REMEMBERING MUM. GULZAR’S STORY : THE KAMPALA YEARSPublished May 12, 2018
Gulzar was born in Mombasa, Kenya on March 26th in 1936. Her mother had gone to the Rajan family home to be cosseted and pampered for the last months of her pregnancy and the birth. That was the custom in those days so she could relax and have her baby without having to do any household chores. Everyone would make a big fuss of the mother to be and cooked special treats for her like badaam paak with ghee, sugar and almonds, to give her energy.
Gulzar grew up in Kampala, Uganda. She was the second of eight children, born roughly two years apart. Gulshan was the oldest. After Gulzar came Sayeed and Zul. During World War II, Tuma her mother had Gulistan.
She was about five feet two with small bones. She had big, brown almond shaped eyes, her best feature, a perfect aquiline nose and high cheekbones. Her skin was dewy and unblemished the color of milky tea. She smiled a lot and had an infectious laugh that made everyone want to laugh with her even if the joke wasn’t funny. She loved talking and telling stories.
After three children and many years, she grew a bit heavier but was always strong She kept her hair in a dark brown shoulder length bob for the rest of her life. Her hair was the type of shiny, soft hair that never curled. She was naturally beautiful but she had no vanity about her looks and thought she was average looking.
Gulistan was the baby of the family and I think Mum always loved her the most. The family teased her that she liked fighting because she was born during the War years. Tuma went on to have two more boys, Mansur and the baby of the family, Amin. She told me about her childhood.
“Gulshan and I looked after the younger children. We fed them, changed their nappies, gave them baths and played with them. With five children after we were born, we were always so busy with the babies and toddlers,” she remembered.
“Tuma had so much work to do running the whole house so we helped as much as we could. We only had one servant for the washing and heavy work. But I didn’t mind, I always liked to be busy.”
“Did you still have time to study with all the work?”
“Yes we did. We managed and I liked looking after my brothers and sisters. All my friends were doing the same thing. It is very different nowadays; you have far less work in the house than I did.”
“Tell me more stories, Mum.”
We used to go to Mombasa for holidays when we had off from school, just us kids. We would go by the steam engine train from Kampala to Mombasa and it would take three whole days! Tuma packed us baskets of food, fruit, masala chai and snacks… We would be travelling in second class. My three younger brothers were so naughty! They would jump from the top bunk to the floor! And Gulshan and I could barely control them. But it was so much fun! We could see giraffes and zebras grazing from our windows. And we played cards a lot and sang songs and played games. So we passed the time easily.
When we got to Mombasa, Ada, my grandfather met us at the train station. He spoilt us so much when we were there and we would stay for one whole month. He took us to the Town Centre. There everyone got a new set of clothes each made to measure by his own tailor: The boys got shorts and shirts and the girls got pretty dresses. Then, he would take us all to the cobbler. Each child had leather sandals made to measure. The girls also got an extra special gift, we each got a set of gold bangles…. The ones I have now given to you and Tazmin.
We also went to the market with him. Every day he would go early in the morning to the market. He would buy a fresh fish… whatever was the catch of the day, plus vegetables and fruit. Then he would buy a big kikapu full of mangoes. We would fight over the sweetest mangoes and eat then right out of the basket… we couldn’t wait to eat them when we got home! By the time we got home all seven of us had eaten half of the mangoes already! But Ada just laughed and bought us more mangoes the next day.
Gulzar remembered how she, Sayeed and Gulshan would wake up at five in the morning to study for school. They drank a thermos of tea and worked at the dining table for the next hour and a half. All the younger children would be asleep.
“The whole house was dark and cold when we woke up. I was dhuboo—a dummy at Maths. Sayeed was clever with numbers and he would help me to understand the Maths problems, even though he was three years younger than me.”
Mum was quiet a minute remembering the Math lessons. “Look Gulzar, you just divide 30 by 3.7 and then multiply it by 6.4 like this,” he wrote quickly in his neat handwriting in blue ink. “Do you understand now? “ She didn’t really understand and he saw that looking at her puzzled eyes.
“Okay,” he said and took out some coins and showing her how to multiply and divide 30 by 3 and divides by 6 with the coins. Then it clicked in Gulzar’s sleep fogged mind, and she went onto solve the rest of the equations easily.
“Sayeed ran the whole house from the age of thirteen. My father was always traveling in Somalia for work. Initially, Sayeed had to collect the money from the uncles but he didn’t like doing this as they made it difficult and gave excuses for the delays. So in the end his father did that and left Sayeed with the money.
He would give Sayeed the money from the family business at the beginning of every month. Sayeed began to run the family finances: he had a little black note book where he detailed all the expenses for servant wages, grocery/ market purchases, school supplies etc. He tallied them and balanced this against the income he was provided, showing the accounts to his father when he returned.
There are some people who have so much love and caring, they change the trajectories of a whole family. Sayeed was like that, he looked after his brothers and sisters, paying their fees and putting them on the path for success, putting their ambitions before his. He became an accounting intern at one of the most successful local accounting firms and only went to London to finish his accounting studies after some of them were already in university or married and settled down. He went to London every three months to sit the exams. He worked at the Grand Hotel in Kampala. As its name implies, it was an imposing place, the best hotel in Kampala.
After finishing Form Four at the Aga Khan High School where most of the students were Ismaili Muslims like her, Gulzar went on to teacher training school in Kampala. In those days the main career options for women were teaching or nursing. Mum chose teaching.
“I didn’t want to be with sick people all the time, so I wasn’t interested in nursing. Some girls were becoming secretaries but I wanted a real profession.”
But first she went out and cut off her long black hair.
“I used to have a long thick plait that came down to my hips. But I wanted to look modern before I started College. So I didn’t ask permission or even tell anyone. I went to the hairdresser in town and got a short bob. The hairdresser asked if I was sure; I said yes. I wanted to look smart and fashionable like the girls in the fashion magazines. Tuma was so angry with me when I came home but it was too late!”
Her father insisted she study General Teacher’s training. For a whole year she didn’t tell him what she was really studying which was Domestic Science but kept turning out the fluffy cakes and flaky meat pies that she learned at the Uganda Teachers Training College at home. She confided her secret to Sayeed who finally convinced her father to let her study Domestic Science, which included needlework, cookery and household management. She became a certified Domestic Science Teacher. She got the top grades in the College and applied to study for a Master’s degree in England and won a full scholarship from the British Government for the two year course.
However, by now she was twenty three years old. Gulshan had been married for years. Many of her classmates were already married. Mum had a couple of good maghas from family friends but wasn’t interested in any of them.
“So you didn’t like any boys.” I asked her.
“Not really. I didn’t know any boys. I played badminton with some girls and boys after school but that was all. I was busy with my studies and I was shy.”
“But did you ever like anyone?”
“Well, I did like one boy from my school but he never talked to his parents about me, he never sent a magho for me. He married an Ithnashri woman, from our high school in a love marriage and then later he divorced her. It’s good that I never married him. He was not a good boy. Nobody got divorced in those days. ”
“I wasn’t interested in marriage. I just wanted to study. After Gulshan, my father refused to get involved with marriages. He said ‘you do what you want. Don’t ask me.’”
Then Ma in Nairobi sent a magho, a formal proposal through Gulbanu Maasi for Pilu, he was the next in line to get married. I said no but they kept forcing me. One day, Tuma was saying that Hazar Imam was coming to Kampala and I should get engaged. I was so tired of saying no, ‘I said okay, okay I’ll get married to him.’ Then I left the house. When I came back they had already phoned Nairobi and decided everything. It was too late to say no.”
“Why didn’t you just tell your father you didn’t want to get married?”
“He was very strict. I was afraid of him, I couldn’t just talk to him like you talk to Daddy.”
That was the standard story Mummy always told me and Tazmin when we asked how she got married. But a couple of years ago in Vancouver I asked her for more details. Mum and I were sitting outside the Home Depot Starbucks in West Vancouver. She was having her favourite café latte in a big white mug and we were sharing a bran muffin. I knew one day I wouldn’t have Mummy around and I wanted to know everything I could about her, so I could hold on to her.
This time she gave me a different version of her engagement.
“Gulbanu Maasi, Ma’s younger sister brought the magho. It wouldn’t look right if Ma phoned Tuma directly. First I said no but then Ma phoned Gulbanu Maasi again.”
“Then what happened?”
“Shela, let me have my coffee. Get me some water with no ice. Well then,”…and as she talked on I knew she was no longer seeing the people walking around but was back in Kampala in 1959. I kept quiet not wanting to interrupt her flow of words.
Nairobi’s Delamere Avenue in the 1940’s.
“I went to Nairobi for a holiday that year to stay with Nanabapa, my grandfather. Shilo Bhabi and Kabiru Uncle, Dad’s older brother and his wife invited me for dinner to their house in High Ridge. Shilo Bhabi made kuku paka, chicken in coconut, her specialty and we had a dinner. No one else was there so Pilu and I could talk and get to know each other.”
Pilu was about five feet six inches with a slight build. He had fair skin and curly black hair he tamed with a little coconut oil and wore heavy black framed glasses. He had the broad nose all the Shariffs had and gentle brown eyes. That day he dressed even better than usual and wore a navy blue suit with a white shirt and a blue striped tie.
“He was well dressed and he was fair and good looking. We talked at dinner and I liked him. After dinner he took me for a long drive in his station wagon and we went to Sno-Cream in the town for ice-cream. We sat in a booth and talked more while we shared an ice cream sundae with nuts and chocolate sauce.”
“’Do you like the ice cream’’’ he said.
“Yes, it’s delicious. We don’t have such good ice cream in Kampala.” I replied. We were both quiet for a few minutes eating the ice cream. We both felt shy, but whenever I looked up he was looking straight at me.”
“’So do you want to get married’ he asked me?”
“Just like that he asked you?”
“Yes Shela, just like that. I said no. I want to go to England and study more. I want to do my Masters.”
“’So why did you come here?’ he asked.”
“I didn’t know what to answer. I stayed quiet and he dropped me back home. We didn’t talk much in the car. He seemed disappointed. He told Ma the next day that I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to study. I went back to Kampala after a few days without seeing him again.”
“But after a few weeks Ma phoned Gulbanu Maasi again and Gulbanu Maasi came over to our house in the afternoon. She had tea with Ma and they talked. Daddy was stubborn and refusing to marry any other girls. He was already twenty seven years old, so the family wanted him settled. He must have liked me a lot.
This time Sayeed sat down at the table and talked to me. He said that I was already so old; I was twenty three years old. This was a very good boy, the family was nice and if I said no, I may not get a magho like that again. I always respected his opinion and I realized that Sayeed was right so I said okay.” In those days twenty three was almost an old maid.
“So that was your only proposal?” I asked.
“No I had one other good one soon after that, from the Shivji* family. For years I had no proposals, Gulshan got all the maghas and then I got two almost together. Remember the man you met in Nairobi?”
“Oh him. That’s who he was. .He must have really liked you.”
“Yes he did…His sister was my school friend so he knew me through her.”
In the late eighties there had been a big Ismaili gathering in Nairobi when the Aga Khan visited. I noticed a tall, dark-skinned man in a blue suit staring intently at me. He strode over and stood right in front of me. A short, pretty woman in a silk sari scuttled behind him.
“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You are Gulzar’s daughter. You look exactly like she used to look when she was young. The same big eyes, the same lovely face, the same smile.”
I was bemused but said, “Yes, I am Gulzar’s daughter. But who are you?”
“Me. I am Sadruddin Shivji* from Kampala. I knew your mother very well when we were children. Our families were good friends. Where is she? Where is Gulzar?” He held my hands in his big warm hands looking intently at my face.
Just then Mum and Dad came up to me. He turned his attention to Mum who looked gorgeous in a flowered green chiffon sari.
“Gulzar. Gulzar. How many years has it been? You look exactly the same. Still so happy and smiling. You haven’t become a bit older. Your daughter is a carbon copy of you.” He gave Mum a kiss on each cheek and then held her hands in both of his and gazed at her.
“Oh, of course I have changed. I have three children now,” Mum said demurely smiling back.
Then he turned to introduce the petite lady, who was his wife. Her name was Gulshan and she had known Mummy from Aga Khan High School as well. Mum introduced Dad to the couple. The four of them chatted for a long time about the old days in Uganda. Mum hadn’t seen them in decades. Daddy invited them home for dinner but they were leaving the next day for Canada. They had moved to Vancouver after being deported by Idi Amin. I remembered the encounter because of the intense way he had looked at Mum.
“Well, he did like me. But I had met Daddy by then and I preferred to marry him. Anyway, Sadruddin found a very nice woman. He has three sons.”
“Then what happened with Dad?”
“Ma and Dad came to Kampala and we got engaged. We had a small engagement party at home and Pilu and I spent some time together.”
“Then Daddy went back to Nairobi. Three months later we got married. He used to send me a present every Chandraat, once a month for the new moon prayers. Some jewelry, a sari, a silver box and a carved wooden box. And he wrote me romantic letters. His Dua, the prayers were a bit shaky. So I told him to learn it properly.” (Our Dua is said in Arabic and takes about seven minutes to say. It is based on Suras from the Kuran.)
“He sat down at his desk in the Godown and learned it perfectly.”
“Did he phone you?”
“Not so often. Everybody would have listened and it was very expensive.”
“Then I had to get my dresses and sari blouses and petticoats made.”
“How many did you get?”
“Seven dresses and seven saris.”
“That’s all. That’s not much. You were from a well off family.”
“That was plenty, Shela. In those days everybody got seven dresses, that was the rule. People didn’t buy so many clothes and waste money like now. Now they are too extravagant. Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah had said you should have simple weddings, be frugal and not spend too much money. Instead you should save the money and give it to the young couple so they have a nest egg, when they start out. People listened to him.
We really rushed so everything could be done before Hazar Imam came. It is a big honor to get married by his hand. I was very lucky. (Hazar Imam is the Imam Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of a roughly15 million- Shia Muslim Ismaili community).
“Oh, just like in the picture hanging on the wall,” I said.
We both turned to look at a black and white photograph on the wall. Gulzar is wearing a white dress with black horizontal stripes and a square neckline and Pilu is in a black suit with a white shirt. They are holding hands and a young, a handsome Aga Khan dressed all in white has his hands over theirs as he blesses their engagement. Gulzar’s head is slightly lowered but she looks straight into the Imam’s eyes. He is twenty three years old and has only been the Imam for one year after his grandfather Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah died.
“Yes. I never liked that picture so much. Daddy looks so nice and fair, I look dark.”
“Oh, you look beautiful Mummy. So happy and glowing.”
“Really, Shela,” she smiled at the memory.
I had beautiful tea length silk dresses. I got married in a white dress. But then for the reception I changed into a sari.
“And later you gave the wedding dress to a poor Ismaili girl who was getting married.”
“Yes, Shela. There is no point in keeping things you don’t use. She was so happy to get it and I was never going to wear it again. Ma gave me that flower pattern gold and diamond jewelry set I have. She had it specially made in Zanzibar for me. I wore that with a white and gold sari, at the reception” she continued.
“My wedding reception was in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel where Sayeed was the accountant. We invited two hundred people. We had laddoos, gaathia, biriani and puddings. All the relatives came from Nairobi and Mombasa and the smaller towns by train. Gulshan Aunty came from Mwanza with her baby boy Mehdi. We had such a lovely, lovely wedding.
Then we went to Mombasa on the coast for three days. Nanabapa had a house there and he gave us the best room in the house. After three days we went on a cruise to Beira in Rhodesia. The cruise was for two weeks. Daddy asked me if his brother Amir and his cousin Taju could come with us, on the cruise and I said okay. But they were in second class and we were in first class, so we hardly saw them.
The cruise was so wonderful. We went all the way to Rhodesia and then back. They had such good food on the boat. At night they had dancing, shows and other entertainment. We went on excursions to see all the towns. There were three other Ismaili couples on the boat, we became friends with. I had so much fun on the cruise.”
“And what about Daddy?” I asked.
“Pilu was so nice. I told him ‘I want to teach after marriage. I want to work.’ He said ‘that’s fine. You can do anything you want. I will support you’. After three days we were fast friends.’’
Mummy was gazing dreamily into the distance. After a couple of minutes she turned to me and said, “I was very lucky, I got such a good husband. He really loved me. I remember him so much, every day I miss him. Anyway, let’s go home now.”
“Mummy, one day I want to write all this in a book.”
“A book?” Who will want to read a book about me? I am just an ordinary person Shela.”
“Everybody will read it. Anyway it won’t be only about you. It will also be about our family history and about Kenya and about me.”
“Okay write it then. You were always good in English. Now let’s go home. I am tired of sitting.”
“But tell me about Nairobi.”
“Tomorrow, okay beta. Tomorrow. We can talk every day. I am not going anywhere beta. I am always here, Shela.”
* Not his real name