By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
One of my favorite love stories begins in the most unromantic way.
My maternal grandmother, Sardar Begum, was 16 or 17 when she was told to prepare for some guests coming to visit. When they arrived, her grandmother told her the event was her engagement ceremony and this man, a stranger to her, her fiance. It was India in the mid-1930s, so, of course, she married Khawaja Hafeez ur Rehman Wyne.
He was a soft-spoken man, religious and socially active. She was a simple woman, with black hair so long and beautiful, two female servants would come to help her take it down and wash it. Nine months after they wed, she gave birth to a daughter.
More children quickly followed: another daughter, four sons. One baby boy died when he was 4 years old of pneumonia.
It shook their lives, and soon after, their world was about to change again. My grandfather was attending underground meetings for the creation of a new country, one that would be for India’s Muslims once they won independence from Britain.
My grandmother was making rotis at the stove that August day in 1947. Her husband raced home to say they had to leave at once. She washed her hands, grabbed her five children, the youngest only a few weeks old, and fled their home. My grandfather put them on a train filled with other women and children and sent them to a nation’s chaotic birth. During the Partition, they joined one of the largest migrations of people from one country to a new land. More than 12 million left their homeland to start their lives anew. Up to a million died in the bloody movement of people across the newly formed borders.
They reunited days later in a camp in Lahore set up for displaced people. Pakistan was starting from scratch, as were those who sought it as a sanctuary. My grandfather became a respected businessman and active in their community in Lahore. He studied homeopathic medicine and was a regular at the mosque. My grandmother bore five more children, losing one daughter shortly after she was born. They lost a son in his 20s when he died suddenly, possibly in a drowning accident.
But their lives were not just defined by their darkest moments.
My mother, the middle child, says she doesn’t remember her parents arguing when she was growing up.
“He knew what she wanted, and she knew what he wanted,” she said. “They didn’t demand anything of each other. They knew their own duties and did it gladly.”
Their idea of love may have been different from our modern notions of it, but their actions revealed a timeless truth: Love is behavior; it takes root and blossoms in how we treat one another.
My grandmother’s sense of humor and emotional personality complemented my grandfather’s laid-back, gentle demeanor.
And, for two people brought together without much choice in the matter, they found tenderness for each other.
When my grandmother would complain of a headache, my grandfather would be the first to get up to massage her head. Every evening, when he returned from saying his prayers at the mosque, he would sit and talk with his children and tell them stories about their faith. My mother remembers one such talk clearly. She was in 10th grade. Her father said to his children: “Do you know what I prayed for today?” In the Quran, there are descriptions of heaven that include the promise of beautiful and pure companions called hoors. He told his children: “I told God I don’t want hoors in heaven. I just want my wife.”
When they came to visit us in America, he made an effort to understand the ways of his American grandchildren. We developed a close friendship, and I remember the blue AirGram letters we exchanged for years. He had 30 grandchildren, but each felt like his favorite. He died unexpectedly in his 70s of a heart attack, 22 years ago when I was 14 years old. My grandmother was surrounded by her surviving seven children — except the one daughter whose arranged marriage took her over oceans to America. My mother took the first flight back to Pakistan to pay her respects to her father and comfort her mother.
My grandmother devoted herself to prayer and her family and kept tabs on 40 great-grandchildren.
Out of a sense of traditional and cultural respect from another era, my grandmother had never used my grandfather’s name when she spoke about him or to him. Recently, her daughter-in-law overheard her saying to herself, “Hafeez, you left me too soon.”
On Christmas Day, my grandfather’s prayer was answered.
His beloved wife had finally joined him.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at email@example.com.