JULIE AUNTY

Published July 18, 2018

Madat Kaka’s house reminded me of Miss Havisham’s bedroom in Great Expectations. It was very clean, spotless even  but it was frozen in time. All the heavy dark furniture in the sitting room, the sofas, and the Turkish carpet had been chosen a long, long time ago and that was that. No one changed anything, even to get some bright cushions or move things around.
The house was dark and gloomy. There were no children to make noise and break things. No one bought flowers. There was a pishi but no one was having fun experimenting and burning things in the kitchen.
The house was next to Shirin Kakee’s house and connected by a gate in the hedges. Their house was always busy and we often went over to have chai and dhokla with Shirin Kakee. She had brought up four sons on her own after Hussein Kaka died in the sixties, but stayed energetic and went to jamaat khana every day. She was a renowned cook and taught Tazmin how to make rotla, millet bread that is baked on a griddle.

From left to right, Amir Jinnah, Haiderali Mama and Madat Kaka.

Madat Kaka was slight and about five feet six inches tall He wore heavy glasses and a hearing aid that he didn’t always bother to use. He had his own office in our Government Road Shop. His office was at the back and had glass windows so he could see what was going on. No on else had an office. Sultan and Kabiru sat at big desks in the shop itself. His office had  a safe at the back and a large, wooden desk with a glass top. Under the glass were children’s pictures. There was even one of me taken with his granddaughter Anisa and my sister Tazmin outside his house in the garden.
After Ma died in 1972 Julie Aunty  lived with Sultan Uncle in his house on Waiyaki Avenue. She enjoyed living there and gave everyone in the family cuttings from his fabulous rose garden.  Rubina would be home for the weekends from Kenya High and Tazmin and I often visited them. Ruby made scrumptious chocolate cakes we ate with tea.
But then Madat Kaka asked Julie to live with him in 1975. He needed someone to help manage the house after Jena Kakee died. She took over a large bedroom and tried shaking up the house. She had the gardener plant roses in the back yard. She invited us over for lunch. But the house’s inertia was too heavy to change much.
I think Madat Kaka enjoyed having her live there as she livened up the place. Later, his son Taju got a divorce from Zarin and moved back home. We would go over on Saturday or Sunday evenings to see Madat Kaka. We sat in the living room and had juice or tea. He didn’t have any good books or magazines to read, just  free leaflets on staying healthy.
We always showed Madat Kaka our school reports. He would be very happy with our good marks. Before we left, he would disappear into his bedroom and come back with two Cadbury chocolate bars for Tazmin and I. He did that even when I told him about my O level results as a sixteen year old. Then I got an extra big bar. I loved it as no one else ever gave me chocolate.
“Shela, this is the only good news I have had so far this year,” he said after reading my report. It had been a horrible year for the family with Firoz’s injuries and the Shop’s business problems. Firoz had been beaten by thugs and his head was badly injured. Another home robbery gone wrong with brutal results.
When we went abroad we always went to Madat Kaka’s house to ask permission as the air tickets were paid for by the Shop. Gulistan Aunty, who was married to my father’s brother Amir, thought this was ridiculous. But she missed the point of those visits. I never heard of him actually telling anyone they couldn’t take a trip. He always said yes. It was just a perfunctory sign of respect to ask him, as he was the head of the Alibhai Shariff family. Though once Chottu Uncle visited with Yasmin, Shaheen and Shirin Aunty. He asked Yasmin why she wanted to go with her parents to India. “I want to see the poverty there,” she allegedly said.
He told her she could stay in Kenya and see poverty. But they went anyway on an exciting trip to India and even got a photo taken with Rajesh Khanna.
Dad told me that he had been much more tyrannical and tight fisted about money when they were younger. I never saw that side of him. But he did keep a rein on spending when necessary. In 1977, Moaez was home alone when his parents went for Firoz’s marriage in Toronto. He refused to go to the wedding. Moaez had fun living alone in the house as a sixteen year old party animal. He drove so much all over town that the petrol bills which the Shop paid for were much higher than usual. Madat Kaka phoned him up and told him to stop gallivanting so much. He sat in his office going through receipts for the whole clan.
But his pishi had a generous budget and of course Julie had no bills to pay when she lived with Kaka. She didn’t get paid as much as the brothers at the Shop and her small salary had to pay for all her personal expenses.
Julie was plump with thick curly hair that she wore cut short. She was born in 1935, between Gulshan and Amir the baby of the family. She had broad, open features and lovely soft skin. She always put too much white powder on her face. One Saturday when I was a teenager, Tazmin and I took her into Mum’s dressing room. I sat her down at the long table with mirrors behind it. I made her scrub her face clean. Then, I dabbed Baby lotion and put just a little powder and blusher. I wanted to show her how pretty she was. I wanted to make her up almond shaped eyes as well but all she let me do was put a little kohl pencil under them, no mascara or eye shadow. She went to show her new look to Mum and Dad who they told her she looked wonderful. But she soon slid back to her old powder look after a few days. We were always doing makeovers with Mummy too and she did learn how to use a little eye make-up.
Julie used to wear chic, sheath dresses like all the other young women in the Sixties. But later as she got heavier, she started wearing dark trousers and loose flowing tops. On Fridays, for the mosque she liked to wear heavy, silk saris in jewel colors, green, purple, deep yellow, or blue. Mum always told her to wear the saris a bit longer so no ankles showed. But Julie liked moving around easily so they stayed short.
Julie was married for two years before I was born. But she couldn’t have children and her husband divorced her. That was cruel, even by the standards of those days. Other men would have adopted children. I never knew who her ex-husband was. He remarried and moved to Canada. Afterwards, Chottu said, “He was a blank cheque,” admitting that they hadn’t known enough about him. He had been Chottu’s friend.
Julie went to London to do a Montessori course and came back to teach at the Agakhan Nursery School. She was a natural at teaching the young children and her class adored her. Everyone knew how kind she was, so she got some marriage proposals but Ma always said no. She didn’t think marriage would work again for Julie. She thought the two of them could be company for each other for ever.
We lived with her for ten years at Ma’s house. Julie was a second mother to us. I would go to her when I fell down and scraped my knee.. She would drop everything to take care of the knee and then give me a hug. She put rollers is my doll’s hair and dressed her up. She was always there. Tazmin was even more attached to her. She was Ma and Julie’s baby.

The picture below shows Tazmin at one year old and Julie Aunty in 1966.

In the Seventies, Julie had gone to work in the Kimathi Street Shop under Chottu’s supervision. She was always squabbling with the other teachers at the nursery school so Chottu offered her a job. She had very sharp eyes and always caught out staff members who were stealing goods. His main complaint was that she would come to work so late, sometimes not until the afternoons. She would go to the town mosque at four in the morning to meditate and then go back home to sleep.

Town Jamaat Khanna (Khoja Mosque) in the Seventies.

Julie drove all over Nairobi, the gears would screech when she changed them as she never did learn how to change them smoothly. But the small white car gave her freedom. She went to all the funerals and the mosque everyday. For years, she was one of the volunteers who washed the dead at Gussal Hall before they were buried.
“How can you do that Julie Aunty? Isn’t it depressing?”
“I am used to it. It’s a big seva. Someone has to do it.”
She was a member of the Red Cross with her good friend Mrs. Dada who everyone called Dadi. She  went to the slums of Mathare Valley and Kibera with the ladies from the Red Cross to distribute blankets and food.
Mathare Valley is a shanty town on a hillside with no running water, electricity or garbage pickup. People came to Nairobi from the country side but even if they found jobs they couldn’t afford to live anywhere. Thousands of families lived in cardboard and corrugated iron shacks. They cooked on charcoal stoves and used lamps or candles for light at night. Fires were always breaking out and people would be burned to death. Then the news papers would run a big story with pictures. There would be earnest editorials about how the country had to do something to help the slum dwellers. The politicians would visit, take pictures and promise to help Mathare Valley. Nothing would ever happen. After a year, the whole cycle would start again. Even the police stayed away except on one of their raids to find a criminal.
“You should be careful when you go to Mathare Valley, Julie. You ladies don’t even take a guard. There are a lot of bad people there,” Dad warned her.
“Pilu, they know us. They are so happy to see us, they love us. They would never do anything to us,” she replied. But she did promise him never to go to the slums alone.
She liked visiting the family, bringing her coconut biscuits. She had a metal hand cranked machine, something like a meat grinder made to churn out the biscuits. The mixture used fresh grated coconut. The machine turned out long streams of dough with crinkles. She baked the biscuits until they were crisp and golden brown.. Everyone in the family  had a tin of coconut biscuits to have at teatime.
Her other specialty was fruit cake. For the December Kushiali, Julie Aunty mixed the dough according to my mother’s secret recipe. The dough was poured into a saucepan lined with brown paper and baked slowly. Mum’s recipe had chopped cherries, orange peel and plenty of nuts. It didn’t have too much fruit so you could still taste the cake. The top was decorated with flowers of blanched almonds with a cherry in the middle. The cake took hours to bake filling the whole house with a heavenly smell.
Mum urged her to learn a few dishes from the cook. Julie had spent years chopping onions and peeling potatoes for Ma, but never learned real Indian cooking. The days the cook was off, everyone ate out or ate leftovers. But Julie wasn’t interested, she didn’t want to learn every day cooking. She found it boring.
She visited us for lunch every Saturday. She would talk to Dad while he dozed in his easy chair with his feet up about the going ons in the family and the town. The brother and sister would talk for hours. She confided her problems in him and he would give her advice.
One Saturday after lunch, she decided to take me to see a European movie, she had heard was good.  We went to Nairobi Cinema but after we got there, discovered the film was “Adults Only.” Undeterred Julie bought tickets for the balcony. The usher refused to let us in, even though I was seventeen, especially as I was single. But Julie kept arguing with him, and exasperated he gave in. I was so embarrassed watching nude scenes with my aunt, even if they were artistic nude scenes and wished I had stayed at home!
Julie travelled and went on a long trip to India and later Egypt. She stayed in Bombay and bought silk saris for herself and salwaar khameezes for Tazmin and I. She commissioned  an expensive jewelry set from Bombay but it  got stolen from the house, just a couple of years later. One of the ayahs who had left was suspected but there was no way of getting it back.
Julie Aunty had a full, active life but she still got lonely and was prone to depression. One Sunday at Chottu Uncle’s house, when all the brothers and their families were there she started complaining about how lonely she got.
“Only Pilu and Chottu invite me to their house all the time. No one else cares about me.” She broke down and Tazmin put an arm around her. We were all embarrassed.
Rasul explained it to me one day, “Julie Aunty grew up in a time when we all lived together. We had a joint family. You were never lonely and the family decided everything for you. Now we have changed. Everyone lives in their own house and you have to decide things for yourself.”
“We shouldn’t have changed. The old way was much better. I loved Ma’s house.”
“Shela, those days are gone. It’s not just us, all the families changed. Now we have something called Nuclear families. All over the world, people want their own house and to make their own decisions.”
Another day we were all at Chottu Uncle’s house for Sunday lunch. Lunch was over and we were talking, talking, talking in the sitting room, sprawled all over the sofas. Then Julie brought up the subject of her magho her proposal. An older man, Sherali whose wife had died two years ago had sent a proposal through Dad. He was lonely and knew Julie Aunty from the mosque. Julie had been his wife’s friend before she died. He was reasonably well off and had his own flat in Westlands. Dad knew him well as he used to manage our shop in Westlands.
“You should say yes, Julie. He is a nice man and both of you will get company,” Dad said.
“I am not sure. I am not so young anymore…” Julie Aunty said. I told her she should get married as well. She would have her own home and be independent.
Then one of my aunts sked Dad how much money the man had. He said he was well off. Julie wouldn’t want for anything.
“Yes, yes but he is older than Julie. And when he dies he will leave all his money to his son not to her. So what is the point of getting married to him?” The aunt went on and on in this vein for a long time, pointing out all the financial disadvantages.
Julie got discouraged again. Someone said how marriage is always a gamble. Then the topic changed to politics.
The next time she came over, Dad told her again that she should accept the proposal. They would have some happy years together.
But Julie said, “I was thinking about it a little bit. But everyone was so negative, I got scared.” Dad tried persuading her but she was too worried to risk marriage again. The widower found someone else and got married a few months later. He outlived Julie Aunty by many years.
Life went on as usual. In 1987, I left Kenya to go back to New York. I had been working in Kenya for a year but I missed life in the West and my friends. It was a difficult –even heart breaking –decision But I booked my ticket to go back.
“I want to take everyone for dinner, for chicken tikka at Nargis,” Julie insisted. Nargis was a restaurant on Nairobi’s infamous River Road. In the eighties the area was not safe at night, so the restaurant hired a guard to look after people’s cars. We parked outside and entered the small storefront. We passed the owner who sat there watching everything with his sharp eyes. He was a Muslim Punjabi who named the restaurant “Nargis” after the famous Indian movie star who was married to Sunil Dutt.
We always went upstairs where the space was big and airy. There were Formica tables and chairs with mirrors along the wall. We ordered club sodas and debated what to eat. There was no point asking for menus as we knew the food by heart.
In the end, we ended up with our usual mushkaki, marinated skewers of beef and chicken tikka. Even in Pakistan, I never tasted better chicken tikka than at Nargis. First the chickens had been running around the day before and were fresh. They were small birds not big and plumped up with hormones. They were marinated overnight in a very spicy, secret sauce, then they were grilled outside over charcoal burners. The food came with naan, chips and salad. There was tamarind chutney on the side.
At the end of the dinner, she took out a small box.
“Close your eyes, Shela.”
I felt her put something around my neck and when I opened them I saw a gold chain with a gold pendant hanging from it. The pendant had Arabic lettering in a gold circle.
“The pendant says ‘Ali Allah’ Shela. I looked up at Julie Aunty. She had tears in her eyes. I did as well. I gave her a hug and smelt her powdery smell.
“Wear it all the time. It will keep you safe, even in New York, even in America.
”Thank you, Julie.” I wasn’t just thanking her for the pendant but all those years of love and caring, all the hugs and times sitting on her lap. I flew to New York the next day. I never saw her again. She died two years later in 1989, only 54.