My Nani was a special woman. Yes, she shared many traits you’d associate with the typical Indian grandmother. She loved to cook, loved to take care of my Nanaji, and loved to dress up for weddings. But she also had a fiery independent side that came out in the way she raised her kids, with discipline, with guidance from the highest education standards, and with an unwavering will to never stray from honesty. She had all the elements of the modern trailblazing Punjabi woman, but because she was from a different era, many of her finest qualities never had the opportunity to see the light of day. I can only wonder about the havoc she would cause had she been born in the 90s or 2000s.
You were such a strong willed woman. I would have loved to see you running a business.
My nani ran our household like any good CEO. Maids and drivers clocked in everyday at 7 am sharp. The drivers received lunch breaks for an hour in the afternoon, and they clocked out at 8 pm. If they were out with us during their lunch intervals, Nani made sure they received 100-200 rupees for lunch. They were treated the same if we were attending an evening party. To make things easier for us, Nani paid for their relocation to a home closer to ours. That made their commutes shorter and freed up their time as well. For the maids, Nani made sure that they received a wage higher than market level and whenever a maid had a new child, Nani gave them a bonus and a raise. Moreover, Nani had a sweet spot for little children, so she paid for their education too. She never forced the domestic help to stay at her place. Nani made sure that if any of the domestic help wanted to leave, they received a month’s severance. There was once a maid who stole some jewelry. The other maids, loyal to my Nani, immediately told her about the thief. Nani brought the maid to our drawing room and ushered everyone else in the family out. She did this because she didn’t want the maid who robbed to feel humiliated in front of others. Nani also did this because others wouldn’t react as calmly as her. Nani fired her, but made sure she received two months’ severance, because she wanted to enforce that kindness always trumped everything else.
She raised her daughter (my mother) and her son (my uncle) with a commendable discipline and with an unwavering commitment to always speak the truth, and never lie. She used to make my uncle do squats every time she caught him in a lie. She forced my mother to do chores usually done by maids and servants. She did these things to them to prove that no matter what, there will always be consequences when you lie, cheat, or steal.
When it came to education, she made sure my parents attended the best schools in Chandigarh, allowing them the best chance to succeed in life. My mother’s education combined with her hard work and stellar marks allowed her to earn a degree from Oxford, which in turn allowed her to lead a life of wealth in the UK, which in turn allowed me to live the privileged life I do now. Without my Nani valuing education, this wouldn’t have existed. She ensured, the generation continued from strength to strength. She made sure we enjoyed the fruits of her labor and we enjoyed fruits she couldn’t.
A great CEO treats her employees well, ensures people that look up to her are well taken care of, and most importantly, creates wealth and knows how to keep it. My nani treated everyone she hired with utmost care and respect. She instilled fine values in her children. And she created wealth, not just in money, but in values, that she passed on through generations.
You were an amazing singer. The internet would have loved you.
My Nani had a creative side too, one she liked to hide from others. She had a 1950s shyness that can only be explained by the time she grew up in. In the 50s Indian women were traditionally very shy. The customs perpetuated this trait in them. It’s a little hard to explain, but I will give it a go. Brides were often veiled before they saw their husbands. Women were usually told to look down at the floor or their feet when addressing their elders, and their husbands. Women were expected to not speak up during intense conversations, especially ones that involved more than one man. The plethora of subtly oppressive behaviours contributed to women being conditioned to speak up less, for what I believe was a fear of being judged when speaking. They themselves probably thought they were speaking out of turn, and hence, it’s natural to be shy when you aren’t conditioned to speak, and when you do, whatever you say will likely get judged poorly. The same went for hobbies.
My Nani was a great singer in her youth, so I was told by my mother. She rarely sang after we were born. Hardly ever. On one rare occasion though, before my Nani passed away, I once caught her singing to herself with a freedom that only comes when someone sings from the heart. She was singing a Punjabi folk song, at the top of her lungs. Her mellifluous voice sweetly reverberated in her enclosed room. The song was a lullaby, but the way she sang it gave it a unique tone that could only have been described as sublime. She was completely satisfied knowing that nobody was looking, and she was equally satisfied in pretending there was a massive audience watching her.
I didn’t know she was so good. I was only twelve at the time. Now, in 2021, I could only imagine how many people who love her voice if they found her on the internet. Can you imagine the Youtube captions? “Nani beautifully sings old folk song”. Or we could get creative. “Nani sings Punjabi folk song over a Drake beat”.
Thank you for always embracing my ziddi-ness. Without it, I wouldn’t have come as far as I have.
I was a stubborn child. I liked getting my way. If I told my mother I was not going to eat anymore, I was not going to eat. I would make sure she gave up trying. I was willing to be more patient than her. I was willing to test everyone’s resolve. I didn’t well or shout, but I did have a pretty mean pout. I liked to think it was a cute pout but my mother insists I pissed off many with my pout. Whereas other aunties and uncles called me ziddi (English translation is stubborn) in a way that reflected how bad of a brat I was, my Nani did the opposite. She called me ziddi, but did so in a loving way. “My little ziddi princess” “My little ziddi bird” “Watch my ziddi baby take over the world” She always said these things in an endearing way, her tone always filled with warmth, love, and tenderness.
I credit her positive words for allowing me to embrace my ziddiness, to embrace the stubborn side of me that never took no for an answer, whether it was in school, career, or from men. I get what I want from life and my Nani embraced this stubborn will to never give up until I had it.
Dear Nani, I miss you. I wish you were here. Can you please come back?