س: Sweet-Bread, From Seeds to Fruit Trees; the Passing of Time.

.بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

My nan, according to ‘official documents’, had been born in 1952. If this is correct, then she is very nearly seventy years old, In Shaa Allah.

‘س’ (‘s’) is the Arabic letter I am choosing to use, to represent her (i.e., her name). My nanu’s name, when written in English, has been spelt beginning with ‘Ch’, however, when pronounced in Bengali, it seems to sound more like an ‘s’. [Similar with when Bengalis from -Desh pronounce the letter ‘z’ as ‘j’, and ‘j’ as ‘z’].

‘Nanu’ is what I call her: she, the mother of my mother. And ‘Dhadhu’ is what some of my cousins — those born to Nanu’s sons — call her.

Nanu had spent the earliest parts of her life in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Her father had been a fisherman/farmer.

Recently, we had been eating breakfast together, I think, and Nanu commented on the amount of choice there is, in this moment in space and time, in terms of food and things, in the ‘here and now’.

Back then, for breakfast: less wealthy families would have… rice mixed with water. Kisuree: porridge. Meanwhile, wealthier families would typically have (sweet-)bread with tea.

Nanu’s family — her mother and father, and their seven daughters and one son — lived in a mud-house with a tin roof, which, in Bengali, is interestingly called a ‘sunny’ [coincidentally, tin roofs do deflect the sunlight]. A big open space, in the home, for eating, playing, sleeping. Prayer, socialising. Central, communal, open spaces: arguably something that the incoming houses of ‘modernity’ would appear to lack…

Nanu’s family would typically eat rice (probably because that had been what was most readily available around them) and dhaal (lentil curry/soup). Fish, too. In terms of material wealth, Nanu’s family had not been affluent.

Wealth is not in having many possessions. Rather, true wealth is the richness of the soul.” [an agreed-upon Hadīth, Bukhāri and Muslim.]

[I don’t mean to romanticise or idealise neither the past, nor away-from-here. And nor do I want to romanticise or idealise the here-and-now. Back then, Bangladesh: sunshine, probably stronger social bonds and a sense of consistent community. Organic food, and less… corporate stress, ‘choice paralysis’ and exhaustion, probably.

But also: worries about food scarcity, perhaps, among other things. We’re fortunate, now, to have such things as clean, running water, developed healthcare systems, and so on. But there are downsides here, too: rampant depressions, unanimous feelings of loneliness, despondency, existential angst, and the like.]

After Nanu got married, at the age of fifteen [in Islam, we accept that one becomes an adult when one biologically becomes an adult. ‘Eighteen’ is something of an arbitrary, or generalised, measurement, in truth, solidified over time by widespread and continued acceptance], she eventually moved into a house that had twelve rooms, and two floors.

Here in London: one-bedroom flat, for herself and all her children; with one of her sisters living right nearby. And then: the next turn, Allah’s decree… they found and moved to a house with three floors, a garage, a garden, and an attic, Maa Shaa Allah. [Sabr for what is struggle; Shukr for all that is good and beautiful…]

And life, guided by Allah, will take its Intended, though for us, often, unexpected, twists and turns…

[Will you meet your to-be spouse this coming year, In Shaa Allah? Where, and how? Will you surprisingly get into fishing/farming? Do you drastically change career paths in three years’ time? Move homes? And so on. Only Allah Knows.]

I am sure that there are many interesting, and sweet, and sad, and funny, stories that Nanu has lived through, involving her siblings, parents, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren. Her youngest sister, as one example, is called ‘Victory’ in Bengali, since she had been born after some sort of legal/political breakthrough experienced by her father.

Nanu says that her one brother [who has seven sisters, and also, Subhaan Allah, went on to have seven daughters, and no sons, of his own] had been a quiet person. In contrast, perhaps, with my brother, who tried to take my pen out of my hand as I had been taking notes on what Nanu had been saying. [There are some scribbles in my notebook, courtesy of Nanu’s grandson…]

[My youngest cousin, three-year-old Siyana: Nanu started calling her ‘Suto Nanu’ (‘small grandma’) the other day. And I am ‘Boro Nanu’ (‘big grandma’). When we are at Nanu’s house, we are habitually re-well-acquainted with what grandmotherly care looks like, Allahummabārik]

As well as being a farmer/fisherman, Nanu’s father (her Babaa) had been considered an important member of the community in Bangladesh: Nanu recalls one day, after Fajr, I think she had said, finding that her father had left, by boat, to be part of some sort of Bisar (conflict resolution; a sort of court held by responsible elders/patriarchs) which he had been called to be part of: the people seemed to have respected his authority and judgement.

Nanu talks about their general routine, back in Sylhet: they did not have a TV. They would play, do fora (‘reading’) and go to school (‘ishkul’). Come back, wash (‘aat fou’: ‘Hands/arms and feet‘. An expression that means, I believe, generally cleansing oneself upon returning home). Eat, read Qur’an. Go to the masjid for fora. At roughly seven in the evening, they would eat, and then get ready for bed.

Here in London (England. i.e., not Ontario…) my Nana (grandfather) worked at a coat factory. He had his wife, and those six children, to provide for. The coat factory had been in Whitechapel, and over time it became a kitchen-tools warehouse, I believe, and it is now a (rather ‘hipster’, ‘gentrified’) hotel, standing opposite to the bus-stop that I used to wait at quite frequently. This part of East London: East London Mosque, the school that two of Nanu’s children, and, later, five of her grandchildren, had attended. The local primary school: two of her children, seven of her grandchildren. Where we have fed, and do sometimes feed, the birds, and ducks, and swans. The two markets, for scarves, and brooches, and vegetables; the fish and meat shops; the grocery.

Nowadays, Nanu seems to rather enjoy drinking tea, and eating sweet-bread (specifically, brioche loaves from Waitrose.

Where we live now, and in this point of time: we find that there are no longer ponds for fishing, or rice fields around us. But there’s a Waitrose here. And an ornamental canal, which has, among other creatures, some koi fish swimming through it…)

Is it not amazing how things, including people, and our circumstances and stories, change over time? ‘Development’. Time moves, and we move, and places change: is it not amazing?

Currently, in a plastic milk jug-bottle (blue-lid,) which is cut in half, Nanu has some plant shoots growing, on the window-sill of her kitchenette; some more plants outside, on the balcony. She lives in a part of London that rather resembles a parochial village. Down the lane: post office, laundrette, greengrocer’s. Health centre. Butcher’s, too — but we tend to get our Halal meat from a (though still nearby,) part of town.

Currently, Nanu is enjoying a cup of tea, and a wrap with some hummus. She tells me about how her mother had been beautiful, Maa Shaa Allah [May Allah have mercy on her. My nan’s mother — my Boromai — lived in Shadwell, East London, and passed away some five years ago, maybe, now. Her Janāzah prayer had been at the East London Mosque]. But Nanu added that her father had, perhaps, been even more ‘Shundhor’ (Bengali: beautiful, handsome).

It has been roughly a decade since my Nanu had a stroke. So around half of the time I have known her [I am currently twenty years old, Maa Shaa Allah] had been during her general time of wellness: when she had been able to speak and move soundly. She has, Maa Shaa Allah, Allahummabārik, by the Grace of Allah, been doing quite well since, although it seems like it has all been quite a struggle for her.

Some things about the ways in which Nanu speaks and does things are not exactly the same as how they had been before. But she is still she, just in this changed-over-time, and as-a-result-of-circumstance kind of way:

Nanu has six children: four daughters and two sons. Her youngest child, my aunt, said something fairly recently, I think, about how Nanu had been like a ‘tiger’ during her (my aunt’s) youth. In how she would deal with things: this initially non-English-speaking woman of six children, in a foreign land. Dealing with their school-related matters, (probably some racist incidents,) and all the rest. In Shaa Allah, I hope to find out more about my nan, and about her late husband, my Nana, from their children, soon.

My aunt (whose continued nickname from us, her family, is ‘Sweetie’) said, I think, that while recovering from the stroke, one of the first things that Nanu had brought herself to do again had been: reciting the Qur’an.

It’s a sort of faith — Īmān, really trusting and believing in Allah — that is, perhaps, as my uncle (Nanu’s younger son) says: unique to people of Nanu’s generation, and beforehand. No matter what: Islam. What Allah says, we try to do.

I think my Nan still misses my grandfather very much. There used to be two prosperous trees, Maa Shaa Allah, in the garden here, where my mother’s parents and siblings used to live. An apple tree and a pear tree, and my grandfather had planted them there in the first place. That’s how it works: we may sow a seed, and then Allah takes care of its results.

Nanu, at say, twenty years old, probably never for once imagined that her life would go on to look like this. In terms of the blessings Allah had decreed for her, and in terms of the struggles and tests:

إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا

“Indeed, with hardship [is/comes] ease.” Qur’an (94:6)

Allah tells us this twice, consecutively, in His Book. Our lives here in Dunya will be arduous. And we will have ease, and blessings, too.

فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ

Qur’an (12:18)

A beautiful patience: keep going, as a steadfast Muslim, even when the going gets tough. Allah’s help, relief, is near.

Five out of six of Nanu’s children now have children of their own. Two of her grandchildren are married. Three of her daughters work in Education. Her children travel fairly often. One of her sons is involved with local politics; her other son works in the City. Grandfather in Agriculture; father in manufacturing; children as professionals. [I wonder what we, Nanu’s children’s children, end up doing with these lives of ours…]

And Islam has been the golden thread throughout: the most important consideration.

Nanu’s children pray, and read Qur’an. Fast during Ramadān; speak Bengali (and Hindi, I believe. And Urdu,) as well as English. Personally, my (Sylheti) Bengali language skills are limited to being able to understand, and I am able to piece together sentences, with some struggle. I don’t think my little brother and cousin know as much as me; there seems to be something of a barrier of understanding between my nan and them. [Nanu’s grandchildren: one knows some German. Some know some Spanish and some Arabic. One or two of us are learning some French, so it would seem. And we all come to also learn another distinctive language: the particular language spoken by one of my aunts, who has learning disabilities/a speech impediment. She has her own ‘idioglossia’.]

Nanu, back then, used to pick us up from school sometimes. I have this somewhat vivid memory of when she had picked my cousin and I up from our primary school, which had been nearby (and still is. And my brother and cousin go there now, Maa Shaa Allah). And we walked into the house, and I remember sitting outside and playing or something, as we would do, on her reed mats (satees). And making little things out of dough, like little ‘hundees’ (rice pots, and we’d make little-little ‘grains of rice’ out of the dough to put inside them, dough-made lid and all). And she would bake them for us, in the oven. And I think we used to eat them after that, too.

Sometimes Nana (my grandfather, may Allah have mercy on him) used to pick us up from school too. [I remember losing my PE bag on the bus when I had been going home with him once. A random memory.]

The masjid that he used to frequent is nearby. Masjids do not require anything like ‘grandeur’ to be wonderful. Sandals, and footsteps, and the sacred sanctity of simplicity.

I wonder what this life has looked like, for Nanu, from the moment of her birth to the age of ten. And: ten to twenty. Twenty to thirty, with her children. Forty to fifty, with the incoming of some grandchildren; meeting us, and knowing whom we are, and we knowing her too. Fifty to sixty, and the loss of her husband. And her own unwell-ness, and the loss of her mother.

One of Nanu’s sisters currently lives in America; one of them used to live in Italy, but now lives here. Seven out of eight of Bibi Noor’s children live here, in London. We were shaken by the sudden loss of one of Nanu’s nieces: a beautiful person, when she was twenty-seven years old. An aunt of mine, who had passed not long after her grandmother (Bibi Noor) had, I think.

At her home in Wapping, Nanu has a personalised prayer mat, with the name ‘Nanu’ stitched onto it: I believe it had been gifted to her from my eldest maternal cousin, my Didi.

Nanu also has a special chair, which she uses to pray, I think. It also has an affixed table feature, which she uses to recite the Qur’an. In the early mornings, and late at night: her reading sounds like song, like melody. She is so caring, so happy for you, and encouraging.

Tell her you’re trying to eat more healthy, and she might prepare vegetables specifically for you, with every meal she makes for you. A bowl of cut mango for your Ifthar, a covered bowl, waiting for you; snacks for your friends. How active my nan still is, Maa Shaa Allah. And strong. And prayerful.

I know her as my nan, and some know her as a sister; a mother; an aunt; a friend; a former neighbour [my nan’s neighbours had been Muslim too. Their grandfather planted an apple tree in their garden too; it is exceptionally fruitful, with many green apples; may Allah bless it even more.]

Is it not inexplicably amazing: how Allah plans? [Beyond what our minds could ever truly conceive, until we come to meet that Plan, year upon year, between fruit and fruit.]

For family, and for sweet-bread; for those redirections and for our more fruitful seasons alike, we say: Subhaan Allah (Glory be to Allah).

  • To wake up in the early morning for Fajr, Nanu does not use her iPhone alarm: she uses her classic (analogue) silver alarm clock, which has a handle, and bells as ears.

2 thoughts on “س: Sweet-Bread, From Seeds to Fruit Trees; the Passing of Time.

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