I remember watching her pray when I was a little girl. I can still picture the scene perfectly, my grandmother unfolding and spreading on the floor the ja’namaz my uncle had brought for her from Saudi Arabia, its blue velvety cloth worn to a thin grey in the places where she planted her feet when she stood and where she rested her knees and palms and forehead when she prostrated. She would surface from her last, long prostration and turn instinctively to look at me with brown peaceful eyes, her smile accentuating the spidery traces the decades had left on her face. Sometimes she would laugh her rich, songbird laugh and reach over to help disentangle me from a dupatta I had attempted to wrap around my head in impersonation of her.
I was ten when my grandfather died. It hadn’t been a surprise to anyone; he had been battling a growing number of illnesses during his last few years. My grandfather died with his family gathered around his bed and his right hand held in the hand of the woman he had spent nearly half a century with. When his fingers finally went limp, my grandmother gave them one last squeeze, straightened and, with a back as erect as it had ever been, went to make arrangements for the funeral. Nothing had betrayed her grief that day except that when I had crept into her bed that night, her pillow had been damp against my cheek and she had held me tighter than ever before.
When I was seventeen, it was my grandmother who encouraged me to apply to an American college. The other family elders had not been too keen about sending a teenaged Pakistani girl across distances only measurable in time zones and long-distance phone calls. My grandmother, however, had stuck by my side throughout. She would softly relate the story of her own youth, when her father had insisted that she go to university at a time when it was quite unheard of for a Muslim woman to be educated beyond tenth grade. “Progress is only made when risks are taken and new things are tried,” she would quote her father. But not everyone would be swayed by her logic. When that happened she would use religion to attack her opponents. She would stare them down and subject them to a lecture on the importance our Prophet had placed on seeking knowledge.
She would write me letters and I would read them at my desk in the dorm room that overlooked the New England countryside. In autumn, I would press crimson leaves and fold them into the letters I sent her. In the summer, her letters would give off the smell of mangoes that permeates into everything in Karachi. She would write to me in her beautifully penned Urdu and I would write back in mine, misshapen, hesitant and underused. She wrote to me her stories, her secrets, until I was sure she had shared more about herself with me than she had with anyone else in the family. The last letter I ever got from her arrived a week before the day of my graduation. Her last letter – and I will never forget this – ended with, “My dear child, if only you had any idea of how often I see glimpses of myself in everything you do.”