The grey November sky brooded bleak and gloomy in Montreal, and there was foreboding in my heart as I made my way to work. True enough, the message screen on my phone lit up with words as bleak and cold as the day outside: my only remaining aunt, my mother’s dearest ‘achi baji’, Khala Altaf, had flown to her heavenly abode.
Known to the world of literature and words as Altaf Fatima, Urdu writer par excellence, khala (aunt) breathed her last on 29 November, 2018. She lived a rich, eventful and colorful life till the age of 91.
When we launched life
on the river of grief,
how vital were our arms, how ruby our blood.
With a few strokes, it seemed,
we would cross all pain,
we would soon disembark.
(From The Rebel’s Silhouette by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Agha Shahid )
These achingly beautiful words would sum up for me the eventful journey she embarked upon as a young woman, boarding the train, with her family, to Pakistan during the nightmarish tumult that was the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. She would be wrenched cruelly from her beloved Lucknow, from her roots and the burial places of her ancestors, and transplanted to the land of Five Rivers, Punjab.
She used to tell me, “Transplants flourish and thrive because they have known adversary and know they have to work harder, do better to prove their worth.” She was the perennial optimistic and always faced the light when it came to her new homeland, Pakistan. She never looked back with longing or nostalgia and was excited at the prospects and opportunities that awaited in her new home.
Her mother was widowed at a very early age, and Khala was the second eldest of four siblings, so she very quickly adopted the role of head of the household. After completing her B.A. and M.Ed. from Punjab University she began what would be a long and illustrious teaching career at Islamia College, Lahore. All this while, she was uncomplainingly supporting her mother, mentoring her young and only brother and caring for her newly orphaned niece and nephew.
Her ancestors had gifted her the power of the pen, which she wielded with relish and passion. Urdu and Persian were like food, water and air, and at the drop of a hat, Urdu couplets would flow during the most mundane of conversations.
She loved the poetry and philosophy of Dr. Allama Iqbal and became an expert on his works. She would teach him with panache and verve.
Her teaching was not restricted to her formal classrooms. Almost the entire younger generation of my large extended family washed up at her doorstep at the eleventh hour before their final Urdu exams. There was much moaning, beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth as failure loomed. Urdu was one of the key subjects that had to be passed and without doing so, many of my hapless cousins, nieces and nephews would be forever tethered to academics, when greener pastures beckoned.
One amazing and magical trait that Khala had was her overwhelming belief that every person could be taught, no matter how dull or unwilling the mind. Now many of my cousins were bright young things, with wide ranging interests and lively, questioning minds…except when it came to Urdu literature and poetry…that stubbornly remained a Mount Doom, shrouded in mystery and fog!
So there they were, group upon group, living with her for those crucial weeks leading up to the final exam. She led them with the firmness of a shepherd, determined and relentless. Miraculously, they all passed their finals!
Fearlessness and independence were two pillars of her life that supported her unfailingly in the most adverse of times. I understood the true meaning of the word “ne dar” (fearless) from her. Strongly built in her youth, a more fearless woman one could not find. She did not suffer fools well. One time her home was being burgled.
Instead of cowering in the face of robbers armed with sturdy sticks (those were pre-Kalashnikov-toting days), she was curious to know why they didn’t find alternate careers that would ensure more stable livelihoods and better working hours and lectured them on the benefits of honest labour!
Travels with her, which we often undertook as kids, were an adventure. Many a hapless train official was smartly rapped on his knuckles for misplacing our reservations. Taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers trembled under her wrath if they tried to play fast and loose with fare meter readings. Skullduggery she would not tolerate. Once ensconced in our railway carriage, she would proceed to become firm friends with the other travelers, curious about their lives, and often they would appear incognito in her stories and novels.
She settled in Lahore after Partition, embarking upon an abiding, life-long love affair with the city. She loved its layered history, the green parks (she lived close to the Lawrence Gardens), the twisting lanes of its Old City, its saints and sinners, its festivals and fairs, Pak Tea House where she regularly read her writings, the food of Lahore and above all its resilient people.
I remember vividly riding in a tonga (horse carriage) en route to Pak Tea House, Khala resplendent in her signature cotton gharara, a sharp eye on the tonga driver and his treatment of his horse, as I was hanging on for dear life. We clip clopped along at a queenly pace, her gharara billowing in the sultry summer breeze. She loved the sedateness of tongas and fought hard to keep them running on Lahore roads. Alas they disappeared into the dusts of urbanisation like most fine things of Lahore.
Pak Tea House was a world of wonders that I never fully appreciated as a child. My khala thrived in its dusty, web-encrusted cavernous environs. A dilapidated, crumbling tea house, run by a proprietor totally disinterested in even the most basic maintenance of the premises; it was a meeting place of the literati and true intellectuals of Lahore. Plasticised versions of the literati were not granted admission.
A permanent haze of cigarette smoke hung low and over chipped cups of strong tea. One could hear Ashfaq Ahmed read his afsanas, Faiz Ahmed Faiz recite his matchless poetry, Kishwar Naheed test the waters of feminist verse. After Khala’s readings often Bano Qudsia would come over and pat her on the back – both husband and wife treated her like a younger sister who was coming up in the world of letters. And I would greedily eye the last piece of vivid yellow pound cake – what a barbarian!
Khala was a strong believer in the capacity of people to turn their lives around if they wanted to, and were given enough positive encouragement. She taught numerous children from underprivileged families for free and set them on the path to a better life. These were children of washermen, house servants and street people who would never get a shot at a quality education. Many of these pupils today have university educations and are gainfully employed in careers very different from their parents.
Towards the twilight years of her life, she became a bit of a recluse, not due to an aversion towards society, but simply because her eyesight was failing. She was too proud to enlist the pity of her friends and colleagues and she was too heartbroken that she could no longer read – her life’s blood; more important than food. So she struggled in her growing darkness, yet was undaunted and accepted the will of God.
This, until a determined and dedicated eye surgeon led her gently back into the light. She was a new being, energised and ready to go at life with renewed vigour. Alas the mind willed, but the body signalled otherwise. She still managed to produce one last collection of short stories – Deed Wadeed. Her face glowed with quiet joy when she handed me my signed copy and said, “Look there is still oil in this dusty old lamp!” Abhee roshni baqi hai.
Deed Wadeed went on to garner the Karachi Literary Festival Award 2018 for the best Urdu fiction.
The door of memories that flew open at her passing refuses to shut and they come tumbling out, laughing and chortling and sometimes misting the eyes, but surprisingly never pushing one into darkness or despair. I was mentioning to one of her grieving grand nephews that we must celebrate her life; for that is how she lived it: full, colourful and always on her terms.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
(Mary Elizabeth Frye)