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He was such a quiet, humble man

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He was such a quiet, humble man

I remember everyone wondering how I coped so well after my father passed away two years ago, Some people openly commented about how strong I was, others just gave me fleeting looks of empathy and concern during a pause in our conversations. My apparent resilience made me worried that people would think I wasn’t close to my Abbu. A silly feeling, but how would people know otherwise? There were no detailed, passionate eulogies of his life and accomplishments at his funeral. Islamic funerals have very little planning and very little ceremony, as the dead must be buried as soon as possible. Shrouded in a plain white cloth in the simplest of wooden caskets with the lid closed, my father lay at the front of the mosque with another Muslim woman who had passed recently. The joint congregation of mourners prayed together and the Imam gave a blanket sermon about being good in this life to avoid hellfire, which was frankly just irritating. Along with the other deceased woman, my father’s details were only mentioned in passing —                         , age 62 years (I can’t even begin to express the devastation of losing him so young). Then, off to the cemetery, where the men crowded around the grave and watched the coffin being lowered into the ground and the women cried silently watching in our cars from a distance.

I think with regret about the missed opportunity to speak about how much my father meant to his family and his community. He was such a quiet, humble man. Perhaps he wouldn’t have looked fondly upon a big emotional speech in front of a large crowd at his funeral anyway. But much like me, he did have a love of storytelling and the written word. Now that I have a son, I think Abbu would like the idea of a written memorial to pass on to the next generation, so that Nana can still be a part of his current and future grandchildren’s lives.

When he is old enough, I will tell my son that the most extraordinary thing his Nana did was to begin a new life in a whole new country on the other side of the world – because even the most typical immigrant journey takes courage. Born in Sitapur, India in 1951, my father moved to Toronto, Canada a few years after completing a Master’s in Economics from the University of Lucknow. He was lucky to have siblings who had already made the transatlantic trek to North America in the 1970s and I imagine it provided comfort to be able to live with my his older brother in this new unfamiliar country, although he acclimatized quickly. Eventually, after just one meeting and many months of long-distance written correspondence, my father traveled to Pakistan and his marriage was arranged to my mother. My mother moved to Canada some months later and they eventually settled into a bungalow in the suburbs, with children quickly following.

Abbu worked hard at a 9-5 accounting job to keep the family fed and the bills paid. But he also nurtured us so much. I’ve realized the most important influence on my academic and professional successes started with my father’s love of reading. I nerdily preferred our encyclopedia set to picture books from a very young age. My father’s literary tastes provided a great variety to choose from: from intellectual history and religion to pulpy action and mystery thrillers. And the poetry… from Omar Khayyam to Rumi to Pablo Neruda, he traveled the world in romantic verse.

Maybe many Desi men don’t fall under the ‘romantic’ category, but my father inadvertently wore his heart on his sleeve. He barely tried to hide it when he sang classic Bollywood songs of love and longing to himself.

His romantic nature seeped into his politics as well. I think my father was more liberal than he realized, despite his traditional upbringing. At the core of his political opinions was a strong sense for the need for social justice. Not only was that exemplified in his political leanings, but he also gave back so much to his own community. After he passed, even the most distant relatives and family friends talked about how much my father helped them out when they first moved to Canada. He also continued to send money back to his family remaining in India, always making sure to do qurbani (sacrifice of livestock) so that the poorest relatives living in rural villages were provided with meat during the Eid holidays.

I miss my father’s sense of humour. I recently found the speech he gave at our wedding, thanking everyone for coming, but in particular my aunt who “dodged drones in Pakistan” to come here. Only my father would make a drone joke at a wedding! On the other hand, he could also be devastatingly, almost unfairly blunt if his values were not met by his children. He was a traditionalist in the sense that he wanted his children to get educated, get married (to a practicing Muslim), and raise a family at all of the appropriate intervals. When I revealed my intentions of marrying a non-Muslim “Canadian”, it was extremely difficult for both of my parents. But for some reason, Abbu’s negative reaction, which was quieter than my mother’s but full of intense disappointment, hit me harder. Thankfully, we navigated that bump in our relationship and my father came to know, respect and love my now-husband. The last time my husband saw my father, the night before his heart surgery, my father asked him to take care of me should anything go wrong. So heartbreaking, but it shows how much he trusted my husband in the end.

I can’t think too much about the day he died. My father was sick for a long time and he either had to take a chance to fix his heart or it was going to give out on its own without warning. He was sick of his poor quality of life, so he opted for a risky surgery. And we lost him. My mother blamed the surgeon, the cardiologist, family doctor, the whole system. Maybe I’m naive, but I think everyone worked to the degree that they felt capable and did the best they could. Unfortunately, my father was always reluctant to advocate for his own health until things got really hairy. I think secretly once his health started declining rapidly, he knew there weren’t many months left and he was resigned to his fate. To some degree, I resent that he didn’t fight harder before it was too late. But I am also glad he didn’t have to suffer anymore.

I guess that’s part of how I coped in the aftermath, knowing that my father was at peace. And I come from a line of strong, stubborn women who have overcome much adversity in their lives and don’t believe in excessive public mourning. So I stayed strong for my mother and my siblings. But I have also truly lost a part of myself that will never be recovered. I have to not be afraid to tell this to my son when he is old enough. But I will also tell him that his Nana is watching over him and that he would have been so happy to see his family grow and flourish with young ones. I hope we can tell stories about Nana for a long time to come.