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Auntythetical: Grieving from afar

Amal Salar-Hashmi on her relationship with grief and emotional vulnerability as a Desi woman.

My grandfather, Dada Ji, died in October 2019, but I only learned his name this summer.

As much as I’d like to claim that it was solely my father’s unwillingness to talk about his family that was to blame, I had also never asked.

I would hope that it’s a common phenomenon for Desis; we refer to our relatives in this hierarchical, gendered order of bara to choti, jan to ji, and khala to chacha. My Dada ji is my father’s father, but it feels strange to claim such a close connection to him, when we were never able to express this whilst he was alive. He had Alzheimer’s so didn’t know who we were, but, to some extent, that unawareness went both ways. Once he thought my sister was a goat- I’ve moved past the immediate horror of this to a state of bitter amusement. Bitter, because this dark anecdote is one of the only memories that we made together.

Desi families have some ludicrous stories to tell, often concerning land-grabbing siblings, and the joy my parents get from relating the exploits of their kin truly draws me in, making me feel a part of this long tradition. But no matter how hard they try to include me, needing an intermediary to tell me these stories makes me more aware of my isolation from my heritage. Ultimately, stories didn’t bring Dada ji to life for me as much as they turned him into some distant hero of epic: a fictional character. But I never wanted him to be that. I just wanted a grandfather.

I want to say that I miss him, my Phopha, Bari Phopho, and all the others, but a part of me wonders if I deserve to. I certainly miss the idea of them and the memories that we shared, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to missing them. As with many other desis, we know the stories of our relatives and are glad to do our familial duty for them, knowing that any one of our few, 5-minute Lyca-mobile calls with them a year could be the last. We know their stories and what they used to drink, read, listen to. Their habits are revealed to us slowly during the time we spend at home. Yet I’m frightened that over the years, considering the little I still know, these heuristic delicacies will only disappear till I no longer have access to their personas.

Of course, the question could be posed: why don’t you ask them yourself?

Simply put, there’s a great boundary between my overseas relatives and myself. It just isn’t done. I am grateful, as a 1st generation child, to my mother for speaking Urdu at home and letting me watch hours of Shah Rukh Khan content because without this I might be one step further from knowing who my loved ones are. But the more insidious barrier that I- and others- are confronted with is emotional distance. One of many of Pakistan’s national secrets, aside from dubious nuclear weaponry, is our disdain for anyone (particularly men) who expresses emotions other than those acceptable at weddings or funerals. If it can’t be seen in public then don’t do it- what will people say? Therefore, it feels too uncomfortable and inappropriate of me to try to coerce my family into any kind of emotional vulnerability, even if that is merely asking them about their deceased uncle. It’s just not my place.

When Dada ji died, I didn’t find out until much later when one of my maternal uncles let me know that he had visited the family. Despite this being all I heard, the emotional immaturity shown in abruptly telling me was both ill-received and desperately welcomed. I suppose I crave emotional immediacy with my family- no matter how unexpected- instead of the carefully constructed tactfulness that I receive.

When I eventually got through to my father via phone call, I became livid after finding out that he had been in Karachi for the past week. No one told me Dada ji was ill until he was gone, but who am I really to tell? All his children were there in his last moments- everyone important to him. Although it stings that I cannot claim proximity to him like that, it’s far more distressing to recognise that half my yearning to be there is familial duty and not simply love.

Expectedly, Baba sounded stoic on the phone, while my crying and mourning sounded like it belonged to someone else. It felt tokenistic and self-serving, like I didn’t share the burden of love that would enable me to miss him.

I’ve forgiven my parents since (however, they are likely unaware of my anger, as it’s not my place to express discontent with their silence). But, remaining still are the dregs of resentment towards their decision to bring me and my sister here. As ungrateful as it may be for me to say, by giving us a better material life, they separated us not only from the problems back at home, but the things of importance too. My relationship with the people who should matter most to me isn’t strained but slack and unreliable, a barely-there cable of blood ties and baseless ‘I love you’s.’

I want to pull back and add strain to this tether, making it a certifiable link to those who are left, regardless of the emotional tension that comes with it.

So maybe it starts with me and my jasbati Westernism, even just with a name.

And Dada ji’s was Tahir.

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