When I was a little girl you would tell me about the apple trees in Jannat. In Jannat anyone could wish for anything you said. If you wanted an apple, an apple tree would just appear and the fruit on it would be so sweet and so juicy, you wouldn’t believe it you said as you imitated eating an apple and sighing in pleasure at the imagined taste.
You were our story teller; gathering us grandchildren around you as you motioned with your wrinkled hands and told us about cunning foxes that wanted to eat grapes and crows that tricked schoolboys into giving away their puris, about thieves hiding in king’s palaces and of course stories about the Prophets, the Sahaba and Jannat. You told us about how you left India for South Africa in 1936 as a boy on a steamship. How you slept on thin mattresses on the floor of the S.S. Takliwa and how at meal times someone would call out, ‘Musalmaan BC wallah, khana ayah’ (even as I write this Abbajaan, I am crying because I can hear you singing this out and I know I am writing it wrong and I can’t ask you anymore what the exact words are because you are gone and the words are gone with you).
I can just imagine you as a boy on a big ship looking out at the endless sea. When you arrived in Africa you said you were so amazed to see taps with running water you immediately put your mouth to the spout to drink. How different the world was on the other side of the ocean for you, a village boy from India who was good at maths and bad at English.
How you loved telling us stories; leaving us wide eyed in wonder or giggling in amusement as the story ended with the fox getting his punishment or the thief getting caught. But then we grew up Abajaan, and we visited you less and less and I hope you can forgive us for this. You didn’t complain, you kept busy; caught your taxi every morning and walked through your beloved town, visited your friends, ate your samoosas at the tea room, bought your bananas and returned home to your quiet bedroom lined with books that you read at night below a silver lamp. How you loved reading; if you were not filling the house with the sound of your Quran recitation, you were underlining important passages in your Gujarati papers, making notes in the margins of your motivational guides or even reading your Enid Blyton books about Brer Rabbit and wishing chairs. Perhaps my love for the written word comes from you but it is my wonder at the world that is truly your gift.
I’ve been thinking a lot about your life recently. There are important things to learn from it; the significance of kindness, the dignity in quietness and the beauty of humbleness. You thanked everyone all the time. Even when you were sick you thanked the nurses for injecting you, you thanked your children for helping you and you thanked me for merely asking how you were. You never asked anyone for anything, never took lifts when they were offered because you preferred to walk and even at 90, you made your own breakfast, bought your own groceries, cut your own hair, mended your simple white kurtas, went to the dentist and even attempted to order hearing aids. You once told me that one of your most important duas was that you would never be mohtaj (a burden) on anyone. At 94, when you became too weak to walk in town anymore you deteriorated almost immediately as if your body was declaring that if you were not allowed to be independent, that if you had to inconvenience anyone, you would rather not live.
Do you remember just two weeks ago Abbajaan, we ran out and tried to stop you from walking on the street because you were too weak? You pleaded with my father, almost crying on the side of the road to let you walk alone. Even Khadeejah found you some mornings at 2am standing in your room pacing energetically on the spot, your legs longing for that movement that gave you peace of mind. You said if you could just walk again you would get better. Your walk was your heartbeat, each step kept you going; from the moment you began that job in 1945 as a travelling salesman walking around town selling lace from your briefcase until 70 years later when you were a great grandfather still walking those streets. Your legs were your life and when you were forced to stop walking, the only real sign of sickness was how swollen they became, seemingly filled with longing for the road.
You left this world like how you lived in it; on a Saturday afternoon, as to inconvenience no one and so quietly you still seemed asleep. In those last moments you had your sons at your feet rubbing your most treasured possessions: those legs that were your life. I think that is the best way you could have gone.
I’ve been thinking about how you lived such a long life with such contentment. I’ve been thinking that it must have been lonely and it must have been hard at times. You were married for 43 years and you spent almost 30 years alone after Ma passed away. That’s a long life and a long time to be a person in a world that is too busy for old people. I know you never complained but I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’ve been thinking that life isn’t easy for most people who are young and healthy and I have been wondering how you went on with such quiet dignity. You never fell into despair or complaint.
Your life was a lesson in the power of patience.
Patience is something I struggle with, something I think everyone struggles with and perhaps it is our greatest test. The patience to accept, endure and even survive. Patience was key to the success of your life, Abbajaan. God mentions ‘patience’ 90 times in the Quran, placing special emphasis on people who are tested and how patience is rewarded without measure. The quality and peace of your life was proof that patience is the key to a good life and perhaps your story will inspire us to strive for it.
Amongst all your notes and quotes scribbled in your books, your calendars and pieces of papers, you had this written:
‘The more patient you are the more accepting you will be of what is, rather than demanding that life be exactly as you would like it to be. Without patience life is extremely frustrating.’
I’m not sure which of your books you took that from but it sums up the graceful way you lived. Your life is a lesson that patience is the key to happiness; if you can accept your fate with grace and live with gratefulness and kindness you can endure anything.
You were a great man. Great men can be quiet men too (in fact they are often the greatest kind). You didn’t win awards or write books or change the country but you opened the world to us with your stories and in your gentle way you taught us the importance of patience and kindness and that is far better than anything else.
We miss you Abbajaan. You’re on a new journey now. But I am sure that wherever you are going there are endless roads to be walked on, roads lined with trees that are filled with apples that are so sweet and so juicy you wouldn’t believe it!