In an attempt to turn pain into art, I wrote this five days after learning that my only living grandparent might pass and I cannot go to see her. Missing the passing of a loved one is a common immigrant struggle. Most of us cannot just catch a flight back home. The work of obtaining a visa to travel, taking leave from work and buying an expensive plane ticket is all a complex ordeal.
Once I found out that I could not go back home to see her for the last time, I started to soothe myself. In my eight years of living away from home, I have perfected the process of self-soothing. Even after taking a hot shower, offering namaz and making keema sandwiches for myself, I felt a baseball-sized lump in my chest.
Crying, I thought to myself, has always soothed me, and so I cried. Thanking my stars that I had saved some hundred videos of my dadi — the word for grandma in Hindi — in my Snapchat memories over the years, I went through them. Drops of tears turned into streams. The videos triggered a flashback of when she wanted to try every filter on Snapchat, how she clapped her hands and laughed when the filter turned her face into a baby’s.
Razia Jalali was born in the 1930s in Uttar Pradesh, India. During a time when people thought only the uncultured folk sent their daughters to school, she earned a bachelor’s degree. She did not work after marrying, but the point of studying was never to earn money, she had told me. She studied to gain knowledge and pass it on to her family.
With 9 children and 19 grandchildren, she took many opportunities to pass her knowledge on. In my absolute favorite picture of her, she is using a magnifying glass to read a book, capturing her insatiable thirst to learn. From history and health to housekeeping, she gave us lessons on everything. She taught me the basics of arithmetic and how to sew a button.
Sitting next to her feet in a circle peeling peas, me and my girl cousins would often talk about how we would never do the housework when we got married because we’re feminists. She overheard and said, “Angrezi baatein sunne se sirf angerzo ka fayda hota hai,” which loosely translates to foreign ideas serve foreigners best.
Shortly after, I was accepted into Stony Brook and came to America. After taking a few women’s and gender studies classes, I gained the wrong kind of confidence in my education. It’s tough to admit, but I thought I was better than other people because I read a few books and I could not wait to “enlighten” my dadi with what I had learned when I returned home to India to visit.
As I entered Dadi’s house, I saw her talking to a woman who sweeps the street outside her home in the morning. Dadi was pressing a few 500 rupee bills in her palm whispering something to her. Thanking Dadi, the woman quickly left. Dadi told us how that woman needed help to escape from her husband, to which my dad replied, “I can give her a job at my company.” My dadi quickly said, “Sabki zarurat ka hal ek jaisa nahi hota” — one kind of solution does not work for everyone. It took dedicated professors years to teach me what my dadi already practiced in her everyday life: feminism with class consciousness. If I had spent time observing my grandma, I would’ve learned tangible ways to help people in my community. A new job at a company is not a valuable resource for a woman who is dependent on an abusive, controlling partner. Dadi offered the woman a room in her home and a job to tend to her garden.
While plaiting hair, pickling lemons, washing clothes and whispering jokes to each other, women in Lucknow who had never studied feminism practiced it aggressively in their everyday lives. They shared resources, information and advice with each other.
The feminist ideals that drew me to the West had always been with me, if only I took the time to observe.
When I was young, I used to think America was the gold standard for education and human progress. I aspired to migrate to America and work for my own golden stamp of approval, but somewhere between then and now, I realized the hollowness of that pursuit. My values, my family and my culture were not made to fit into the Western idea of normalcy. The history of my existence is golden with or without America’s approval. I felt confident in myself for intellectualizing the struggles of women of color through theory and academia while women who lived and navigated through that reality could not feel confident in themselves. After all the lessons I learnt from books, professors, friends and strangers, the ones taught to me by Dadi are still the light that helps me navigate life.