20140115-230617.jpgBlog posts come when you’re supposed to be working, and as I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for my college writing class (two days overdue), I realize that there’s a strange familiarity in Junot Díaz description of La Inca. It was weird. Resoundingly weird. And then it hit me, reading about the sheer power in La Inca’s existence, that the same unwavering, incorrigible strength exists tenfold in my paternal grandmother. Never dadi, or dado, but Umba – baby-babbled gibberish internalized fiercely by my brother and I. No two syllables could evoke such intense love in grandchildren. Our Umba. The fiercest, most handsome woman in the world. Mashallahs murmured to infinity couldn’t do the lady justice.

Brief trip down my chronology: I was born pretty low key. For reasons that need no elaboration, I’ve never asked my mother details of her labor; it’s what transpired a little after I was born that, literally, left a mark. Long story short, there was a bucket of hot water beside my newborn body, a bucket promptly knocked down by an inattentive nurse. Boiling water, as you can imagine, would hurt anyone; it left me with a nebula of a scar, a third degree burn something fierce, a cluster of white and pink on tan that I boast proudly. At the time, of course, my parents did not appreciate the newly-acquired badassery of my skin, or the horrible pain their daughter was in. My grandmother, even less so. I’ve been told she raised hell, screaming obscenities that would make the most hardened, ruddy-cheeked sailor blush. Fills me with glee contemplating what she would’ve said.

“You know,” I laughed to her on the phone a couple weeks ago, just some hours before my flight back to Boston, “You know, Umba, I get hurt all the time. I fall, trip over nothing, get into all sorts of stupid accidents, but I get up each and everything time as if nothing happened. Kya bakwaas hai, na? It just doesn’t hurt. But my theory is I got slapped in the face with the worst injury imaginable as soon as I was born and nothing could compare to it, and so nothing does compare to it. Pretty sweet deal.”

To her credit, my grandmother did laugh, but then heaved a sigh that could turn Al-Jahannum into a blizzard and said to me, “My doll, you came into this world and instantly experienced so much pain and hurt, and I prayed and cried and prayed to Allah (SWT) that you would never experience any pain again. Stayed up all night crying. All night praying. Ya Allah, let nothing hurt my Neinoo again.”

My grandmother, with her lightning-voice, a personality like glorious thunder, a sincerity that could put still water to shame: I suppose I’m her golden child, Neinoo, Neintara, the first of her blood to run off to another country to study, à cause sheer ambition. The woman practically raised me, reared me up from birth, but I remember none of it, and I guess that’s the greatest tragedy in my life – that I remember nothing of her careful swaddling, her cooing and singing, her healing, blessed hands on my tiny, feverish body, massaging and kneading the sickness from me. Not even my mother, for all she loves me deeper than the Mariana Trench, could match the prayers this woman has prayed on my behalf, for my sake. And y’all don’t need to believe in prayer, but if you believe in love, then know that this woman’s love sustains me, has turned me into the functioning person I am today, propelled me to Boston, gives me life. Gives all us ungrateful Lasharies and co. life (for how could we ever match what this woman has given us? We can try, try, try, but we’d still be ungrateful in the face of my Umba’s devotion and love), her life.

And what a life she is (Mashallahs until my final breath): snake-wrangling, fist-shaking, cuss-hollering, sheer Punjab-hardened glory in every motion; biryani so tender it could bring tears to your eyes, a voice so sweet your goosebumps would keel over from the shame of not conveying just how deep she touches you, pious to the core, strength, strength, strength. Soft cheeks, calloused hands, and when she laughs, she laughs with every iota of mirth in her being (Umba-jii, shukriya for that one – I guess I inherited your laugh). I have never seen her afraid in my life – she is earth, life-giving, and I swear the air ripples around her when she walks.

I guess this is an ode to you, meri Umba, even if the words don’t do you justice. I wish my Urdu was pretty enough to convey this to you all-proper, but English must suffice for now. If I can be half the woman you are, my life will be worthwhile. Just know that your brat of a poti loves you and thinks about you even from Amreeka.

6 thoughts on “Umba

  1. This is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read about a loved one. You took me there, let me meet this extraordinary woman even for a fleeting moment, and made it unforgettable. I’m sure she is just as proud to have you as you are to have her. Masha’Allah. Thank you for writing this. People like your Umba show me how much beauty and strength the world can still hold in its tattered arms.

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