Published June 2, 2018

My Dadabapa, Esmail Shariff was a polished, sophisticated man. In 1931 he and six of his male friends who used to play cards together went to Europe on a six month grand tour. Ma was left at home with the children. In those days it was rare for an Indian to go to Europe for business.
He left the Nairobi railway station for a ship from Mombasa. People came to give him tins of biscuits as a gift, the traditional gift on long journeys. He had so many tins that the Shariff family car was packed full of biscuit tins. He came back having seen aew people in Europe. He introduced hardware lines that had never before been sold in the colony. He poses in a black and white photograph taken when he came back from the trip. He is a handsome, man with fair skin and a high hairline. I see my father’s features in his. He is beautifully dressed in a three piece suit, highly polished shoes and a white shirt and tie. He looks happy and pleased with himself.


L to R are Gulshan, Sakina (saku) , Esmail, Kulsum (Ma) Sultan and Kabirudin.

Esmail and Kulsum had a big house and the best of everything. She had mahogany furniture, green sofas and matching silk pale green curtains in the sitting room. She served the food on expensive Blue Willow china from England They had a good life. Having four sons, Ma was finally getting some control against her saas,   Ruddi Ma.

An Ismaili Council meeting, at the Town Jamaat Khanna in Nairobi. Kulsum  is third right from the bottom and Esmail is second from left.

Esmail on the left.

Then in 1942, in the middle of World War II, everything fell apart. Esmail died suddenly. Dad found out first and he had to break the news to his mother.
“Bapa has died,” he told her.
“Don’t say such a thing about your Bapa,” Ma said and she slapped Dad across the face.
“But it’s true Ma. He died Ma, he died” Dad replied with tears falling down his face.
Ma was left adrift, a thirty-seven year old widow with eight children to bring up. Pilu was only ten years old and Amir was a six month old baby. To this day, we don’t know exactly what Esmail died from. My father told Tazmin, he had something wrong with his chest but it wasn’t T.B. Mum told me he had something wrong with his kidneys. He was a very successful man and that led to speculation that he may have been poisoned by a jealous rival but there is no proof of this, only gossip in the family. No autopsy was done.
The new head of the family, my Grand Uncle Madatali took care of the family and gave Ma a monthly housekeeping allowance. But it was hard for her to make ends meet as Ma was very generous and wanted to cook for and feed everyone. There was never ever enough money. Madat Kaka would phone her and complain she used up too much cooking oil as she always ran out of it before the month was up.
It was even harder for her to bring up and discipline five sons. Sultan was rebellious, not listening to Ma so in frustration she sent him to boarding school in Mombasa. As soon as they finished school, the sons joined the business. They vowed that they would send all their children to University. They did. From twenty two grandchildren, eighteen grandchildren went on to earn College degrees.
Dad told me, “I really wanted to study and become a teacher, but we didn’t have enough money. I had to join the shop after Form Four, as soon as I finished high school.” Pilu ran the wholesale warehouse, the Godown on Grogan road. It was built in 1947 and he worked there his entire life.
As her sons got older, Ma arranged three of her sons’ marriages with varying degrees of success. She sent proposals to the daughters of her friends figuring that since the mothers were nice their daughters would be well brought up and good wives. But as she learned, daughters are sometimes very different from their mothers and Ma’s theory didn’t always work.
She found Shilo, the niece of her good friend Masi-Ma for Kabiru. She had been brought up in Zanzibar so the food she cooked and her habits were different from ours. Her family was not well off and Ma thought girls from poor families would be thrifty and make good wives. They moved out and got their own house in Highridge.
The second son, Sultan saw Munira in Mombasa and insisted on marrying her, though Ma didn’t know much about the family or the girl. Ma tried to dissuade Sultan but he wouldn’t listen. Munira was beautiful and Sultan was in love. Before Munira moved in, Sultan made the family buy new linens and bought new things for the couple’s bedroom. “She is from a very high class family,” he said. “Everything has to be perfect from her, she is a Virjee you know.” But after a few months, they moved out as well.
After that it was Chottu’s turn. Ma really liked Gulshan, Mum’s sister for him but Gulshan had already found someone else. So Ma went to the jamaat khana in Kampala and spotted Shirin who was tall and wore her hair in two long plaits. She was from a well known family in Masaka and her mother was also Ma’s good friend. Ma was taken with Shirin, who was only sixteen and sent a magho for her.
But she didn’t just send proposals blindly. She would visit the girls’ homes, on some pretext. This wasn’t difficult as she was friends with their mothers. She would spend the whole day there, observing how well the house was run and see the girl herself. She would also chat with the neighbours and if there was any bad gossip about the family she’d know about it. The F.B.I. could have taken lessons from her.
She arranged the marriage of my own mother Gulzar. My parents lived with Ma for twelve years after the other members of the family moved out.

Ma in 1965 with a baby Tazmin, Rasul and Shelina.

Ma’s own daughter Gulshan fell head over heels in love with Haider. She met Haider at Saku’s wedding as he was a distant relative of theirs. Pretending she was going to driving lessons, she would get out of the car on the corner and sneak off to meet Haider. She never did learn how to drive! This went on for a couple of years until she was found out. Haider was tall, serious and dark skinned; a total contrast to bubbly, plump Gulshan.
“Gulshan, you can’t marry him. He has no money, what will you live on?” Ma told her lovelorn daughter. She did not want her daughter to suffer the trails and tribulations of being married to a poor man.
“Please Ma. I have known him for so long now. You can help him get a good job,” Gulshan said.
“No. I can’t agree to this. Forget about Haider,” Ma said.
Gulshan cried, sulked and even pretended to take an overdose of sleeping pills. So Ma finally gave in and got the young couple married in 1955. Then she sent them to live in Kigali, Rwanda. Her brothers the Rajans were there and there were more opportunities for a hard working young man there than in Kenya. Many years later, Haider became one of the richest men in Africa. But Ma was long gone by then.