Fragments of History

When I was about ten years old, I saw my father hunched over an old black-and-white photograph of a woman with a solemn face. Her eyes were downcast in concentration. In her hands was a large pot. A trickle of water was running from the faucet. She had a striking nose, smooth and pointed. Her arms were slender. She wore three bangles.
“Whose picture is that, Papa?” I asked.
“My mother’s,” he said without looking up. I could hear the tears in his voice.

I started to collect pieces of Sughra Begum’s life from stories her children told me. Slowly, I started to reach out to my father’s extended family.

When I first met Sughra Begum’s brother, Maama Jeera as he is called by his nieces and nephews (and their children), he was living in a small brick house in Samanabad, Lahore. He had seven daughters, no sons. His wife believed it was black magic. He took it for the will of God.

Maama Jeera told me other stories about my grandmother. He gave me small snapshots of  her life, a window into the past of my father, uncle, and aunts. “My sister was the most harmless creature that ever lived,” he said. “Maybe that’s why she died so young.”

Sughra Begum was plucked from a partition camp set up on the outskirts of Lahore by my grandfather. He was already middle-aged, had buried a barren wife, and was volunteering in the camp, disillusioned and broken-spirited from his day job working the ticket counter of a local Lakshmi Chowk cinema. She became the child-bride of the eldest son in a conservative Sunni family and had three strikes against her: she was beautiful, she was an immigrant, she was Shia.

My father, Sughra Begum’s first-born came after five years of marriage. Maama Jeera said that she stood on one leg all night on the night of 10th Muharram the year before she conceived. “She would not take no for an answer,” he told me. “She begged for your father, and even God couldn’t refuse my sister.”

When her son grew up, he would leave little notes to his mother inside her Singer sewing machine. “Meri pyaari ammi,” or “my beautiful mother,” the notes would say. After she died, they found the inner compartment of her sewing machine full of small scraps of paper from her son.

Sughra Begum’s daughter keeps two of her trunks in her home. One summer, I helped my aunt clean up the contents of the two metal trunks. There was a set of six silver bowls, darkened with age and oxidation, a few yards of silk, cotton doilies with embroidered flowers, some pots and pans, a few chipped clay matkas, and a Singer sewing machine. With my heart racing, I rested my hands on the cool black surface of the machine. Sughra Begum touched this machine, sewed clothes for her children, mended kurtas and shawls, and I was about to find a thin slice of her history and that of my father in its womb. I lifted the body of the machine slowly. It resisted my pull, creaked on its hinges. There was nothing but a dust cloud inside. The history I was after was gone. Years after the death of Sughra Begum had left a gaping hole between tangible reminders of her life and her granddaughter’s hunger for getting acquainted with the past.

Because Sughra Begum was beautiful, an immigrant, and a Shia woman, she was denied burial in my Sunni grandfather’s family plot. Sughra Begum’s body was left in the verandah of her home for hours before a kindly neighbor came forward and offered a burial space in the detached storeroom of his house. Her husband ran frantically to various family members, begging them to let his wife be buried next to other women in his family. Maama Jeera, held his 2-year-old niece as she tried to climb into the charpoy with her dead mother. Her other children, older and cognizant of their loss, sat in corners of the house, hid behind curtains, cried.
“Why did you bury her in a storeroom?” I asked Maama Jeera.
“In those times, our women were not supposed to be buried in strange graveyards,” he said simply.

As a child, I visited the storeroom grave of my grandmother once a year with my father. He would unlock a small blue metal door, open the musty room, dust the space around the grave with a broom, and change the sheet on top of it. There is no stone that marks Sughra Begum’s grave, no epitaph, only a cement slab. If there were no sheets on it with Quranic verses, one wouldn’t know there is a woman buried under the concrete.

Years ago, I made a copy of the picture I found of Sughra Begum when I intruded on my father’s vulnerable moment of thinking about his mother. Upon our annual pilgrimage, I put the picture in a frame and placed it next to her grave.

I wonder if it is still there.