Mamanji Remembers – N.A. Bhatti September 6, 1986
As far back as I remember from the old Hong Kong days, we have always called her by the affectionate nickname “Mamanji,” an exotic combination of the Chinese “Maman” for mother (as in French) and the Urdu/Punjabi honorific suffix “Ji”. In fact several of her own relatives do not know her real name, Amina, and in her own village Ladian in District Gujrat, Mamanji is a household word for the mother of one of the nation’s heroes buried there.
Mamanji is the sole nineteenth century survivor of the family, in fact of the village. Now in her 89th year, it is only when you are close by that you realize how tiny she is: 4 feet 9 inches, 95 pounds. Don’t be deceived by her frailty; she has never been hospitalized for illness and she has fasted regularly since the last 77 years. Watching her from close range on any morning reveals the reason for this enviable state of health.
She is up at the crack of dawn and at a time when life in our street has barely started to stir, she has already said her Fajr prayers, listened to the recitation of the Holy Quran over the radio and is in her little vegetable garden armed with ‘khurpi’ and ‘daatri’.
“Back in the village, when I still had the strength,” she says, “I remember I sued to grind 8 ‘topa’s (32 pounds) of wheat daily on our ‘chakki,’ half of it by ‘sehri.’ Then machines came and ‘chakkis’ went out.”
Every house in Islamabad has a driveway flanked by a lawn. In deference to Mamanji’s wishes, our house is a little unorthodox in this respect. There is a small vegetable-cum-fruit garden instead of the traditional status symbol of a lawn to cater for her main hobby.
She weeds her plot with surprising vim and vigour which would be envied by any gardener half her age. She moves about the ladyfinger plants taller than herself, plucking the right-sized ones for the kitchen. She feels the green oranges, still hard. “Another four months, God willing,” she comments with confidence.
There are three orange plants. For Mamanji, it is not the value of the produce which will ultimately come off the small trees in December which matters. It is the sheer joy of seeing the shiny green leaves and the hard ping-pong ball sized fruit dangling in profusion from the branches. It is the joy of the labouring peasant seeing Nature slowly and mysteriously revealing to her the fruit of her toils. It is the joy of having participated with Nature in the creation of life.
An hour in her garden makes Mamanji tired and she goes back into the house and enters her room through a door with a framed photograph hung on the lintel. A serious, almost stern looking face. Khaki drill shirt with shoulder rank insignia of a Major. Two service commemoration medal ribbons: the 1947 Independence Ribbon and the 1956 Republic Ribbon, above the left breast pocket. Half-dreamy eyes that give no inkling of the powerful dynamo behind them; the dynamo that earned the Sword of Honour and the Norman Academic Gold Medal in the Pakistan Military Academy, Kaku, over 36 years ago, and the Nishan-e-Haider in September 1965, a few months after the photograph was taken. She does not show any sign of emotion but does cast a fleeting glance upwards as she goes in. We want the photograph in the drawing room but Mamanji wants it where it is. So be it.
After a short nap, she is called for breakfast with the small but rather unusual family of seven persons spread over four generations: Mamanji, her son, her daughter in law, her grandson, her granddaughter in law, her great grandson and her great granddaughter. She surveys the scene at the dining table in the kitchen and raises her hands in a silent ‘dua’.
“Mamanji, even a sparrow can’t survive on that,” someone is bound to comment as she declines anything more than half a ‘chappati,’ half an egg and a small mug of tea.
“I have eaten as much as I need,” she says. She has always adhered to the old maxim: “Eat to live; not live to eat.” We wish we had taken it as seriously.
“What year is it?” she asks.
She wants to do the dishes after breakfast but there are protests all round and she is taken by the wrist and led away from the sink. It is her turn to protest. “How can I sit around the whole day doing nothing?”
“Alright, then, sit down on this ‘moorha’ and peel these potatoes.”
Kitchen duties over, Mamanji takes out her Chinese knitting combs she has had with her for half a century and resumes a muffler. It is then, or when she is reading the Holy Quran or going through the family photograph albums that she wears glasses.
“What month is it?” asks Mamanji.
She puts the finishing purls to the muffler she’ll present to a grandson in winter and examines the albums. The photographic record goes back to Hong Kong, 1911. She points to a venerable bespectacled Sikh in a three piece suit and a pocket watch on a gold chain in an old group photograph of Hong Kong Indian Civil Servants, 1918.
“Bishen Singh, Headmaster,” she says, and points to others in the group, including Father. “Your Babuji.” She cannot identify the others.
Bishen Singh was our neighbour; a thorough gentleman if there ever was; Mamanji and Punjab Kaur were close friends. She turns the pages over: studio photographs; snapshots taken with an ancient Kodak Brownie box camera, some of them browned with age. Vignettes of life spread over seven decades. There is, however, one which always receives her close attention. It is of the two Shaheeds: one is clad in black sherwani and black cap that bears his name, Liaquat Ali Khan, first Prime Minister of Pakistan; the other in Army Cadet’s uniform sporting the four horizontal bars of Battalion Senior Under Officer receiving the coveted Sword of Honour from the Prime Minister. There is a faraway look in Mamanji’s eyes which begin to moisten.
“Your Babuji went for the passing-out parade,” she comments. “They brought back the ‘talwa’ and ‘tamgha’ to Ladian.” Her lips quiver. She turns the album page over.
“Which prayer have I to say next?” she asks.
“How much time is left for Zhur?”
“Plenty of time. It is only ten in the morning yet.”
She goes through more pages of the album. “Who is this? When was this taken? Where is this place….” She seems to have forgotten places, persons and events hardly a couple of months old.
“Where were you in the 1965 War?”
“In Peking, Mamanji.”
“Did you and Raja meet when you left for Peking?”
“No, but I telephoned to him from Karachi. He was in Quetta then. We exchanged letters regularly after that.”
“When did you last hear from him?”
“He wrote to everyone a day before he was martyred.”
Again the faraway look in her eyes as she closes the album. She starts reminiscing.
“I remember I had just performed ‘Wuzu’ for ‘Maghrib’ prayers when Raja’s batman Qutab Din arrived in an Army truck with the body. I remember there were large crowds in Bhatti Manzil as the news had spread like fire. I remember hearing “Mamanji, Beta aa gya jay.” I remember….”
Her lips quiver again and she can say no more but she points to indicate the right shoulder that had been shattered by a direct shell hit of an enemy tank in the BRB Canal battle Zone.
Yes. Mamanji remembers.