On Friday, I buried Muneer Unisa Begum, a woman who has lived with me my entire life.
Her capacity for love was like her appetite: large and generous.
Born in Hyderabad Deccan, India on April 8, 1925, she moved to Karachi, Pakistan during partition and then joined her two eldest sons in Amreeka in the late ‘70’s, where she rocked bell bottoms, South Asian bling, and a strange, enduring love for Tom Jones, The Doobie Brothers and Sabri Brothers’ Qawwalis.
She also made it a point to throw down hard for the Mawlid, ensuring its place as a perennial tradition in our family since that time. She always stood up for the Prophet (pbuh) even when she later could not due to severe arthritis of the knees. She loved the ahl al bayt and Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani immensely and on demand bestowed stories and wisdom about these beloved personalities.
Her plentiful stomach provided many salutary benefits for the young, “healthy” Wajahat Ali. During my entire childhood, I slept on it every night. While watching the terrifying “Kali Ma, Shakti Dhay!” heart- ripping scene from INDIANA JONES: TEMPLE OF DOOM, I lay on the generous mound of flesh averting my gaze behind her shawl and sheets. I also used her body as a successful shield against potential beatings. She could always be counted on to defend and protect me.
Until the last moments, I played with the soft, voluminous flesh that hung from her underarm. Some folks have plush toys, I had Dhadi underarm fat. She became so accustomed to my constant underarm love that she never flinched and simply proceeded with her activities as I sat there playing with it. (I did this even she was sleeping in the hospital a few days ago.)
With the aid of her walking stick, she took me to watch my first movie at Cinedome 7 on Stevenson: SUPERGIRL. We waited for Superman to make an appearance, but he only showed up as a stupid statue. Our cinematic excursion was redeemed when we went and saw GOONIES at Cinedome 8 on Mowry. I also forced her to take me to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES at Fremont Hub – she enjoyed the movie more than I did.
She single-handedly inspired my childhood obesity, which has left me many traumatic scars, but also fond memories of excellent meals. Convinced I was malnourished even when I was morbidly overweight, she kept feeding me authentic Hyderabadi dishes.
When our biryani supply ran out, she deceived me by putting food coloring in plain, white rice.
In the last few years we tried unsuccessfully to limit her diet. She persisted in eating her beloved achaar every meal, every day. We went to her doctor and I complained that she refuses to stop eating achaar. “But, without achaar, I cannot swallow the food! I need it!” she pleaded. The doctor smiled and replied, “OK, OK, just eat a little less.”
She endured many tragedies with grace, tremendous optimism and resolve. This includes surviving the premature death of her husband and two adult sons. She is survived by three remaining children, 7 grand kids, and 7 great grand kids.
In the last months of her life she wished to see me married to a kind woman with a pulse who would appreciate my “eccentricities.” Sarah Kureshi obliged that request. Two months ago, they had their formal introduction as Biwi and Dhadhi. She was ecstatic and decided she had to live a bit longer to see her future grand kids.
Her nickname was “the prayer factory.” Every day, she sat and gave long, stream of consciousness, jazz-like prayers for anyone and everyone that asked. This includes college and professional friends, who had never met her, but knew of her through me. They used to call and ask me to have grandmother pray for them. I just handed over the phone to her and she went on for a good 15 min giving my friends good vibes and well wishes. Her prayers, for what it’s worth, were always sincere from beginning to end.
I wish I had more time with her. She kept asking for a few minutes to sit down and eat achaar with her, or to talk, or to watch overproduced, melodramatic, terrible SONY TV shows. I obliged, but upon reflection, I could have given more time.
For this, I swim in an ocean of regret.
And yet I am grateful for the time we had. It was an honor helping her, in some small way, during the last few years of her life.
I am thankful for having the opportunity to be next to her during her last conscious moments. After suddenly suffering from a massive stroke last Saturday, she was in and out of consciousness. On Sunday night, I returned to the hospital and found her completely alert. Unable to speak, she saw me, smiled and extended her hand. I held it and she smiled. An hour later she feel into a deep, comforting sleep from which she did not awake until her soul departed early Thursday morning.
My request is twofold: if Muneer Unisa Begum did anything to offend or hurt you during her life, please find it in your heart to forgive her. We should all have clean slates on the Day.
Secondly, for those who have kindly asked how they can help during this sad time, I have one request: be generous, forgiving and mindful to your living grandmothers, grandfathers and elders. Spend a little more time with them. Ask them for some prayers and advice. They are endearing, odd, funny, wise creatures who have a lot of mileage. You’ll be surprised what you can learn by simply being in their company.
This includes learning the many benefits of Vicks Vapor Rub and Metamucil, but also wise gems that can help steer your life towards purpose and clarity.
So, the lady known as Muneer Unisa Begum has passed away.
But, I simply knew her as Dhadhi.
And as long as I remember her, Dhadhi lives forever.