Memoir excerpt: When our deepest secrets are exposed

The title of the short story I’m reading, ننھی کی نانی (Nanhi ki Naani), translates to The Little Girl’s Granny. Harmless enough, but in the world of Urdu literature, Ismat Chughtai is not known for tiptoeing around controversial subjects especially when it comes to the life of women.

As I enter the world of “The Little Girl’s Granny”, I can see – no, not just see – I can feel her presence. In fact, I know this Naani so well that just a few months ago, I painted her on 300gsm watercolor paper. She has a dark, wrinkly, weather-beaten face. Smudged black kohl hides the outlines of her deep set eyes, the whites of which are now a brownish yellow.  Her rough hands with bulging veins tremble continuously, and her thick fingers are squeezed into bulky silver rings. The semi-precious stones set in these rings touch her skin directly. They are supposed to give her strength, protect her from the evil in the world. Unfortunately, they are just as ineffective as the cryptic numbers on the taweez folded tightly into the tiny silver case that hangs on a black cord around her neck.

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The multiple layers of her patched clothes have knots, tears, and a plethora of secret pockets. No one dares come close enough to check these pockets for personal possessions that have – in her presence – mysteriously disappeared.

Then, there is the smell, a combination of everything that has ever been stored in these pockets or on her body – garlic, tobacco, hookah smoke, lime-scented shampoo quickly squeezed into her hair as she cleans the bathroom of some middle-class home. Though when she last washed is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to tell the smells apart now. And, you wouldn’t want to stand around her for that long anyway. Despite all this, my Naani’s  brightly colored glass bangles jingle cheerfully on her forearms as she sweeps around the shrine of a mystic.


Searching for coping mechanisms

Anniqua really likes this painting. In fact, she is the one who made the connection between Ismat Apa’s Naani and mine. She says it reminds her of the trip we made together to Multan, Pakistan, a few years ago. We were visiting the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya, a 13th century mystic, when we saw this old woman. Unlike the other female pilgrims, she looked like a permanent fixture of that shrine. Anniqua wants me to tell her a story about my Naani at the shrine.

I tell her, my Naani always sits in the only shaded area of the courtyard of a shrine. One day a young woman comes and sits down beside her. Naani tears off a piece of her flatbread and offers it to the stranger. The woman takes it with a smile and starts to eat. As they slowly chew on the stale bread, a gecko moves down the wall and slips into the silence between them. The young woman lifts her hand and with her index finger strokes the reptile from head to tail. Then with her eyes she motions to Naani to do the same. The gecko allows itself to be stroked a second time as it looks directly at Naani, and then disappears into the wooden lattice of the window behind them. The young woman explains that all the negative energy stored in their bodies has now been released into the universe. She tells Naani about a temple in Tamil Nadu in India, dedicated to Lord Vishnu where visitors stroke a golden gecko hanging from the ceiling. People leave the temple feeling lighter. Naani hopes this is true, because nothing else has worked for her so far.

Source: “Sacred Animals Of India” by Nanditha Krishna, (Penguin Book India, 2010)

I want to know where this gecko was when Ismat Apa’s Naani needed it? When the monkey stole the pillow in which she had hidden a life-time of secrets. Where was the support her Naani needed when the monkey tore apart her pillow, exposing her kleptomania? Was she cursed because once she had garnished a pot of lentils with a fried gecko? The gecko that had fallen off the wall into the frying pan? It had been an accident but it had cost her a much needed job. Had she made the things she stole from her neighbors, the guardians of her pain? Which of the stolen pieces the monkey revealed to the onlookers had protected her little granddaughter from rape? Which piece had saved her daughter? Her husband? Her parents? Her dignity and self-respect? Was it the doll’s dress, the bra, or the handkerchief? Perhaps it was the little clay tablet, the sajdah gah, on which the believer rests his forehead as he prostrates himself in prayer?

Emerence, the housekeeper

I think it’s just the human condition. Anniqua says, surprised by my sudden outburst. People give supernatural powers to objects when they feel powerless. Remember that scene in The Door when Emerence, the cleaning lady, allows her employer into her home?

Yes, I do, Magda Szabo is a brilliant writer. The character of Emerence haunted me for weeks after I finished the novel. She collects things too, but why does she hide them? Why does she break when her private world is so violently exposed? Is the fury of her trauma too much for this flimsy cocoon she has pieced together for protection?

 It is strange how the human mind can be so fragile and so strong at the same time, I reply after some thought. Maybe that’s why shrines are still popular. Most of these saints lived through incredible trauma. Just knowing that another human being has suffered but found a source of strength is heartening. If they did it, maybe others can too, no?

There are a quite a few shrines in Hungary that Emerence could have visited, Anniqua tells me. Our Lady of Máriapócs, a Marian shrine, would have been perfect for her. The miraculous healing of the weeping icon might have given her strength. Or, if she wanted a broader range of protection, there is a Muslim shrine too, the turbeh of Gül Baba in Budapest. They call him “the father of roses” in Hungary. He was a Turkish dervish under the Ottomans.

Anniqua’s got my undivided attention now.

When it’s safe to travel again, I say, we should go to Hungary. Let’s get started on our reading list .

Anniqua smiles in agreement. Okay, which book do you recommend?


Click below for other posts by Selma:

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art:

A few of Ismat Chughtai’s controversial work translated into English:


    • Thank you. I love it when my art finds a person who enjoys it. I am curious about how people look for emotional support the world over since we all need it at one time or another.

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