I hadn’t spent as much time with my grandfather as I would have liked to before he passed away. I was three years old when my family moved from Pakistan to the UK so I would only get the opportunity to see him every couple of years. Regardless, I had fond memories of him.
I remembered how he took me and my older brother to the local corner shop to buy us sweets and toys. I remember his garden and the smell of fresh grass and blossom trees. I remember how much I looked forward to the birthday cards he would send to me all the way from Pakistan.
But there was still so much that I didn’t know and there was no better time than now to learn about the man who had unknowingly played such an important role in my life. This past year has taken away so much from everyone but it has also provided us with the luxury of time. Time to reflect, time to heal, and, for me, time to grieve. Albeit three years later.
My grandfather passed away in March 2018 and within days of his passing, I became seriously ill. After that, I found myself constantly on the move. I went from being hospitalised and needing multiple surgeries, to starting a job, to studying at university. And just like that, it had been years since we lost him.
You don’t truly understand the impact of someone on not just your life but the lives of others until they’re gone. Even now, as I write this, my admiration grows by the minute. My grandfather, Mian Saeed Ur-Rehman, was not just a remarkable father and husband, but also an avid writer and reader. “He was never a rich man, but he was rich in knowledge,” my mother used to say.
I have never met someone, with such a fondness for learning. His home in Peshawar hosted a collection of over 20,000 books. As I sit here and write this, I’m surrounded by mementos my mum has collected over the years. His fondness for learning was something he also encouraged in others, he even invited two students to live in his family home while they studied at local universities.
I smiled when one of these students, Uzma Atif Siddiqui, told me: “Uncle was a kind-hearted, caring, loving and generous man. The biggest lesson I learned from him was selflessness. He was a hardworking man; always ready to help.”
Education was something that had been encouraged among the women in our family long before it was considered appropriate in Pakistan. He came from a family of social activists who played an important role in the partition of India and Pakistan. He was just 17 years-old when Pakistan gained independence in 1947, and he grew into adulthood while the country was still in its infancy.
For the majority of us in the Pakistani diaspora, Partition is often reduced to an abstract history, a series of events that we can’t possibly fathom. But for many of our parents and grandparents, the events that lead to the formation of India and Pakistan as separate countries are still fresh and ingrained in their memories.
For The New Yorker, William Dalrymple writes: “across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other – a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented.” I never spoke to my grandfather about his memories of the events that occurred in 1947, but from the stories my mother tells me, the partition played a crucial role in my grandfather’s affection towards his country and culture.
Years after the death of his father, and when he became the last man in the family to remain in Peshawar, he took over his family business. It was a retail store located in Qissa Khwani, one of the most infamous bazaars in the subcontinent. In 1974, when my mother was just a few months old, he lost everything to a fire that started on the street where his store was located. But that didn’t stop him. He started working as a wholesale retailer, with the help of his friends, for brands like Johnson and Johnson and Ponds, providing supplies in his region.
As one of the youngest of nine siblings, he was surrounded by a drive for change. Given that his father had passed away when he was young, he was heavily influenced by his uncles, both of whom were academics — one was even a vice-chancellor at Punjab University. They played an instrumental role in encouraging the family to get a good education.
Now that I can understand the remarkable impact that his family had on him, I understand why he wanted to pay this forward to us.
As my mother cooks dinner, she tells me the story of her aunt, Doctor Mumtaz Hasan who was the first-ever female doctor in the region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four provinces of Pakistan. “She was like a magnetic force,” she recalls. “No matter where we were in the world, her love and affection for the family made sure we all stayed connected.”
For my great grandparents to have encouraged their daughter to leave home and move to Delhi, where she went on to complete her training, was not only unheard of, it was undeniably scandalous to the local community.
Although grief was something I had experienced before the death of my grandfather, I had never had to deal with it so intimately. His death taught me a lot about the process: I found comfort in old pictures and videos and listening to others share stories of his past. Being around family helped more than I could imagine. They were going through the same things that I was and it was comforting to know that we were all there for one another and could be vulnerable together.
Grief is such a complex emotion and is experienced by everyone differently, especially now, when the grief of losing a loved one is only intensified by the pandemic. It’s important to create a community of support. Speaking to Vox on the topic, Laura Sinko, a mental health nurse explains that “the layers of cultural trauma we experience on top of our personal losses can feel all-consuming. We are isolated. We are lonely. And we are all, in some way, grieving.”
When my grandfather passed, I was filled with such an overwhelming sense of sadness for the figure I had lost, and guilt for the lack of time we had. It’s only now, on the third anniversary of his death, that I have come to understand the great man he was and the impact he left behind on others.
My Nana Abu has been immortalised through his love of books, poetry, and education. In front of me lies a Ph.D. written by Sarwat Yasmine, a former student at the University of Peshawar who went on to analyse letters written by these notable men to my grandfather.
Translated from Urdu, one letter written by Sadiq Naseem, a friend and poet, reads: “Dear Saeed, I went to a symposium in Murree and met your wife there. I was really impressed by her beautiful conduct, love and hospitality. You are such a lucky man to have such a great person as your life partner. This is God’s special blessing because you, yourself, are the most pure person I have known.”
Before the fire, his store would host academics and laureates including the poets Ahmed Faraz and Mohsin Ehsan. Every evening, they would gather there and socialise, sharing their latest pieces of work and discussing their visions for the future of Pakistan. Amongst my mother’s keepsakes from the past is a frayed poem written by one of these men. This is just one of the few pieces that were left behind after the fire.
I asked my family to translate an extract of the poem from Persian so I could bring it back to life. I wanted to feel closer to the words and to the men who wrote them.
The beauty of the words washed over me: “Although I took ink from the sacred pond, the writing did not do justice to the pure intentions.”
Even in his later years, he still aspired to help as many people as he could, especially students. He not only opened the doors of his home to them but also gave them access to his private book collection, the majority of which was donated to the University of Peshawar.
Over the years people have shared fond memories and stories of my grandfather. My cousin, who was with him in his final few days, tells me that he wrote a note to the doctor just hours before he passed. It said: “Thank you Dr. Sahiba for taking such good care of me but my wife can take better care of me so please let me go home.”
At the time of his death, my grandparents had been married for 57 years. I ask my grandmother, who moved to Turkey to live with my aunt after his death to speak to me about her late husband. She simply tells me “his character was above any kind of praise.”
Every one of these people clearly admired his tenacity for life and told me, in one way or another, my grandfather was one of a kind. Not only did I lose a loved one but the world lost a great man.
I’m grateful that through this time, when it’s difficult to have hope and stay optimistic, I was able to not just close a door from the past, but also open a new one. One where I can strive to be even an ounce of the person my grandfather was.
All I hope is that I can continue to make my Nana Abu proud.