GULSHAN BAIPublished November 2, 2018
Gulshan Bai in her twenties with her first child.
I was watching a rerun of “I love Lucy,” on our tiny black and white TV when I heard footsteps outside and a loud knock on the door.
“Shela, Shela, open the door. It’s Gulshan Bai! Open!” My aunt at eleven O’ clock on a Saturday night? “Jaffer Uncle and I had gone to a dinner in the South and I thought we are not far from here, so we thought, let us say hello to you both,” my aunt chattered away. “ I brought you some fruit,” she said moving to the kitchen and putting a large bag on the counter.
“This is not a good area! Why are you living here? I said I would help you find an apartment but you and Rasul found it so fast without me.”
“Well, it’s near school, I can just walk to class.”
“You have a car. You know this area is not safe at all. Only black people live in this area.”
“Well our complex has all Vietnamese people,” I answered though it was true that the area was mostly black.
I didn’t tell her the truth. Rasul’s girlfriend lived in the same complex and since the apartment was cheap and near school, he had signed a lease for a two bedroom place. There was a small pool but it was green and slimy, I never saw anyone swim in it. Old Vietnamese women dressed in black gowns sat on low stools sifting rice in the outdoor hallways. We would smile wordlessly at each other.
Having grown up in Kenya, I knew nothing about American cities and happily walked around Houston’s Fourth Quarter on Sundays admiring the small houses with flower filled gardens and old cars in the drives. I was surprised when my brother’s friend Manny told me this was a poor area. They had cars and houses, small houses but still real houses with running water and electricity. The mostly African-American people smiled and nodded at me on the quiet streets. This wasn’t a poor area like Mathare Valley in Nairobi, a slum without running water or electricity where people lived crammed into tiny shacks.
“Where is Rasul?” “He just leaves you alone at home and goes out?” my aunt said sitting on the only two chairs and drinking water, having refused my offer of tea.
“He has gone to a football game.”
“He should have taken you!” Gulshan Bai said.
“I don’t like football. He takes me to movies.” This wasn’t quite true as I had never gone to a football game. Who knows? I might have liked it. I showed Auntie around the small apartment, thankful that it was clean and tidy. The tour took two minutes as we had a twin bed in each room but no other furniture. After more water and some sliced fruit while we talked about my mother and the news from Kenya, my aunt got up impatiently.
“He should be here by now, it’s almost midnight. The game must have finished long ago, Where is he?” I knew exactly where he was but kept quiet. “You don’t even have a phone here, Shela,”
After a few minutes of pacing, my aunt and uncle left. “So come over next Sunday for lunch. And tell Rasul to phone me tomorrow morning. I am going to scold him for staying out so late.”
I was asleep by the time Rasul came home, though I heard him in the bathroom the next morning. He had never told me to keep quiet about Nancy, his girlfriend. He didn’t have to. My aunt would have been scandalized that he was dating a non-Muslim and a white woman at that. She would have phoned my parents and demanded they put a stop to it. They were so far away there was no point in getting them worried. I knew if I was the one rolling home at six in the morning, my brother would have been furious and stopped me leaving the house, but I had grown up with a double standard and accepted it as the way things were. Most weekends he took Nancy and I out for dinner at Wendy’s and then to see a foreign film at the Greenway Theater. I didn’t realize how unusual it was to take your sister along on a date. Nancy was very sweet and didn’t seem to mind my coming along. I invited her for dinner when I cooked a curry she might like. She was home loving and sewed her own clothes. She was also brilliant at Mathematics. I was very fond of her though I half-heartedly told Rasul he should date an Ismaili girl. I even came up with some possibilities from the Ismaili girls in Houston. He ignored me of course but at least I had done my duty.
Gulshan Bai was a wonderful cook and we loved going over to their motel near Houston’s Intercontinental Airport for Sunday lunch. She cooked in the motel kitchen, undaunted by the professional size ovens,
“Shela, stir the potato curry for me,” she asked as she took out big trays of chicken tikka from the oven. “Taste it, does it need more chili? Dhania?”
“No, it’s perfect Aunty. “ I said eating a spoon of the potatoes cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. Her daughter Zenobia made the salad and we sat down in the motel dining room for lunch with Jaffer Uncle. After two helping of the chicken, potato curry, naan and salad we finished up with slices of watermelon. My aunt packed up food for us to take home as usual.
Gulshan Bai and Jaffer Bhai were living in the Ramada Inn they owned and managed. Rasul and I were always welcome there and we stayed there when school was out and for part of the summers. Like my mother Gulshan Bai loved to swim and we swam in the motel pool in the evenings.
But Gulshan Bai’s real passion was for jamaat khanna which her life revolved around. She went every evening to the small mosque where she was the mukhiani, the person in charge. In the mornings she got up at three a.m. and drove twenty minutes to sit and meditate in the cool darkness. In that sense she was different from my mother who attended prayers once a week on Fridays and sometimes skipped those as well if she was tired from teaching. My mother was not as bothered about following all the rules about being a good Ismaili as her two sisters, she was more flexible.
Gulshan was my mother’s older sister who was born in 1934 in Kampala. She had many maghas but fell in love with Jaffer when they served on the Education Committee. My mother was a go between passing notes between them. Jaffer was handsome, charming and hardworking so it was easy to see why Gulshan would have fallen for him but her father was unimpressed, as his family were not well off. However my uncle Sayeed intervened and the young couple were married.
Gulshan and Jaffer moved to Mwanza, but she came back to have her baby in Kampala. Her father was thrilled at the birth of his first grandchild, a boy no less and visited the hospital with a big box of chocolates. Sayeed then persuades Gulshan to go to London to study Montessori Early Childhood Education and she went for a year leaving Mehdi with her mother. The couple then moved to Dar es Salaam and eventually Arusha. Two more children, Mahmood and Zenobia followed.
Gulshan had a lovely house on a hill in Arusha and her own Nursery School. However, after President Nyerere nationalized private property in Tanzania, Gulshan and Jaffer moved to Vancouver and later Houston. My aunt Gulistan also moved there and got into the Motel business as well. So when I moved to study in Houston, I had a large family there already.
From 1984 -1985 my siblings and I shared an apartment near Rice University, We were busy with classes so in spite of detailed rotas and lists of who would do what chore, cleaning was neglected. One Saturday in October 1984, the phone rang.
“Shela I am coming to the South so I will drop by your house in the afternoon okay? Shiraz Uncle is here and he wants to meet you. At about five? Do you need anything?”
“Uh, no nothing,” I stammered. “We’ll see you then,” I said hanging up quickly. There was no time to waste.
“Rasul, Tazmin, get moving Gulshan Bai is coming with Shiraz Uncle.”
“When? How long do we have?”
“Two hours. That’s it! I will clean the kitchen and you do the bathroom Tazmin. We can borrow the vacuum cleaner and we can vacuum after that. Rasul take out the garbage,” I told my brother who was sitting on the couch reading the New York Times, “There is no time to read .Get going!”
”We have to give them something to eat with tea,” my sister called out from the bathroom where she was already scrubbing the bathtub with AJAX.
“Oh, no what?” I said looking through the fridge. “We only have kheema and it’s not cooked.”
“We can make kebabs,” my sister yelled from the bathroom.
“There’s no time for that!”
“We can do it. As long as they are in the oven by the time they come, that’s good enough.”
I started tidying the living room picking up the books that were all over the place.
“Rasul, take all these and put them in your room,” I said handing him a heavy pile.
“You put them, I am going to get the vacuum cleaner,” he said as he headed out.
“No, no first take out the garbage,” I yelled at his back.
We worked frantically for the next hour and then Tazmin and I headed to the kitchen to make the kebab mixture. She chopped onions and green chilies while I added spices and an egg to the ground beef. It took almost forty minutes to shape the kebabs into little balls and slide the trays into the oven. Rasul had finished vacuuming.
When my aunt and uncle came in a few minutes after five, Tazmin and I were sitting the couch reading heavy textbooks looking as if we had been studying all afternoon. The place was filled with the tantalizing smell of meat and spices while the kebabs baked.
“This house is so clean,” my aunt marveled walking around. “I will have to tell your mother, you are coping really well,” she said.
Shiraz Uncle interrogated us about our grades but we were soon sitting down and eating kebabs and drinking chai which distracted him for a little while.
The first time I cooked chicken tikka, I first called Gulshan Bai to get the recipe, “And make sure the oven is very hot when you put it in or it will be soggy,” she warned. It never occurred to us to buy a cookbook, we just called Gulshan Bai when we wanted to learn how to make an Indian dish.
My mother worried about her sisters’ opinion more than anyone’s. If I wore something she liked she would say, “Bring it to Vancouver, it’s so slimming. Wear it in front of Gulshan-Gulistan.” Gulshan-Gulistan were said as if they were one word. If we did something rebellious, she would worry, “Gulshan-Gulistan kuro chona, what will they say.”
And when I married a non-Ismail in 1991 she quoted Gulistan as saying, “It was just Shela’s kismet to marry a Punjabi, She broke up with one and found another one! So you may as well accept it.” Her sisters’ approval of my marriage meant a lot to her.
After marriage there were no boyfriends to cover up about or any behavior she might disapprove of, so we had a different relationship and talked as equals. My mother, Gulshan and Gulistan were closer than any sisters I have ever known. I loved being with the threesome.
I once asked them what do if a woman, a family friend kept flirting with your husband.
“You put a stop to it immediately, tell the woman to get lost,” Gulistan said.
“But that’s so rude. I mean Asad just ignores her…”
“Men are weak, once he will ignore her. What about the second time when you aren’t around? Hmm… After all she is very attractive,” Gulistan said forcefully while Gulshan Bai nodded. I felt as if I had three mothers not just one.
“You must be independent.” Gulistan would advise me. “Always earn your own money and have your own bank account. That way you can spend what you want without having to ask anyone,” she said as my mother nodded in agreement.
So the years went by and then catastrophe struck. My mother was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 2006. Gulistan and Mansur furnished and equipped the entire apartment in two weeks while Mum was en route to Vancouver. She only consented to come for six months. She never went back to Kenya…
In 2007 Jaffer Uncle passed away. A few months later Gulshan Bai got an apartment in the building next to my mother’s going back and forth between Vancouver and Dallas. She now had a caregiver to do the driving and cooking. When I visited my mother, I usually stayed with Gulshan Bai. Just like my mother, she would say, “Sleep early Shela, don’t stay up reading half the night,” when she went to bed.
All dressed up for Kushiali in July 2011.
Initially Mum’s cancer went into remission but in 2101 it came back with a vengeance. Things got harder and harder but we snatched happiness and good times when we could. One April it was sunny Sunday. I somehow got the idea that we should go for ice cream and to Ambleside Park. Mum agreed and Lainie, her caregiver started getting her ready. She was in a walker by then. Gulshan Bai and her caregiver Francis agreed to join us so they came over.
We had a chai break and had to somehow get them all in the car and make sure one of them didn’t change her mind in the meantime. Of course Francis’s little dog Chiku came too. There was ice cream and sitting on a park bench for a while. Mum and I huddled together with a blanket on the bench and she even walked a bit. The others had driven off from ice cream and brought us cones. Gulshan Bai was feeding Chiku from her own cup and I scolded her that she shouldn’t share with a dog but she just laughed. We all talked about it for days, the time we all went to the park for ice cream.
After Gulistan died in 2009 and my mother in 2012 only Gulshan Bai was left. I no longer visited Vancouver much but she now had her own apartment on New York’s Upper East Side where she spent months at a time. Every evening she came in a car to Queens Jamaat Khanna where she had old friends from her Tanzania days. She was there early and among the last to leave. She had a soft spot for the toddlers whose mothers brought them to say “Hello”.
I suggested we go to Jackson Heights for lunch once in the summer of 2015. She came home first and came up in her walker. I proudly showed her around my apartment and she admired everything. “Very nice Shela, it’s so nice, “she said inspecting the bathrooms and kitchen.
“Let’s just stay here Shela, I like your house,” she said as we ate gaathia and drank chai.
“No you will enjoy “Jackson Diner, We can’t just have gaathia, let’s go for lunch,” I urged her. So we went to the restaurant but she didn’t eat much from the sumptuous buffet just having tea and some naan. Afterwards we went to the “Indian Saree Palace.” While I was looking at silk sarees, Gulshan Bai had made her way to the jewelry counter. She was taken with a “ruby” and gold set that cost two hundred dollars.
“The stones are real Burmese rubies but the gold is plated,” the sales woman assured me.
I doubted anything was real. Real rubies would cost thousands. The stones must be red glass.
“It’s so pretty Shela, I am going to buy it,” she said as Francis took out her credit card.
“Gulshan Bai this is fake. You have so much jewelry sitting in the bank! Let’s go, we didn’t come to buy dhagina,” I said steering them out of the shop and into the car. Now I wish I had let her buy the jewelry. Fake or not it would have made her happy.
In the spring of 2016 we were all looking forward to a family wedding in London, “I am going for two weeks to London,” my aunt announced. “Shiraz phoned me and arranged everything.”
“Your auntie bought five new dresses for the wedding,” Francis chimed in.
“Dresses?” I asked puzzled
“Your Indian dresses,” Francis explained.
“Oh you mean salwaar khameezes,” I said.
“Yes, I want a new outfit for every function and I got one extra one. We’ll have so much fun at the wedding, Shela, I haven’t been to London for a long time,” Gulshan said.
“Are you going to Kew Gardens?”
“Maybe, but I will definitely go to Marks and Spencer.”
A few days later Gulshan Bai went back to Dallas. She passed away peacefully in her own bed on a Saturday night. She was eighty two years old. The next family get together was not a wedding but her funeral in Vancouver. All fifteen of her nieces and nephews as well as her children, grandchildren and three brothers attended the rites.
She was buried in the same kabrastaan as Gulzar and Gulistan. The last of the three sisters was gone.