GULZAR’S STORY: THE NAIROBI YEARSPublished May 13, 2018
The next day, I had to bide my time. We came back from swimming and had lunch. Then Mum sat down on her recliner while we drank tea. Mum continued her story about her early life in Kenya.
“After the wedding, I moved into Ma’s house. None of the Shariff ladies had ever had a job. But I wanted to work. I had applied to teach at Aga Khan High School and they gave me the job of the Domestic Science teacher. So I went to see Madat Kaka. He was the head of the Education Committee. They were pushing Ismaili girls to go into the teaching and nursing fields. So he couldn’t really say no. But he was very happy that I had got a job in our own Aga Khan School and he said okay. I talked to Ma and she said, ‘I don’t need your help with the house. Just give me one hundred shillings from your salary every month.’ So I did. I was happy to. I used to take the bus to Agakhan High school very morning. I came back in the evenings. Firoz, Farida, Naushad, Nasru, all the boys and girls of our family were studying there. A special bus used to pick us up.”
She taught a whole generation of women how to make the perfect cakes, puddings, stews, roasts, pastry, etc. All the basics of English cooking. Indian cooking was not on the syllabus. Women of a certain age still come up to me and Tazmin saying, “Your mother taught me how to cook everything and to make such lovely cakes.
“Do you remember how beautiful that school was, Shela?” Mum asked.
I did. It is still on Waiyaki Way, a little bit far from the main town and still educating hundreds of students. The school was beautifully built with big playing fields and a Central courtyard. Mum used to look longingly at the Olympic size pool but she didn’t know how to swim. So at the age of twenty four, she took lessons.
“One of the Ismaili teachers, Zul Khanbhai was a very good swimmer. At lunch time he used to give me and a couple of other teachers swimming lessons. I practiced a lot.” The swimming lessons changed Gulzar’s life for ever. She took to swimming like a fish that had been living in a small bowl that was finally released into the ocean. Swimming was a lifelong passion she never abandoned. She continued,
“Daddy encouraged me to apply again for my Scholarship to England.”
“He didn’t mind you leaving for two whole years,” I asked.
No. He said it was a very good chance. He would have come to England to visit me. But they wrote back and said the scholarship was only for single women.”
“That was so unfair!”.
She laughed and said, “That’s how it was in those days. But by then I was pregnant with Rasul. I was so excited to be having a baby I didn’t care about it so much. I worked for eight and half months. I was teaching until Friday. I hadn’t even gone for maternity leave. Rasul came on the weekend. Daddy phoned the headmaster to say that I had had a baby boy. He said ‘but she hasn’t even gone for her maternity leave yet!’ I think climbing all those stairs at the high school made the baby come early.
Shilo Bhabi, Shirin Kakee, Munira Aunty and I were all in the hospital together. We all had boys! Four boys in one family. I had Rasul on March Eighth. I was so happy. Madat Kaka gave Rasul his name. He got so much money in gifts; we opened an account for him at the Diamond Trust Bank. Then I was home with Rasul. After seven months, I was pregnant again with you Shela.
You were born on a Sunday morning. Everyone came straight to the hospital from jamaatkhanna. That is why you always like having fun, because you were born on a Sunday. You came out so quickly. I couldn’t even cry or shout because Ma, my mother and Shirin Kakee were all sitting outside the delivery room. Daddy came afterwards.
Ma held you and cleaned you. She put honey on your mouth so your first taste would be sweetness while she said some prayers. She did that with all the babies. You were so good when you were a baby. We called you Mira Bai.”
“Who was Mira Bai,” I asked.
“Mira Bai was an Indian saint. You would smile and coo all the time. You never cried.”
“Ma helped me and I hired Anna but there was still so much work looking after you both. I was so worried about an infection that after Rasul was born, for six months I wouldn’t take him anywhere. The whole family was going on a picnic to Fourteen Falls near Thika one Sunday but I refused to go. Then Ma told me, ‘Gulzar, I have had eight children. Nothing will happen to the baby. Wrap him up properly and come with us.’ So I went and everything was okay. After that I went out more.
But I still sterilized the baby bottles and washed everything in hot water and Dettol. When you came, I was more relaxed. But then Rasul had measles and I looked after him. I wouldn’t let you come into the room, I was afraid you would get sick. You would cry and cry for me in the other room but I was afraid to pick you up. Ma told me to pick you up but I was afraid of making you sick. Then Ma phoned Dr. Haq. He came and told me if I washed my hands properly, I could go in the other room and pick you up. You really worry so much when you have small babies. It’s not easy Shela.
I was good friends with Gulshan Kurji, Khati Maasi’s daughter in law. She was married at seventeen. She had three children, two boys and a girl. Her last daughter Shamira was born just two months before Rasul. Everyday, we would feed the children together. Shamira was so attached to Rasul, if Rasul wasn’t there, Shamira would cry and cry and refuse to eat her soup at lunch time. They always played together.
On Fridays, everyone else would go to the big mosque in the town. Gulshan and I would put you kids in prams and walk to the Pangani Jamaatkhanna. We walked for about fifteen, twenty minutes to reach the mosque. There were a lot of children there and it was more relaxed. Nobody minded if the babies cried or crawled around. We didn’t have to dress up too much.
Rasul went off to Aga Khan NurserySchool when he was four. You would go to the fariyo gate and cry. You wanted to go with him to school,” she added.
“If I had known how many years I would be in school, I wouldn’t have cried to go. I would have cried to stay home,” I joked.
“You always wanted to go everywhere Rasul went. So finally we sent you as well. I had gone back to back to work, when I got pregnant with Tazmin. By then Gulistan had moved to Nairobi.”
Gulistan, mummy’s younger sister had met Dad’s younger brother Amir while she was studying Domestic Science in Bath, England. Amir moved back to Nairobi and joined the Shop.
“Ma didn’t want her to marry Amir. She didn’t want two girls from the same family. She worried that if Gulistan and I fought, then it would spoil the two brothers’ relationship and cause problems in the Shop. But we promised her that we would never fight. She was still thinking about it, when Amir Uncle said, ‘I am giving the wedding cards to be printed whether or not you agree.’ So of course, she had to say yes. And she really loved Gulistan once she joined the family.”
Gulistan and Amir had a big wedding in Kampala and then Gulistan moved to Nairobi. They lived in the Agakhan High Ridge flats, coming over every weekend to spend time with the family.
“After one year when my maternity leave for Tazmin was over, Gulistan told me I should go back to work if I wanted to. If I stayed home any longer, they would give my job to someone else. Ma said between the two of them, they could easily look after Tazmin. Gulistan was always so fond of Tazmin. So I went back to teaching. I saved all my money and bought a car.”
I remembered that car. It was a white Volks Wagon Beetle. Mum would pile us all into the car and take us swimming and on outings. She kept it for ten years and then sold it to Yasmin who painted it bright yellow.
“In 1968, Pilu and I went on a three month grand tour of Europe; we went to England, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Beirut and Egypt. We saw so many cities. We were young and we had so much energy. We saw everything.”
“We started in London. My brothers and Saku Aunty were there. They took us all over London. They took us to Brighton. Then we went to Paris. We loved Paris. We went up the Eiffel Tower and sat in the cafes.”
“How would you find a hotel?” I asked.
“We would take a train to the next town. At the train station, there would be a tourist office. They would phone the hotels for us and find us one. We never had any problems. You know what daddy was like. He wanted to see everything.”
“In Italy, we saw Rome and Venice. I really liked Rome. They had so many fountains. Then we met our agent, Mr. Henkel in Bremen. He and his wife were so nice. We stayed with them for three days. We went to Frankfurt and then Copenhagen. We went to Beirut which was so lovely. Our last stop was Egypt. Egypt was very hot but we saw all the pyramids. Pilu and I had so much fun in Cairo. Then we came home.”
I remembered getting postcards from all these exotic towns.
“I was worried about leaving three small children with Ma. I thought it would be too much for her. So I left you with Gulistan.
I remembered how that stay had turned out. Gulistan was tall and slim and wore new outfits in the latest fashion. I was totally overawed by her. She brought us such lovely presents, books and games that no one else had. Now, I was going to stay at her house. Mum was preparing me for the visit for weeks.
I had to learn to give myself a bath as there was no ayah there. Then I had to study how to eat with a fork and knife. They were a modern couple and didn’t eat with their fingers. Finally Mum told me I had to be very good and not cause any problems for Gulistan Aunty. The day after my parents left for Europe, Gulistan picked me up to take me to her flat. She was not strict at all and at first I enjoyed myself. Chottu Uncle picked me up in the mornings to take me to school, as his Yasmin and Zulobia daughters went to the same school. I was in Standard One in Westlands Primary.
I wandered around the enclosed compound of the Highridge Flats. There were about a hundred flats ranged around a central area with a garden. There was a footpath and a road circling the inner area. The flats were all occupied by Ismaili families.
I went nearby to play at my friend Jamila’s house. But then the novelty of the place wore off and I was bored. There was no one to play with. There were no dogs or trees to climb. Gulistan’s eight month old baby boy, Esmail was plump and fun to play with when he was awake. But he spent most of his time sleeping in his cot. How could anyone sleep so much? I missed Ma and all the hustle and bustle of my own house. But I was too scared of Gulistan to tell her that I wanted to go home. Finally I hatched a scheme.
“I need my bicycle Aunty. I need to go back home because I don’t have a bicycle here.”
“We are going to Ma’s house on the weekend. We can get your bicycle.” That is exactly what happened. My scheme was foiled. So I rode the bike around the sidewalks connecting the flats but I was still bored. We went to Ma’s house for lunch the following Saturday. This time I just hid behind the dressing table in Mum’s room when it was time to go home. I was perfectly hidden behind the tall mirror. I could hear Julie and Rasul calling out for me. Finally, Gulistan came and looked in the room. I don’t know how she knew I was there but she called out to me,
“Shela. Come out why are you hiding?” I wasn’t surprised that she had found me. I always knew she had some special magical powers. I came out shamefully, looking down at the floor. My dress and hair were dusty now.
“Is something wrong?”
Then Ma came into the room. I ran to her and tried hiding behind Ma’s ample skirts.
“Don’t you like staying with me Shela? I thought you were happy there?” She sounded sad. Maybe she actually liked me staying there, maybe I wasn’t a nuisance? For a minute I softened and thought of going back with her but then I thought of how much I would miss home.
I didn’t answer. Then I said bravely, “it’s very nice but there’s nobody to play with. And Rasul and Tazmin need me to look after them. They don’t listen to Ma if I am not here. They are very naughty children.”
Gulistan smiled faintly and said, “Well, if you want to stay here that’s okay. I won’t force you to come back. But you must be a good girl and listen to Ma and Julie Aunty. I will come here on the weekends and see all of you.”
So I came back home. I spent a lot of time at the Kurji household next door. Fatima was teaching me how to knit something for Mum. We ran out of time so Fatima did most of the knitting. Finally they were back. Mum and Dad brought us so many presents. A doll for Tazmin and me. Clothes and toys. All the relatives came home to meet them and hear about their adventures abroad. But Mum had a surprise ahead.
“When I came back from Europe, I went to school and the headmaster told me I was fired.”
“Because you took such a long, long holiday?” I asked.
“No. They were getting rid off the Domestic Science room to build another Science laboratory. At that time, they wanted to modernize the girls’ education. They said there was no need for them to learn cooking and sewing. They could learn that at home. The girls should learn Chemistry and Physics instead. This was the sixties and Science was the big thing.”
“Why didn’t they have both like in my high school?”
“They didn’t want to. They had already decided. There was nothing I could do. The brought back Domestic Science after twenty years but that was too late for me, “she added bitterly. “I finally found a job at St. Georges Primary school and then after one year I went to Nairobi Primary School. I taught seven year olds in Standard Two.”
Nairobi Primary had been built by the British as a boarding school for their own children. It was beautiful set on many acres of land. There were big playing fields and gardens. They had a fish pond surrounded by weeping willows. The school itself was built around a courtyard. At lunch time, we all had the traditional English cooking they served: Roast beef and potatoes, fish in white sauce, boiled vegetables, custards and chocolate puddings. Mum had to stay to teach the slower children how to read in the afternoons so I roamed all over the school and borrowed books from the library. I liked Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Billy Bunter books. . Then I would sit in the back of her classroom and amuse myself.
Mum continued, “But when I got used to it, I liked teaching children. When you were small I only taught in the mornings anyway. And you and Rasul were in the same school as me so it made life easier. I was at Nairobi Primary for three years and then I managed to get a job at Westlands Primary School, near our house. I let Rasul stay at Nairobi Primary as he only had one year of Primary school left. Westlands Primary was such a nice school. And it was so near the house. By then we had moved into the new house.”
Gulzar moved to teaching seven year olds with the same passion and verve she had for teaching teenagers. She was very strict with them. She could bring order to the classroom of forty seven year olds in a minute…I don’t know how she did it. If they were talking too much or misbehaving. She would just say, “Be quiet now. Enough” and clap her hands. They would magically fall silent. I used to help her out in the classroom but I couldn’t do that.
Mum complained that, “those forty children are less trouble than you three. They listen to me but you kids just do what you want!”
If the class had too much energy she made them run around the field for one or two laps until they were worn out and ready to study. They had a regular swimming teacher but she went swimming with them as well. She brought them sweets when she went abroad.
“Why can’t you just buy them sweets from Nairobi,“ Dad would tease her. “They won’t know the difference.”
“No Pilu. I said I would get them Canada sweets and that is what I will give them.”
In the afternoons she taught the slower ones how to read. “My ghandaas…” (My crazy ones) she called them affectionately. Somehow, with no special training she could reach those kids and teach them how to read. They would do anything for her. When the class had to move to standard three on the last class day in December, they always cried and cried. They were inconsolable about having to leave Mrs. Shariff.
We would all come home tired from school at four. Mum went straight to her room to lie down and read a Gujerati novel. We were supposed to go to our own rooms and read a book. Tazmin would often come to me and say “play with me.” So she and I would play some game. Eventually, everyone would revive. We would go to the kitchen to have a light supper. What they had eaten for lunch or chapattis with butter and jam.
Dad would come home after six. He liked putting his feet up and having tea and a snack. If he was late, Mum would phone the shop. She would tell Kabiru Uncle,
“Why is Pilu still there? Send him home.”
Eventually, everyone ended up in the garden. We played on the swings, ran around with the dogs and walked. Finally when it got too dark, we ended up inside again. After our baths, it was time for homework. We all liked sitting around the dining room to do our homework. On Mondays, Dad would bring home thick, heavy ledgers. He would check the Godown books, ticking things off and putting the receipts in a spike. Tazmin liked to help him.
Mum would complain, “All of you have a desk in your own room. Why does everyone have to do their homework here and make so much noise?” But we ignored her. It was much more fun being all together. At about eight, we would all eat a slice of papaya and some warm milk. Then we watched T.V. or read a book until bedtime. There was only one channel to choose from and it was Black and White for a long time. At eleven thirty Dad switched off the T.V. and went to bed. I was only allowed to stay up so late after I turned fifteen. Mum always went to sleep at ten p.m. That was our daily routine.
Mum was a teacher at Westlands Primary for decades. The headmaster kept asking her to transfer to Aga Khan Primary School for years and she always refused. Finally she agreed. But after a few years of teaching, she was forced to retire at fifty five due to a Government mandate. Many teachers went on to teach at private schools. But Mum stayed home and did voluntary work. We ran into her former pupils all over town and they always came over to say hello. The parents adored her as well. Mum got discounts at a dozen stores because she had taught the shop owners’ children. It might have been many years ago, but the grateful fathers always remembered her.
“Mummy do you remember when the police stopped you for buying milk illegally?”
“Oh, I had forgotten about that.” We both smiled at the memory. In 1972, Mum and Gulistan Aunty decided to go buy their own milk from a farm. At that time, dairy farmers had to sell their milk only to the K.C.C, the Kenya Cooperative Creameries. The K.C.C. bought it at a low fixed price and resold it in green and white striped tetra paks. The milk was thin and watery, so the two sisters would drive to an English owned farm about an hour’s drive away. They would get big, glass bottles of thick, creamy frothy milk. It tasted ambrosial. We children often went along for the drive. We liked walking around the farm and seeing the animals. After Gulistan aunty left for Canada, Mum still did the milk runs but not as often. One day she was coming back from the farm when the Police pulled her over. They found the glass jars full of milk. They told her she would have to appear in court. Dad was very worried and went with her for moral support.
In court, the judge heard the police’s story. Then he turned to Mum, who had worn her best navy blue dress and court shoes.
“Why are you buying so much milk? Are you reselling it?”
“No. No. I buy it for my children. They don’t like drinking the K.C.C. milk. And this milk is much better for making yogurt. Now everyone in the house drinks it. Even tea tastes much better with the farm milk.”
“And what do you do madam? Are you a housewife?”
“No, your Honor, I am a teacher. Someone else had to take my class today. They won’t learn anything because I am not there. They won’t listen to the other teacher. I teach Standard Two at Westlands Primary.”
“You are a teacher, a Mwalimu. That is an excellent job to have. You are helping our children,” the judge said. “Why are you wasting the court’s time and arresting teachers when there are so many thieves roaming around Kenya. Her whole class suffered because the teacher is in court” the judge told the prosecutor.
“The case is dismissed,” he said pounding his gavel.
“But Madam, from now on just stick to K.C.C. milk.”
“He was so impressed that you were a teacher mummy.”
“Yes, he was. I never made that much money but I got so much respect, so much maan being a teacher in Kenya. “
“Okay, Shela I am going to lie down in my room now,” Mum said.
“But Mummy, you have to tell me about Kampala and how the whole family was deported. I will make some more tea. We can have biscuits, your favourite naankhatai,” I pleaded.
“Tomorrow, beta tomorrow. I am so tired now. You lie down as well, Shela.”
“Shall I give you a massage?”
“Later, beta later. Now, I just want to lie down. You come and lie down with me but no more talking. Come beta let’s go to my room. Bring some water for me please.”