holdalls, bedding and food for the way and change trains at odd hours to reach her parents’ home. She would travel without reservation, if need be. She assumed charge and took care of her elderly parents and cousins as they battled chronic ill-health. She raised her daughter’s children with the skill of practised motherhood and a grandmother’s special grace.

The child in the black and white photographs on the walls of this home became a woman who inspired generations and kept the extended family together for decades.

For me, she was each of the grandmothers I had lost too soon. She went seamlessly from authoritative to nurturing in a way that adults rarely manage to be. Ammi was my bonus parent, someone whose acceptance sustained and surprised me.

“Now who will appreciate me like Ammi did,” I said to Afzal one evening.

“I will,” he said.

“Who will love me like my Ammi?” he asked me in a quiet voice.

It’s a big commitment to agree to love like Ammi. The biggest.

“I will,” I said.

Luckily for both of us, Ammi never really left our side. Her presence in our lives has become amplified by her absence.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

Also Read: Natasha’s previous Lounge columns

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