Mahmooda Basit: The devoted wife of a life-devotee husband


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Asif M Basit, London

A few days after my mother’s demise, a friend asked me what was taking me so long to write about her when eulogies of others had slipped off my pen in no time. How I dodged this question is not important; what is important is the fact that to write a eulogy, one has to believe that the subject is actually no more. Also, the subject being my mother, I didn’t see why the Jamaat’s publications should lug my personal grief.

But then it occurred to me that there was a side of my mother’s life that can be of general benefit – that she companioned her waqif-e-zindagi husband for 62 years and that too like a waqif-e-zindagi herself. So, here we have a lifetime of waqf, spanning over more than half a century – a qualification that calls for a eulogy.

I am here, with this intention, sharing some flashbacks from her lifetime of sacrifice and duty, but please do pardon me if my personal feelings seep through the cracks of a bereaved author’s narration – it is but natural I believe.

My mother’s life can be divided broadly into two major realms: Self-forgetfulness and complete forgetfulness. The latter made its way into her being as the clutches of dementia took hold of her, but the former is what makes most part of her exemplary life – the self-forgetfulness that is the cornerstone of waqf-e-zindagi; a state of complete devotion. She remained devoted to her waqif-e-zindagi husband, to the service of his parents and to bringing up six children while he was serving the cause of Islam Ahmadiyyat in Africa, and for teaching hundreds of children the reading of the Holy Quran.

My earliest memories of my childhood are of a household where my mother was in charge of all affairs in the absence of my father. So we go to Rabwah for these recollections, where this brave woman, my Ammi, lived with her six children in a humble abode – two rooms and a kitchen and very basic facilities.

She was the one who introduced me to my father, in absentia of course, and this introduction fashioned him as a hero in my innocent mind. She would show me his photographs with great affection and, knowing that photos could only serve to build a visual impression, she would talk so very fondly about him as we went through the small collection. I could see her love and pride bubbling and pouring as she spoke about him. This expression of hers left me, and my older siblings, with a great sense of respect and honour for the man who was introduced to us first as a waqif-e-zindagi and then our father.

When I innocently asked why our father did not live with us, she used this opportunity to instil in my heart the concept of sacrifice and the idea that what he was doing was more important than just living with us. Such sessions left me in great awe of not only Abbu but also of waqf (life devotion) and the propagation of Islam.

But what came as a by-product of these talks was that my mother became an intermediary between my father and me – more of an intercessor for me. After 47 years, I lost this medium and am left floating in a vacuum.

Another by-product was that I began to see my mother as an embodiment of sacrifice. Not that she ever said so, but I picked this up from how she led her life. More than a by-product, I would classify it as a full product born purely out of my own observation.

Among many flashbacks that memory lane throws at me, one is of sizzling summer afternoons, when charpoys were laid in our backyard and a portable fan set up as Ammi got ready for the dozens of children that flocked to our house to learn to read the Holy Quran. From that moment on, and until they left, Ammi was fully engrossed in giving lessons of the Qaida Yassarnal-Quran and the Holy Quran to the children that flanked her.

These lessons were not only about reading the words but also about inculcating a deep sense of respect for the Holy Quran, so much so that if she saw a child’s copy of the Qaida or the Holy Quran dog-eared, she would fix them and tell the child never to let that happen again and to keep their copies as neat and clean as possible. For some, she would even create a jacket for their copy by sewing an old calendar page through the spine.

If a child had a runny nose or was sniffling to hold it in, Ammi would never allow them to blow it or wipe it with their hand or a part of their clothes. She would instruct them to immediately go and blow their nose in the bathroom, wash their hands and cleanse themselves before touching the Holy Quran. It did seem a bit harsh at times, but it was no different for us, her own children, when it came to dog-eared pages or cleanliness. For her, it was about upholding the sanctity of the Holy Quran, even in matters that could easily be ignored as negligible.

Thus was spent the whole evening where Ammi was a fully functional academy; but an academy she was from dawn to dusk as she lived her simple life – teaching us many good things through what she said, and even through what she chose not to say.

She kept a very keen eye on everything we said or did: Whether we were all saying our salat on time and how well; whether we were reading the Holy Quran daily in portions that she would prescribe for us; how well we were treating guests and whether or not we were showing an adequate level of respect for them; whether we were learning the manners of an “acha bacha” or not. All this was Ammi’s focus of attention in any part of the day (and night). Why so? Because she was bringing up the children of her waqif-e-zindagi husband who was in service thousands of miles away. She could not afford to let him down.

Hospitality was one of the charms on the string that she wore around her neck. Whosoever came to visit our house could not escape at least a cup of tea that Ammi would insist on, though this might have been out of her own love for tea; I still cannot forget the aroma of tea that floated out of her kitchen and into every corner of our house. My own love for tea is likely a pursuit of the aroma of Ammi’s tea – one that the best of brands, from Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon and Kenya, have failed to fetch for me.

This hospitality reminds me of a funny situation that would often arise. Ammi, while sitting with the guests, would call aloud and instruct my sisters to bring tea and something to go with it. My sisters would huddle in the kitchen and discuss how to tell Ammi that the luxury of “something to go with” tea had been extinct for many days. But hats off to Ammi’s frugality that “something” – however humble it may have been – would emerge from some nook of a kitchen cabinet.

Ammi was a very hardworking woman – a machine rather. The first ray of daybreak would fail to beat Ammi when it came to starting the day. What started with Tahajjud and carved its way through Fajr and then the recitation of the Holy Quran, then sending us to schools, cleaning the house (which she was very particular about), running errands, doing all the chores, cooking food for us all, and then teaching local children the reading of the Holy Quran – all this and sewing and knitting and many more activities would make a day in Ammi’s life.

Coming back to Ammi’s frugality, those brought up in affluent households might not understand that the households where poverty reigns, achaar (pickle) is placed at a very high status. When nothing is available, achaar comes to the rescue and alleviates the hardship.

As soon as the mango season started, Ammi would buy unripe mangoes in large quantities, cut them into small pieces and lay them on charpoys to dry in the summer heat. They would endure this heat treatment – and we their strong, peculiar smell – for quite a few days when finally they qualified to be pickled. Then one day, Ammi would sit in the courtyard with many large jars and the smell of spices would mix with that of the dried-up mangoes and remain in the atmosphere for the many days that followed. Ammi would somehow always cook us something for food, but I remember many occasions when she would have only achaar with roti. If we asked why she wasn’t having food, she would calmly say that she felt like having only achaar and nothing else. Perhaps she was right, as I do not want to doubt anything she ever said to us. We never doubted her even then as she never complained during the tedious preparation of achaar; on the contrary, it seemed as if it was her hobby.

Speaking of hobbies, sewing, embroidery and knitting were Ammi’s favourite skills. Frugal as she was, she had invested these hobbies very cleverly in living up to the challenge of making ends meet. She would sew our clothes and, as she did so, ensured that my sisters were sat beside her and learned the craft. I had to wear her sewn clothes up to my early teen years – “had to” because I had reached the age where I started to deem those clothes as inferior to those of others. Looking back, they now seem to me even better than the best branded – the poor woman was doing her best to cover her six children and yet stay within her limited resources. Allah bless her for managing everything on her own, without worrying our father who was far away from us in the service of Islam Ahmadiyyat.

While we’re on the topic of clothes and garments, I cannot move on without being thankful for the Landa Bazar (second-hand clothes market) of Rabwah. Ammi would frequent this bazar, especially as winter approached, to buy woollen wear for us. Jumpers, scarves and woollen hats would last years as an item bought for the eldest would spiral the “hand-me-down” chain in succession for at least six years. When these woollen items would finally give in, Ammi would undo their knit, make rolls of their wool and reknit new mittens, hats and jumpers out of them. When these too would wear out, Ammi would not let go and put them through another stage of their lifecycle. She would undo them and have them woven into multi-coloured, and sometimes discoloured, blankets – discoloured for a brown scarf or a yellow hat thrown into a red blanket short of a few dozen yards of wool.

I must mention here that most items had to be new; shoes, socks, school uniforms all had to be bought off the shelves of various shops in Rabwah. I do not know how, but she always provided whatever necessity we required. I remember how, in the very early days of school, I got obsessed with the idea of wearing a panama hat to school (I never knew what it was called; I had seen someone wear it and just had to have it). I remember Ammi going from this general store to that garment shop around the town to fulfil a silly desire that had budded in the heart of her lastborn child. I remember the same happening when I wanted a school satchel of my choice. The realisation that she did all this to inculcate a love for education in our hearts occurred much later – so late that I could only look back and regret why I put her through all that pain.

As for our moral grooming and training, Ammi left no stone unturned and was very sharp-sighted in this area. I recall one morning in Ramadan, Ammi was taking a nap after serving sehri and saying her Fajr salat. I had to leave for school and needed pocket money but did not want to disturb Ammi, whom I knew had been up most of the night. I tiptoed into her room and picked a one-rupee coin from where she kept the loose change. As I walked out of the front door, she called me back and told me to get some pocket money. I told her that I had already taken it from her bedside. I thought she would be happy to know how much I cared for her rest, but, on the contrary, she told me in a very stern tone: “Taking anything without permission leads to the habit of theft. You are a waqif-e-zindagi’s son.  Never do this again!”

Ammi was not very educated herself but cared a great deal about making sure that we all got the best education. Just before the new academic year dawned, she got busy arranging textbooks and notebooks for us all. She would already have contacted her acquaintances whose children were one class ahead of us. You can imagine what this meant with six children and what kind of an operation she must have put herself through. But then not every book could be acquired in this way and she would buy new books to fill in the gaps.

As for notebooks, she would purchase bundles of ruled-paper, loose but folded, and sew them through the spine, thus making available for us what can be called a poor man’s notebook. This, at prima facie, might not seem too difficult a task, or craft, but to provide books and stationery for all six children, was no less than a challenge. But Ammi was one for taking challenges on the chin.

I must mention here a great challenge she created for herself (and myself as well) only to ensure that I got the best education possible through our humble means.

When we returned to Pakistan from Zambia, my father was posted in Rabwah and that meant we too would accompany him. Since my education had always been in schools where the medium of instruction was English, Ammi decided that I remain behind in Karachi with my brother and sister-in-law and got me enrolled in a school there immediately. I was only twelve. It came as a shock to me. I know that most children go to boarding schools in a similar age band, but then they are brought up accordingly. Ammi had brought me up holding me firmly against herself and had never given me even a shred of the imagination of living without her.

But she thrust me away from herself and left for Rabwah – many hundreds of miles away. Although my brother and sister-in-law took great care of me, with love and affection, but having been shoved into a life without Ammi scarred my mind – the scab of which remains etched across my heart and soul even today.

In the early days of this hurtful episode, I would hide from everyone and cry my eyes out. I shed so many tears missing Ammi that it made it easier to grieve Ammi’s death when it came to that. Perhaps I had shed all my tears reserved for her parting many years ago.

Thus, through a sacrifice offered by her (and myself) for the sake of my education, she prepared me for the time when we would part, never to meet again. Not even in summer holidays or winter breaks. Never!

When I passed high school, I moved back to Rabwah and got enrolled in college. I came back to life again as I was reunited with my long-lost mother but realised that I had been left with a strong apprehension of losing Ammi again, in any way or form. I would wake up at night to secretively see whether Ammi was breathing and was well. How ironic that the nurse, informing me of Ammi’s passing many years later, said:

“Asif, your mum has stopped breathing!”

Now, coming back to my college days, I recall Ammi always telling me, as do many Pakistani mothers, that she wanted me to become a doctor. When I started college, I respected her wish and opted for science subjects. I soon realised that my natural inclination was more towards humanities and not sciences. I waited for many months when, one morning, I declared that I was no longer going to pursue science subjects and I did not want to be a doctor.  

Ammi picked up her breakfast silently and walked out of the room into the kitchen. After a few minutes, I followed her to see a heartbreaking scene. She was leaning her elbows on a worktop, her face hidden in her hands, and weeping bitterly. Between her cries and sobs would slip the words: “Where did I fall short? What did I not do right?” 

It was as if she had witnessed her youthful son being stabbed to death before her eyes. 

Up to that moment, I had known that it was Ammi’s desire to see me become a doctor, but that I was her child and hence the last chance for her dream to come true had never occurred to me as such. She had invested a lot of energy in providing the best means of education that she possibly could, but none of us had made it to higher education.  

With my announcement, she felt like her dream of her children being well educated had shattered to pieces. Ammi saw it as not only a dream falling apart, but as if she had betrayed her husband’s trust.  

But then mothers have this thing for forgiving and forgetting. She soon forgot all about it and let me continue with the subjects of my choice. When I finally got my master’s degree was when she came back to life. She took great pride in telling everyone that her son was now an MA. Allah is ever so Sattar, the coverer of shortcomings, but in the case of mothers, He seems to show special care. Allah cover my shortcomings always.

Our house – or the two rooms that we lived in – had not just emerged into existence. It was a single room that was first built, then another later on and then a separate kitchen had come into being. The roofs were built in a way that bricks were laid on beams that stretched from wall to wall, and were plastered with clay.

With such roofs, monsoon for us was more of a nightmare than a mere season where rainwater would seep through cracks in the clay-plastered roof and drip into the rooms. Abbu was away, all the children were still too young and calling a builder to fix the issue was no less than a luxury – where luxury meant less than or maybe a hundred rupees.

Ammi would knead shredded hay-straw into a large amount of clay, wait for the night to set in, and when it was dark enough to protect her purdah, she would wrap a shawl around herself and climb onto the roof. My brother and elder sisters would place themselves on the ladder and work as a conveyor belt to get the clay-laden pans and water buckets up to the roof, and back. Ammi would do the plastering and ensure that no cracks were left for the water to create any more mischief – it was her nest and mother-birds know no limits when it comes to protecting their fragile abode.

Another memory of Ammi, deeply etched on my mind, is her unshakable habit of reciting the Holy Quran regularly. Habits have a thing for rubbing off on even those who witness them, and by the grace of Allah, it did rub off on us. Her constant reminders, paired with this practice of hers, worked as perfect ingredients for a very noble recipe. Not only her own children, but also hundreds of other children became her beneficiaries. Wherever she lived, local children would flock to her to learn the recitation of the Holy Quran. In Zambia, she succeeded in teaching women who were illiterate in English, not to speak of Urdu or Arabic. She proudly wore these success stories as medals, and very rightly so as it was a near impossible task. She went back to Rabwah to carry on the practice and also in London after she moved here permanently in 1999.

quran burning

She took upon herself the tutoring of my son, Romaan in Qaida Yassarnal-Quran and then the Holy Quran. This was another medal she won for herself which she would boast, with a combination of pride and humility, telling anyone she met that she had taught Romaan the reading of the Quran at the age of four-and-a-half years.

When it came to my daughters, her health was failing but she listened to my wife’s reading of the Holy Quran – to ensure that she could read flawlessly – before passing her the baton in what she saw as a relay race of generations. I thank Allah for making Ammi a source of this great knowledge for all three children of mine.

Ammi showered her children with love. When they got married, she showed the same level of love for her sons- and daughters-in-law. They too reciprocated with all their heart.

After living a very successful life, Ammi fell prey to the parasitical disease called dementia. When this exactly happened is hard to say as it is impossible to put a finger on its onset. Symptoms start to appear so subtly that it takes time before those close to the patient realise that the changes they notice are actually symptoms that call for medical attention.

She had already been suffering from arthritis for many years before dementia struck. Ammi could no longer accompany Abbu for walks, so he would seat her in a wheelchair and take her out for a stroll. Ammi would hesitantly protest by saying that she did not like to see him push her wheelchair. Abbu would say: “You served my parents while I was away in Africa, can I not even do this much?”

I must make it clear that when I mention the difficult times that Ammi endured while Abbu was away, it ought not to be taken to mean that Abbu lived a carefree life away from us. His stay abroad was a sacrifice in its own right. He tried to provide the best facilities to sail through the rough sea of a challenging life that Ammi lived back home when he was away. He respected Ammi’s sacrifice not only verbally, but also through every act of his. He has remained the best example of خیرکم خیرکم لاہلہ throughout.

But with the onset of dementia, all other medical conditions subsided and, gradually, Ammi started to forget all other ailments and pains. Dementia usually overcomes its prey in a span of a few months or a year or two. But Ammi fought it for almost seven years. But we all know what happens to the walls when the cornerstone of a building is shaken.

Ammi crept away into some other world – a world of her own. It was a testing time not only for Ammi but also for the whole family around her. She remained before our eyes, but spoke from a different world and a dimension unknown to us. During the last few months, most things had slipped off her memory, except my father. How could he slip off? She had remained in love with him for sixty-two years; he had been her companion through thick and thin; through hardship and pain; through sorrow and joy; through every phase of life.

Ammi knew by heart many couplets from Durr-e-SameenKalam-e-Mahmud and Durr-e-Adan. They too remained intact and would start to roll off her tongue, once reminded of the first word or two. After her passing, my brother sent me a recording of one such instance. Ammi is singing in her melodious but frail voice:

“The world is but a roadside inn;

“Whoever comes your way, is only a passer-by.

“If one has lived a century;

“They too must, eventually die.

“But there’s no reason to complain;

“As this abode is mortal and vain.

“Blessed be this day;

“O the Pure One, Who watches over me!”

O Allah! Blessed be this day, and all days to come, for the woman who relied solely upon You. And, O Allah! Make this day blessed for us, her family, by giving us the comfort that You have placed her among your loved ones.

And, of course, there is no reason to complain. Ammi lived a long and successful life. She served her waqif-e-zindagi husband with the same spirit as his, if not more. She tried in whatever way she could to serve your beloved Faith. She sowed in our hearts the seeds of love and respect for Khilafat. We can only be thankful to you.

Providing care and service to parents is not something to be measured in worldly units. The mercy that our parents have for us is such a favour that no one can ever return. But I must mention here that my wife, my sister-in-law, my brother and my sisters all did their best in taking care of Ammi in the hardest time of her life.

I, spoiled by Ammi’s love, was unable to do anything for her.

In Ammi’s last days, in a solitary moment, I confessed to Ammi how useless I had been. I begged her forgiveness. Ammi, in response, just stared at me with a lost gaze. She didn’t say a word. I know that she hardly ever spoke in those days, but this silence of hers struck me really hard. She left me floating in my unfathomable guilt.

O Allah! Please ask my mother to forgive me. I know she will as she always did. And You, O Allah, are more forgiving than all mothers of the world. May you please forgive me too!

 رَّبِّ ارْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِي صَغِيرًا

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