Published January 22, 2019

Even in a family of amazing cooks, Gulzar Mami stood out. Mum had a lot of mamis but there was no question about who was her favourite one. They even shared the same name.
Gulzar Mami and Mohammedali Mama lived in a four bedroom house in Highridge. It was a quiet road with shady trees. Mama’s brother Hyderali Mama lived in an even bigger house across the street. When I was a child, Nanima, my great-grandmother, Fatma Bai lived with them. She was an old lady whose hair was dyed red with henna. She stayed in bed but was alert and alive, telling me long, complicated stories in Gujerati
Nanima died in 1968. I spent most of her funeral playing in the Gussal Hall parking lot with the other children. I was too young to understand what had happened, but I was taken to the funeral anyway.
Mama and Mami were a very elegant couple. Mama liked to wear blazers with loafers and grey flannel trousers when he wasn’t in a suit. Mami had her jet black hair coiffed at the hairdressers once a week in a bouffant bob style like Jackie Kennedy’s. She was a bit plump and petite with a beautiful, creamy white complexion. She dressed in expensive saris or dresses. Unlike a lot of Nairobi ladies Mami never over did it…she never went too far with shiny saris or too much makeup and jewelry. Her look was carefully calculated but understated.
Mama had a much respected position in the Community as President of the Ismaili Council. In 1972 when the Aga Khan visited Kenya, he came to Mama’s house for lunch. He told Mama he could invite his  family. “I thought you were only inviting your family,” the Aga Khan said surprised to see about a hundred people. They are all my family, Khudavind, “ was Mama’s reply. It was typical of Mama’s kindness that he would share the Aga Khan’s presence with the whole clan.

L to R,  Mohammedali Rajan, the Aga Khan, Begum Salima, Gulzar Shariff and Gulzar Mami.

L to R, Sherbanu Mami, Begum Salima, Gulzar Mami, Gulistan and my mother Gulzar in Kigali 1972.

They entertained a lot and were invited to the big functions of the Community. When she got older, Mami liked to play cards with her friends one night a week.
Mama was an astute business man. He and his brother Hyderali ran a small shop on Indian Bazaar that sold all kinds of beads and farming implements including pangas. They also provided support for the myriad Rajan businesses in Kigali, Rwanda. Like Dad, Mama always closed the shop to go home for lunch. Whenever we were in that part of town we dropped by the shop. Tazmin and I were allowed to choose a string of beads each to take home.
Dad told me Mama was the Mukhi, the head of the town jamaat khana when I was born. So they went there to have the bayaat ceremony when I was officially made an Ismaili as a week old baby. He held me and blessed my parents. Afterwards, Quality Street toffees were given out. I have tried and tried but even I can’t remember that day!
Gulzar Mami loved to entertain and her Sunday lunches were legendary. She would invite the whole extended family. My father’s three brothers and their wives and children, Mami’s siste and any visiting relative. We were often thirty or forty people.
On those Sundays she used to wake up at five in the morning to start cooking. She had two servants to help her but it was still a lot of work. She would have arranged the flowers, done all the shopping and planned the menu days ago. There was no need to clean the house, her house was always spotless.
She had a green thumb and oleander trees, apple trees, canna lilies and hibiscus flourished in the lush garden. Inside she grew dozens of African violet plants. There was always a vase of flowers. To arrange them better she had taken flower arranging and Ikebana courses. She was such a perfectionist. If she did something, it had to be done correctly down to the last tiny detail.
We would arrive at noon, so Mum could help with the last minute preparations and serving. By then there would be a charcoal grill set up outside the kitchen where one of the servants was grilling the shish kebabs. She tended to change staff so I didn’t always know the names of her cooks.
Gulzar Mami would be making salad. There would chicken pilaf to go with the shish kebabs and chicken tikka. Then she would heat a wok of oil to start frying samosas. There wasn’t much left to do, but she entrusted Tazmin and me with setting the tables. It had to be done exactly the right way.
There were never paper plates of course. She had beautiful English bone china and used it. One table was set up in the outer room, a sun room full of plants and casual chairs. The other table was set up in the formal living room. It was a round table with a revolving lazy Susan in the middle. She was very proud of that table. No one had a table like that in Kenya and even the Aga Khan had eaten off it. Depending on how many people there were, we would all sit around the sunroom table that seated about twelve to fourteen people while other people found chairs in the dining room.
The conversation was always lively. Chottu Uncle often had risqué jokes to tell…first he’d say, “I am not going to say this in front of the girls”….but then he’d say it anyway. One of my uncles brought a brown paper package and handed it to another uncle. We all knew what was in the package but everyone discreetly ignored it. It was a racy magazine.
The men and women sat together…though if the men started to discuss too much football or cricket, they were relegated to the dining room. That tended to happen during the World Cup Season. Everyone discussed politics with a passion. But we never referred to the President by his name. He was always, “bhuddo, the old man.” Before discussing politics we would make sure the servants had left. You could never be too careful.
A favourite pre-occupation was the bhuddo’s health. “If he goes what will happen to us. He keeps the country together. You know he likes Indians. If he goes it’s all finished.” Since President Jomo Kenyatta was in his eighties, even if a very fit eighty this was a real concern.
To get back to the lunch, after the samosas and main courses, there was a rest for a while. Then the puddings came out. Gulzar Mami made fruit salads with full cream mixed in. Or she liked to serve faludas, a creamy pink and white milky desert made with agar jelly, almonds and rose water. After pudding was tea and then varyaari, a digestive made with fennel seeds. It was four o’ clock by the time we left, carrying leftovers.
After lunch, everyone headed to bed for a nap. That was the only thing you could possibly do after one of Mami’s lunches. There was a lot of entertaining in our family. Mummy, Shirin Aunty, Gulzar Mami, Shilo Bhabi all had lunches and dinners. The occasions were Eid, someone’s birthday, a visiting relative or just the desire to get together.
When I was twelve, I broke my arm and ended up in Aga Khan Hospital children’s ward for the weekend. Even with all the toys and the garden outside, I was  bored. Then Mama and Mami arrived early on Sunday evening with a present wrapped up in shiny paper. It was exactly the right thing; a hardcover book about a girl who was kidnapped. Ma had died by then and my other grandmother, Tuma, was far away in Canada so Mami helped to fill in the gap.
Mum and Dad went on a long planned visit to India in 1978. We had a hard time coping while they were gone for a month. Gulzar Mami sent food over and came to check on us. I wasn’t feeling well one day and phoned her on a Thursday morning. She came over and took me to see our family doctor in Nagara. It was just a cold. Doctor Parekh didn’t have much to do so we sat there for a while discussing Mami’s ailments as well. Then she took me home for lunch and insisted I lie down in the afternoon. When they dropped me home that night, they brought lots of food.
I am making Gulzar Mami sound like a saint. She wasn’t. She could be quite sarcastic. I once bought a cheap bottle of rose perfume and doused it all over myself before we went to her house. “Doesn’t it smell wonderful? I asked her.”
“It smells like air freshener,” she replied.
Mami was known for her naankhatai and Tazmin asked her for the recipe for the soft, crumbly biscuits. She gave her the wrong recipe, maybe by mistake.
“If you didn’t want to give the recipe you could have said no. Tazmin wasted so much butter, sugar and semolina for horrible naankhatai. Nobody can even eat them…I fed them to the dogs.” Mum said angrily on the telephone. Mami was very apologetic and invited Tazmin over to make them with her.
They were there for every family occasion. My parents and Mama and Mami became even closer, once all of us had left home. They always spent Sunday afternoons and evenings together. The usual ritual was to go to Mama’s house, have some tea and then go for a long drive in the country side or go for tea somewhere, in Mama’s powerful blue Mercedes. They liked to drive to Limuru and buy plums, peaches, potatoes or carrots depending on the season from the roadside Kikuyu women. Another ritual was to go to an Englishcountry hotel for tea.
The story I like most about Mum and Gulzar Mami was how they attended the “United Nations Forum on Women” together in 1985. Thousands of women from all over the world converged on Nairobi for formal meetings and workshops. Hillary Clinton was a keynote speaker. Mum was an official Kenyan delegate as she was on the Kenya Girl Guides National Committee. She discovered that there were informal sessions and workshops every day that were open to everyone. So she told all her friends to come. Gulzar Mami went almost every day with Mum.
“It was so much fun. We learned so much and met women from all over the world,” Mum and Mami told me later. Like most Indian women of that time in Kenya, Mami hadn’t had much formal education after high school. But she had a hunger to learn.
I moved back to Kenya for a year in 1986. I had a good job and was living at home. One Sunday I suggested we all go for a picnic. Chotu Uncle was in England being treated for cancer. A lot of my cousins had moved away. We were a much smaller family. Dad liked the picnic idea as well and asked Mama and Mami to come along.
We headed to the Nairobi Arboretum. This was less safe than in the seventies so we took our dog Monty along. That way we would all be safe. We drove to Mama’s house and then set off in our car for once as Monty was used to it. The Arboretum was not too far from the State House, a lush oasis with a river and meandering paths among the trees.
We walked and then went to get lunch out of the car. Lunch was not bread and cheese or sandwiches. My family always had proper Indian food even on picnics. Lunch was in a sufaria –a big metal saucepan full of aakni: basmati rice cooked with chicken, onions, whole spices and potatoes. It was still warm. Gulzar Mami had woken up at six in the morning to make it.
We sat on a bench under a tree and tucked in. Monty was tied up to the tree trunk. We gave him some aakni as well. Later on he polished off all the bones, crunching them happily. Mami had been nervous about taking Monty along but he was as good as gold, he never barked once or strained at his leash. Anyway, taking him along was the only way we could go. Afterwards we had fruit and tea from a thermos.
We sat there for a long time, chit chatting and enjoying the peace. Mami went so far as to pat Monty and call him a good dog. He was in doggie heaven…a park, walks, attention and chicken. What more could a dog want?
That Sunday was so much fun. I don’t know why we never did it again….I tried to get an aakni recipe from Mami that day. She didn’t really have one. I asked her and she’d say a handful of this and a pinch of that…she was an intuitive cook. Years later, I finally learned how to make aakni from a cookbook. Every time I make it, I remember Mami’s aakni and try to recreate the taste. It’s hopeless. Mine isn’t bad but she had a magic touch in the kitchen.
Now I am thinking back to the last time I saw Gulzar Mami. In 1991 I finally got married. I had met my husband, Asad in New York. His parents lived in Karachi and his sister was getting married in December so after a long phone call between mummy and Abbu, Asad’s father, it was decided that Asad and I would get married at the same time. Afterwards we planned to make our home in Karachi.
In November I went home to spend time with my parents. Mum and Dad were coming with me for the wedding. My parents were happy that I had found someone I loved but it was complicated as he was a Sunni Muslim and I was Ismaili. The two families had never met each other and so Mum and Dad had to trust that I had made the right decision.
We had a lot of things to do in the few weeks I was in Nairobi. I was getting sari blouses stitched and clothes made. I had a list of in-laws to buy gifts for. We had to get visas at the Pakistani Embassy. We even saw a video of a Sunni wedding that Mum’s Pakistani-Kenyan friend lent us so we would know what to expect. The rituals were very different from our Ismaili rituals.
But all our relatives were asking when they could come over to bless me before I left and maybe even give a gift. Mum planned to serve sherbet and cakes. Her ankle was in a cast again and she wasn’t up to a full scale dinner.
“A daughter from our house is getting married and you want to have just sherbet…we won’t even be at the wedding in Pakistan. No, no, no.I’ll tell my cook to make a sufaria of chicken caliyo. You just have to make some rice,” Habiba Aunty insisted.
We were planning to have about twenty but the guest list just snowballed. The immediate Shariff family was there of course. Daddy invited Shirin Kakee and her family. I invited a couple of friends and they each brought someone. Rubina brought her friend. Then Dad invited Roshan Bai who worked in our Westlands shop. Jimmy Sayani was all alone as his wife was in Canada so of course he had to come. We ended up with almost fifty people and there were still people we had to leave out! We arranged the whole thing in three days.
I walked to Westlands shopping center to buy Bird of Paradise flowers on the day of the party. Jane and Lucy worked hard all day with all the preparations. Mum bustled around supervising. Someone brought samosas and Gulzar Mami brought fruit salad in cream for desert. It was on a Thursday so everyone came straight after jamaat khana at eight.
We started taking pictures with my brand new camera and there was an accident. The camera fell down and broke. Moaez walked in ten minutes later. We were in a panic as Dad’s camera didn’t have any film.
“No problem, Pilu Uncle. Don’t worry.” he told dad “I am going home to get my camera. I have a really good one”
He came back half an hour later and took dozens of pictures of me and everyone else. I am looking at the pictures now and realize I never took one with Moaez that night. He was so busy snapping them that he wasn’t in any of them.
All the older ladies of the house did ponkaah. First, they put some saffron water on my forehead and daubed rice on it. Then they gave me a Smartie to eat, something sweet for luck. Finally they threw more rice over my shoulders and gave me a gift or cash. Then they put their hands on either side of my face and cracked the knuckles. Mami gave me a gold disco chain; it’s called a disco chain because of the clever twists in the pattern. I still have it.
That was a wonderful night. Mum and Dad were very happy about the way it went. Dad was thrilled about the two girls that people had brought along. If a ghareeb chokri, a poor girl comes uninvited to our house, it brings so much barkaat and good fortune, he said.
Moaez and my brother Rasul were born only four days apart on March 4th and March 8th 1961.Mum and Shilo Aunty were both in the Aga Khan Hospital at the same time. That was a bumper year for boys as four sons were born in the family that year. Munira Aunty had had Rafique three months earlier and Shirin Kakee had Masood. Chottu Uncle joked that we’d solved the Alibhai Shariff’s man power problems in one go.

Gulzar, Shelina, Moaez and his sister Fatima.

Moaez and Rasul

Rasul and Moaez were close as children, more like brothers than cousins. They went to the same nursery school where Julie Aunty was a teacher. On the first day of school, they were put into separate classes. Moju as he was called cried so much that the hapless teacher walked Moju over to Rasul’s class and told Rasul’s teacher to keep him. So they stayed in the same class for three years and were inseparable,
They went to different primary schools, Moaez to Aga Khan Primary and Rasul to Nairobi Primary but spent the weekends together. As a child, I sometimes got tired of Moju taking my brother’s attention away and punched him out once or twice just to show him who was the boss. His nickname was Moju and I loved reminding him that is the same as the word sock in Gujerati.
But we became friends as teenagers and he was always generous about lending his books to me. He got much more pocket money than us so he had a lot more books. We loved going to his house as he was allowed to have Coca Cola with all his meals. He knew just how to get what he wanted from Shilo Bhabi. Our mother was a lot stricter. On Saturdays the three of us went to the movies.
“Why do we always have to take a girl along?” Moju complained. “Why can’t she stay at home?”
“You know my mum won’t pay for me unless I take Shela. Anyway, she is being good these days. She won’t bother us,” Rasul replied.
Dad would drop us a few streets from the Movie Theaters and head to the Godown, the warehouse where he worked. The Twentieth Century and Nairobi cinemas were only a few blocks apart. We had already decided what we were seeing.
Nairobi didn’t have multiplexes. Those were real old time movie theaters with big screens, plush velvet seats and two levels the balcony and downstairs. We always sat upstairs. The ratings were either Adults Only or general exhibition. We saw so many movies…Hollywood hits like “Grease”, Saturday Night Live” “Rocky” and “Love Story” and older classic films as well. We loved war movies and saw “Where Eagles Dare”, “Tora Tora Tora.”, “A Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Thirty Nine Steps.”
After the picture ended, we walked a mile or so to the shop on Government road and banged on the heavy wooden door. The Shop would be closed but Kabiru Uncle would be sitting there catching up on paperwork with Sultan Uncle. Kabiru Uncle would call Magangi to bring us tea and take out his tin of biscuits from a drawer in his desk. Eventually around six, Dad would come and then we’d go home. Other weekends we went on picnics or to visit game parks with the rest of the clan. 
Moaez and Tazmin on horseback with Mahmoodood Ramji on foot,  on the shores of Lake Naivasha.

After six years of high school at Saint Marys, Moaez went to study at the University of Western Ontario. The day he left, we went to the airport to say goodbye along with Kabiru Uncle and Shilo Aunty. The airport lounge was busy with people seeing off relatives and friends. But even in that crowd, Moaez’s friends stood out. There must have been about twenty people to see him off, not counting the family. Young guys from Saint Marys and assorted girlfriends were milling around in a noisy, lively group. He was a very popular guy!
Moaez came back to join the family business, running the Kimathi Street branch with Rafique and Chottu Uncle. He was a fun loving guy always joking around. He had a knack for making friends. When Tazmin and I went dancing at Carnivore, we would bump into him with his best friend Karim. He would have a drink and tease us. The club was full of ex Saint Mary’s boys and everyone knew him. He loved going out and was never home on the weekends.
A lot of women were interested in him. He was handsome, tall and fit. He had curly hair that always came up no matter how much he tried taming at. His teenage acne from all that Coke had finally cleared up. He was funny and dressed nicely not going for the over-done Gigolo look with gold chains and too much cologne that some of the Kenyan boys affected. He didn’t seem to have one special girl but I heard through the grapevine that he was thinking of settling down, maybe even with a Pakistani girl like his brother Firoz.
On January 9th, 1993, Moaez was coming home at night from an exclusive golf club far from Nairobi where he was a member of the Board. Moaez had taken the whole family to the club for the weekend two years before. That night the club had an important board meeting and he wanted to be there to vote. One the way back, it was raining and dark. Moaez was involved in an accident and died on the spot. He was only thirty one years old. He never made it to his thirty second birthday on March 4th.
The family was devastated. To lose someone so young, so vital and so alive was awful. Everyone had loved Moaez, there were thousands at the funeral. The Shop was closed that day as a mark of respect and so that the employees could attend. Some of the African drivers had known Moaez since he was a baby. They all came in their uniforms. Moaez was buried in the same Kabrastaan as all his ancestors.
The family went through the forty days of prayers ritual at jamaatkhanna. For forty days we would all go to the mosque and pray, taking some food.
‘“He used to call me every morning at eight thirty and say what are today’s deliveries Pilu Uncle? He would talk and joke with me. I miss those phone calls. He was so respectful of me.” ‘Dad remembered sadly.
It was only after he died that I found out Moaez was involved in building flats for Ismaili widows. He devoted his spare time to sourcing materials and keeping an eye on the construction. After his death, they put up a plaque thanking him in front of the Flats.
While the forty days of mourning were going on, Gulzar Mami and Mama were finalizing their preparations to immigrate to Canada. The children wanted them to move closer and spend more time with them. They had found a buyer for their beautiful house and were giving away and selling off other things in preparation for the big move.
One morning, only eleven days after Moaez’s death, Gulzar Mami was expecting a lady to come and see the sewing machine she was selling. The gate was locked and the lady hooted and hooted but no one came to open it so she left. The watchman was nowhere to be seen. When Mohammedali Mama came home for lunch at one p.m. the gates were wide open and there was no one around. The house was deserted.
Puzzled, he entered the house to find Mami lying dead on the floor of the veranda room. She had been killed in a robbery gone wrong. Mama was so shocked he called mummy tearfully.
“Gulzar, come quickly.”
“What’s wrong Mama? Why are you so upset? Call Gulzar Mami to the phone.”
When he heard this, he started crying even more.
“No just come, “he eventually said.
Mum couldn’t understand what was going on so she took the maid Jane and rushed off in the car. When she got there, she was shocked to see Mami’s body. She tried to calm down Mama and called Dad to come over. He finally called the police. The thieves were never found and punished. They usually aren’t in Kenya. The family ended up praying for both Gulzar Mami and Moaez at the same time. They started the forty day ritual all over again only this time they were praying for two people. They are buried side by side in the Kabrastaan.
Mummy was anguished by what she had seen and when she told me later, we both cried for Mami. Mami had been such a gentle soul. Now both Moaez and Gulzar Mami are gone…but they live in our hearts and memories.


I am not gone, While you cry with me
I am not gone, While you smile with me
I am not gone, While you remember with me

I will come, When you call my name
I will come.

By Michael Ashby, Sidmouth