Mom Goes Shopping for a Grave

by Samia Altaf

Six months before she died, Saleema, my 85-year-old mother, still in relatively good health – she did have breast cancer and Hepatitis-C, the one in remission, the other inactive – became obsessed with the quality of her grave.

“You will throw my corpse on a rubbish heap for all I know,” she said after a long and difficult phone conversation with her favorite son, “for you all do not care about my wishes.”

“We do care mom and I will not throw your corpse on a rubbish heap but put it, washed and dressed for the occasion, respectfully and lovingly, in a grave”.

“Ah! But what kind of a grave? And where? That is the question”.

“Unfortunately, I am not Shah Jehan. I have a normal grave in mind but you tell me the kind you want, and I shall follow your instructions.”

Little did I know how limited our choices were. Graveyards in Lahore, where Mom lived, and eventually died, are a disorganized mess with a terrible shortage of space. I Googled and found a list that included the Taxali Gate graveyard, the Mominpura graveyard, Miani Sahib, and Gora Qabristan.

The Taxali Gate graveyard, one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Lahore near the Badshahi Mosque and old Taxali gate, dates to the 1800s. This, the original Gora Qabristan, literally the “white graveyard”, was established during British rule in Punjab to bury their own. The later Gora Qabristan, manicured and organized, is just off of the golf course of the Gymkhana Club.

The Miani Sahib graveyard is from the time of the Moguls. Many famous and infamous citizens are buried there. The Mominpura Graveyard near Lakshmi Chowk, now part of the old city, is for use of the Shia community.

Recently, the Punjab government, thanks to its maniacal chief minister, decided to upgrade graveyards, calling them Shehr-i-Khamoshan (City of the Quiet Ones). Each is to have facilities for parking, flowers shops, passage for funeral buses, and a mosque for funeral prayers. Imagine that, the whole lot in one go. The first one of these graveyards is to come alive in 2018.

“That may be too late for me…” says Mom. “Moreover, I do not trust these “Gunjoos” (bald ones), a swipe at the Sharif brothers – Nawaz and Shahbaz. “They say one thing and then, after they get the votes, they do another. Now they are even trying to get votes from corpses – ‘lakh lanat’ (a million shames).”

So we set out, Mom and I, to find a grave for her in a graveyard to her liking. She in starched and ironed cotton shalwar-kameez and an embroidered muslin dupatta with gold-trimmed edges, hair immaculately combed and held back with statement-green barrettes. Mom took to wearing green barrettes ever since Modi came to power in India and disdained green, the color of Pakistani flag. I accompany her with my grey roots freshly colored – more for her satisfaction for she hated me to show grey against her natural black hair – and in an outfit that, given her fleeting look of disapproval, clearly does not meet my mother’s sartorial standards.

Since Mom’s first choice is to be buried alongside Dad, who died thirty years ago, we go first to that graveyard somewhere in Gulberg. It does not even show up on Google maps. Disorganized and overcrowded, graves of different sizes, big ones, tiny ones, round ones, square ones are laid out every which way. One can almost feel the corpses cranky from being packed like discarded sardines. “There is hardly any breathing room here,” says Mom. We find my father’s grave squeezed to one side with a bare patch of space at the foot. “What about it?” I ask. Mom leans back in her wheel chair, turning it this way and that, as if contemplating a painting, and then shakes her head. “Nah, I have no intentions of lying at his feet! I did not do it when he was alive and I certainly won’t now that he is just a bunch of bones”.

The Mominpura graveyard, being a “Shia” graveyard, was out to start with. Mom is a staunch non-Shia. She thinks Shias are just sore losers for insisting that Hazrat Ali should be acknowledged as the first Caliph. “Well, someone else got to it first – so there. And look at them! Look how they have appropriated the choicest piece of real estate in the heart of the city while busy beating their chests. How clever!”

So we go to Miani Sahib graveyard. Baiji, mom’s mother, had thought she would be buried there so had taught us to say ‘asalam-o-alaikum ya ahlil kaaboor’ (greetings, O dwellers of the graves) every time we went past it in earlier times, which was often for it was on the way to uncle’s house. I was sure this was part of Baiji’s plan to posthumously continue to control my life as she had during my teens. How I spoke, sat, ate, were for her issues of immense concern and criticism. How I dressed was the bane of my life for a Muslim girl’s attire was a matter of life and death. I could not even undo the top button of my kameez without Baiji’s hawkish eyes burning into the 2 mm of flesh that showed leave aside any attempt to show one’s collar bone or, que horror, a budding, décolletage.

Maini Sahib is green and serene amidst the noise and cacophony of the crazy city and the mess of graves with gravestones stuck onto them, from ornate marble ones with fancy calligraphy to ones that looked like crooked, rotting teeth. Huge old trees –Amaltas with its brilliant yellow voluptuous bunches, the gentle Jamun, and that queen of all trees Punjabi, the Peepal, with its smooth bark and generous shade – recreate the romantic Punjabi folklore. Sultry damsels on somnolent afternoons sat in the Peepal’s shade alerting their lovers by jiggling the glass bracelets on their arms. “Peepli thalay main chankayan wangan,” crooned Mom, tunelessly and enthusiastically evoking the singer Noor Jehan. Mom loves the greenery and approves of the “natural fertilizer” that nurtures all this lush vegetation. True to style she cannot resist a ballet-turn of a nasty swipe at the wasteful Hindus next door who cremated their dead.

Unfortunately, Miani Sahib is also rejected. “Why ever?” Because, it is “too far from home.” “Why would that matter?” Suddenly, I am suspicious. “You don’t intend to come home at the end of the day, do you?” Mom laughs. She shrugs, “I need to feel close.” She looks at me with arched brows and a naughty smile. I have a creepy feeling she wants to continue the tradition of her mother – to keep a critical eye on me, on my hair roots and other things – even from her grave.

At what was to be her last Eid, Mom insisted there be a traditional Eid lunch and invited the whole family. Some came, others sulked; of those that came some left early for more important visits where they wanted to see and be seen. Her favorite son was conspicuous by his absence. In the end it was only mom and all her daughters and nieces at the lunch. A gaggle of seven middle-aged women – married, unmarried, hoping to be married (still!), divorced, widowed, and other configurations in between. Dressed in silk saris and traditional shalwar kurtas, grey hair colored to raven blacks and brilliant browns – one even dared to have blond streaks – arms adorned with colorful bangles and hennaed hands, we gathered around my mother’s bed to celebrate Eid.

We had a grand old time – food was brought into Mom’s room and we ate, leaning on round pillows. Enormous quantities of mutton pulao, chicken korma, chapli kebabs, kalonji nans, ending with the traditional siwayyon ki kheer and mangoes –delicious Chaunsa from Southern Punjab, the land famous for honor killings of women and the sweetest, most fragrant, mangoes in the world. We laughed and cried, dug up old gripes, added new ones, ate some more, and told dirty jokes well into the evening.

Mother laughed no end though she mostly slept through the evening having OD-ed on pulao and Zantac. She’d wake up now and then and take part in the chatter, which was at times acrimonious and then hilarious, childish. “It was you who locked me in the bathroom when mom left you in charge, so you could go off wherever you used to go off in those, your dark days, and I had to go without dinner,” said little sister, now a big fat grandmother in a hot pink chiffon kameez with matching pearl necklace straining against her many chins and bejeweled fat fingers holding aloft a nan-wrapped chapli kebab. Mom intervenes, eats some more, pops another Zantac, and goes back to sleep.

Later in the evening, I find her alert looking critically at me. Me, in all my Eid finery – red hand-woven tanchoi silk sari, a matching choli blouse with a plunging neckline, the 24 Ct. gold jhumkas, part of my dowry, dangling from my ears, my arms full of bangles, gold and glass, the hair freshly colored – and salon done too – in a French chignon, held up by Baiji’s silver hairpins, and my swanky high heel sandals and fiercely painted red toe nails.

“What?” I ask, knowing from her expression there was something on her mind bursting to come out. I expect something profound, some long-forgotten embarrassing secret revealed – what made her father change his religion in middle age with half his children changing over to the new one and the other half clinging to the old one, alienated from each other for the next three decades: Or why did she have that abortion; Or an explanation for some contentious unresolved issue that had kept my sister and I tied up in knots through the past decades such as who had more claim to moms’ engagement ring. Maybe she would impart a nugget of hard-earned wisdom, or a crucial recipe, some salve for the old bruises to my soul that I, like all of us, keep alive so meticulously. Maybe–dare I dream? – approval of my sartorial choice, at last.

She looks at me now with a tilt to her head, focuses her beady little myopic eyes, and says, “I think you need a new bra – this one does not seem to be holding up well.” And she goes back to sleep again.

An hour later she wakes up thrilled. “I dreamt I was at a great party.” “Yeah, you are.” “No, it was another one. Everyone was there.” “Who?” Abbaji, Baiji, her parents, Muzzaffar and Khalida, her older siblings –folks all long dead – and Hameed, her most favorite brother, who died of a Glioblastoma twenty years ago leaving her bereft. “Was my father there at your party?” Yes, he was there somewhere but it was Hameed who was happiest to see her. He was so young and handsome, his hair dark, his beard immaculately trimmed and his face shining with joy. Hameed jumped up from the chair he sat in and came towards her with open arms and kissed her. “Now that you are here Saleema, the party will be a party,” he said and took her in. She recounts her dream with happy anticipation.

Mother died last Friday. She died as she had lived, with a childish curiosity, and a fearless welcoming zeal for life – and for death.

Bed-ridden, she had lurched in and out on receding waves of life for two months. Like the Titanic – built of such outstanding material credited to unusually loving parents who fed her generously on pure butter, meat, nuts, and the best fruit, a rarity in this culture where daughters are mostly neglected – she sank imperceptibly with each lurch. She took to her grave a full head of almost black hair and 30 original teeth, losing her wisdom teeth just last year to a botched root-canal, much to her dismay, and marvels of modern technology that included two knee replacements, a titanium shaft in the right thigh, a reconstructed shoulder, an artificial eyeball, and a reconditioned hip joint.

A week earlier, as doctors concurred that nothing much could be done for her stroke, she had gleefully pulled out all her attachments – the NG tube, the IV line, and the Foley’s. For five days she ate when and what she wanted – custard, chopped mangoes, rice pulao – and drank jugs of nimboo-pani. She swallowed the pills she liked – Zantac – and refused all others, slept and awoke as she wished, watched TV commenting on the doings and undoings of the “Gunjoos,” told stories from her past, begged to have her diaper removed – she hated it – and then one night, turning on her left side, her left hand under her cheek, with a satisfied sigh, she stopped breathing and died.

However much we know our parents there is much more about them we don’t. Each person “contains multitudes.” Luckily for me, since I got to take care of her, my mother’s personality kept unfolding and enriching my life in indescribable, delightful, and at times, frustrating ways. There were many “last conversations” that helped redeem the past, provide salve for hurts real and imagined, and guidance for the future. Most of all, she made me understand what it means to be a mother – in all its glory and its folly, its perfections and imperfections. And that keeping your hair combed, your clothes ironed, and showing up with the day, matters.

There is a peculiar color to the deprivation one feels at losing one’s parents. It is a fundamental change, a before and an after. The sky and the sun and the earth lose the solid permanence of before. One feels a new vulnerability. It is a strangely unsettling feeling.Heading back, after burying Mom in a grave she chose, in an orderly graveyard, one close to home, un-crowded and green, it starts to rain, a soft gentle pitter-patter that washes the leaves and freshens the grass. They look different, not the same grass and trees and the summer sky, but different ones, as if my mother’s soul had already permeated them.

 Are you still here? In which corner are you?

You who knew so much about all these things,

And were so able, as you proceeded through life,

Open to everything, like a dawning day.

(From Rainer Maria Rilke, Requiem for a Friend).

I realize my mother’s story has not ended with her death. A life, so ordinary, so rich, and lived with such intensity, keeps on going. And I still have to see to that damn bra.