Farewell Aunt Husna
by Humera Ahmed
In an anguished voice my brother informed that Husna aunty was no more. For a few minutes, it didn’t register. Though in her late eighty’s, she was fit and looked twenty years younger than her age and was as charming as ever. She was my dad’s cousin, and had been married within the family – to her cousin, who was also dad’s cousin. A feisty lady – she personified charm, grace and dignity and who besides being an exemplary home maker and mother was able to make a difference in the lives of many people. As the news sank in,I felt devastated. Her death marked the end of an era of gracious living, generous hospitality and a concern for the old, the feeble and the ailing which some of the old Hyderabad aristocratic families were known for.
I couldn’t attend the funeral as I was in Mumbai. But a few days later, I went to visit uncle, her 90 year old husband, who was bedridden, in the hundred year old haveli which he had inherited from his father, a Nawab. Located in the old city of Hyderabad,it was set in 10 acres of land, surrounded by bungalows of the erstwhile Nawab’s extended family and small tenements of his retainers and their families – a habitation of nearly 300 people! Presiding over this huge household and caring for their well fare was one of Husna aunt’s top priorities.
As I made my way from the Hyderabad airport to the haveli, my memories went back to the summer of 64, the first time I met her in my conscious life. We were visiting Hyderabad, from Calcutta (now Kolkata), where my dad was then posted, on his home town LTC. Hence we were travelling first class which meant a lot to us. We had never had a whole carriage with plush berths all to ourselves : it was as big as our bedroom, with an attached bathroom! We were therefore very excited at the prospect of spending nearly 20 hrs in it,playing our favorite indoor games.
But my mother had a different plan – she had decided to use the time to groom us, to teach us etiquette, so as to prepare us to meet dad’s aristocratic relatives who had last seen us as toddlers. They were annoyed when Dad had married outside his aristocratic clan and she was apprehensive that she would be held responsible for our uncouth ways.
So instead of playing games and generally relaxing, we had to learn the elaborate etiquette system followed in the Nawabi culture while my Dad looked on amused. He was busy catching up on his reading.
“Bend low, and salaam, and don’t raise your head till they bless you. And when you are served, or given an extra helping, salaam them. Say this – don’t say that… And don’t speak out of turn – be quiet specially you two.” She said pointing to me and my younger sister as we were as boisterous as our two brothers. We were quite taken a back for up till now my parents had never differentiated between us – there were no separate set of rules of behavior for girls.
We were therefore fearful of meeting Dad’s awesome relatives and staying in the stifling atmosphere of the family haveli in a joint family, for ten days! I thought I was better off reading my favorite fairy tales in the children’s library at Belvedere.
But as the train drew into Hyderabad’s Nampaly station we had a pleasant surprise – meeting Husna aunty and her husband. I was completely bowled over by her: she was so charming, so pleasant, so gracious and affectionate. She and mom were of the same age and were great friends and uncle was also very fond of Dad.
They greeted us with a cheery “Hello.”
But then the other inmates of the haveli were different, especially the older generation who seemed to put us under a scanner, critically watching how we dressed, sat,stood, ate, and spoke. But thanks to Mom’s rigorous lecture, we managed to keep her head high. But if we hadn’t felt hemmed in, it was
due to Husna aunty- who took us out to snazzy shops and happening clubs or just on a drive along the cities Tank Bund area making the visit memorable. Over the years I have marveled how she was able to straddle two worlds so effortlessly.
Then when Dad was posted to Mumbai (then Bombay), and aunty on her way to USA where many of our relatives had migrated, stayed with us and I became aware of her multifaceted personality. Married at seventeen to her cousin who reportedly had fallen in love with her – she carried on with her studies. She said, she was inspired by my mom, who was the first graduate and post graduate in the family. So aunty too did the same – and became the first in her family. And like Mom she took to social work. She was instrumental in rescuing a few young girls who were being forcibly married off to old Arabs. But though I admired her, I felt that the credit should also go to uncle for his unstinting support.
I suddenly came back to the present, as the car halted outside the imposing arch, the entry to the Villa. I felt a lump in my throat. It was the first time I was entering it without her being there to welcome us. We got down and walked through the wonderful landscaped garden –each flower and stone had been tended under aunt’s supervision. And then into the drawing room where many sad faced relatives sat paying their condolences while our forefathers grim portraits on the wall reminded us of the ephemeral nature of life. I walked towards a shelf which had family photos: of aunt as a bride, as a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, all in a celebratory mood; photos of her smartly turned out receiving awards from VIPs’ – always smiling, contented with life. I realized that I had had never seen her cry or raise her voice; she was always soft spoken, even tempered – in control of herself. And she was always well turned out, suitably dressed for the occasion.
I went inside – feeling her absence in every nook and corner. In her bedroom, her two year old great grandson was calling out for her. His parents looked lost – not knowing how to explain where she had gone.
I walked to her bed side. On the table was a book in Urdu – a translation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Letters from a Father to a Daughter –a compilation of the 31 letters which Nehru wrote to Indira from jail. Inside on the front page, aunty had written: “A book that inspired me ¬– to be a seeker , of knowledge, to love nature … to care for the downtrodden and so I translated it in Urdu.”
“Are you all going to publish it?” I asked my cousin, her son.
“Yes. It is being published. She had wanted it to be distributed freely in the Urdu school’s so that the children could also be inspired by it, as she had been.”
As we stood talking, a young man entered, with a bundle of copies of the book in Urdu. He was Sayeed, Rehmat bi’s son. Rehmat Bi was one of my aunt's maids. I remembered that he had lost his father when he was about nine and aunty had taken over the responsibility of his education and also assisted him in setting up a desktop printing press.
“He refuses to take any money for it – and is also distributing free copies,” my cousin said.
“That’s the least I can do to …” Sayeed broke off in a chocked voice.
My cousin said, “There are many more whose life she had transformed, many whom we didn’t know.They were present at the funeral – they all were remembering her. She has left behind a more lasting legacy than this stone and mortar building and the beautiful garden. Her life was successful.”
I couldn’t but agree to his surmise.She was a wonderful example of a life well lived and would always be an inspiration for us.
“Farewell, aunt,” I whispered as I left the Villa. ***