A Narrative Essay
By Johara Khan
My memory breaks the surface at a young age of 2 years and pauses around an age of 3. In the very beginning, my Ma’s face fills the frame of my first memory in her house in Merebank, Durban. It is a beautiful house with a winding staircase.I can still smell the sweet smoke rising from the Maharani agarbati that she burned – that would fill your nose and head. I think it is the scent that pours from heaven. Maharani is the only brand that I buy now but I can’t replicate that powerful aroma.
After pestering my Mum and Dad for days to visit Ma, we pull up to her house and I run ahead of my family, up the long stairway leading to Ma and Papa’s front door. She is standing calmly at the top and I jump into her waiting arms. Her flowing pink dress wraps around me like a blanket. I cling to her side like an excited puppy for the rest of the visit. She gives me sweets and sings to me in Gujarati. Deep contentment washes over me.
And then she was gone. It was around this time that my memory had paused. I can’t remember the day or how she suffered for months before it. It was just months of inky blackness that my small self – frantic and cross – couldn’t access. I was told that she had lost a lot of weight and I saw photos of her without her beautiful hair. The cancer in an otherwise physically healthy woman must have been caused by the Merebank oil refineries, they said. She was leaving little by little, but to me, she vanished suddenly. Once, as a teenager, I was struck accidentally in the back of the head. My vision turned black and I couldn’t even let out a scream. I must have been concussed – and that is what those blank months all those years ago felt like.
I never said goodbye. I only remember asking about her months later when my awareness had returned and feeling dissatisfied with every half-answer from my mother who was trying to comfort me whilst experiencing overwhelming grief herself. Never seeing my Ma’s face again is something that remains as incomprehensible to me as that empty time. I don’t think I’ve loved anyone as totally as I did when I was that age.
Life began to be less and less drenched with colour, but it was not without its happiness’s. Eid was once not a day that my family dreaded and trudged through ritualistically. When I was a small girl, Eid was a scorching hot summer day whose jubilation spilt over into the days on either side of the date. My Joburg relatives would pile into a car and drive down, where they were then split amongst all of our homes. The girls would rush to the mehndi table – and form something resembling a line of ducks – to have a turn to enjoy the cool mehndi being squeezed from the cone onto our waiting palms. We were then put to bed to have it sink into our skin overnight, but couldn’t shut our eager eyes.
When morning came, the excitement was palpable; I could almost rub it between my fingers. Wishes of “Eid Mubarak”, tight embraces and tears for departed loved ones filled the Eidgah tent on Durban beach. The poor and homeless were welcomed and given fitra and meat.
The women would plan for weeks in advance to conjure up the perfect day: they would scour every surface until the house glittered, prepared scrumptious dishes and salads in a hundred different ways, biryani, jalebi, soji, suterfeni, burfi, magaj, gulab jamun, puri and countless homemade desserts. The kitchen was swarming with activity. After lunch, all of my aunts were cracking jokes and my uncles would lift me, screaming with laughter, onto their strong shoulders. My cousins and I ran and rolled in the grass of Aunty Rush and Uncle Enver’s house until – too soon – the sun sank below the horizon.
Uncle Enver would unearth the fireworks and sparklers with a knowing smile and all of the kids would race down into the garden to join him. As the multi-coloured explosions in the black sky put the sun to shame, each child was handed a lit sparkler whose sparks pricked our fingers. In the hanging air, we drew blistering rings and figure 8s whose impressions glowed ember-like everywhere even when the sparklers had burnt out.
When I reached adolescence, and those gleaming days had since ended, I dreamt of falling into that long dark-green grass in Aunty Rush and Uncle Enver’s house, my gaze drifting softly to the clouds overhead.
I continued searching for something. I found it but would lose it again. I went from “staging” plays in the garden with my cousins for 1 cent a ticket to performing in school productions. I would step into the centre of the stage and let the floodlights blind me; reaching an irreplaceable high and forgetting that the audience was even there. I had once described acting, writing, dancing and sketching as losing myself, but now I believe that I am only truly at peace when I am creating.
There was a music room sitting in an alcove, isolated from the main part of my primary school, with columns of soft white light pouring through its window. It was here that I heard an older girl playing ‘Walking on the Air’ on her saxophone and fell, just a bit, in love with her; it was pure magic.
In search of more of that magic, nostalgia steered me to memories of my then best friend and I giggling as we shouted into high-ceilinged halls and wrapped ourselves in stage curtains. I felt safest there. I don’t know why I didn’t realise this then. Time had passed and my attempts to pinpoint the absence grew. I drew no closer.
Much to every family member’s delight, my mother’s aunt and uncle, both over 80 years old, managed to attend my mother’s 60th birthday party this year, 2018. When Jaan (as we affectionately call her) and Papa were in their 60s, they were sneaking me Rolo chocolates and their daughter, my Aunt Razia, was pulling fresh mangoes from their trees in Verulam to give to me and my siblings.
My Mum and I each hooked an arm under each of our Jaan’s delicate arms to help her shakily down the steps in our home. When she was finally nestled into her seat, I looked down and saw that a strand of her white hair had come away in my hand. It slipped away and I had looked around me for it but couldn’t find it.
It was during these times that I had mentioned feeling closest to God, or something like it. Last year, suddenly, everything went silent, and I now find myself reminiscing quite often.
A couple of years ago, my Uncle Enver took me for a drive to see the old Merebank house – sold roughly two years after my Ma had died – a house now peopled with strangers. The old stairway outside, which then had seemed to reach up and up into the heavens, wasn’t very high. We were parked opposite the place that housed my first memory for about a minute; then we left.
Years passed and I realised that women weren’t born already made of iron. I had expected that I would be strong and composed like the women in my family. I had not expected their warnings to be justified, nor that they were already too late. I didn’t imagine that I would be resented for telling the truth, that my loved ones would give me an exasperated look whenever I struggled or demanded that we deserved better.
No one talks about it, but there is a vein of mental illness that slithers through generations of our women.
Sometimes I imagine I can feel my brain sitting wetly in my head. But other times, I feel its pink folds suction themselves to the bowl of my skull, cementing organ to bone, until I don’t feel anything. In the same way, it glues my teeth together so that I cannot scream. When I reach my hand to feel the back of my head, my nape is surprisingly tender; like running my fingers through the hair of a child.
Our people had sailed across the Indian Ocean which posed less of a threat to them than the ships that carried them. My mother’s ancestors, seeking a new life in a new land, practised their trade as barbers. My father’s line in South Africa begins with Colonel Khan: a man who mutinied against the British rule in India, escaped persecution by stowing away on a ship headed for South Africa, and, having no papers and nearing the Durban harbour, jumped ship and swam the rest of the way to shore.
Our women walked miles to fetch water for their families from wells; our children drowned in them. Mothers and fathers had worked day and night. Babies were wrenched from the arms of women deemed “crazy” i.e. suffering post-natal depression. A late relative of mine who was an anti-apartheid activist was tortured by the apartheid government into near insanity. Girls had their schooling nipped in the bud. My Ma, however, despite her father’s refusal to pay her high school fees because “Girls don’t have to finish school”, earned her own money by giving Gujarati lessons in order to pay her own way. Remarkably, she then went on to study at university.
All of it, the Unspeakable hardship and toil of the Lotus People – what was it for –? For us to forget their sacrifice, to cast out our children and dismiss our elders? For not one generation of our women to be spared violation? For our women to despise each other and themselves so completely that they are complicit in deception of the worst kind? For us to hate ourselves for conforming to a society that is senseless and inhumane?
As I write this, I wonder how all of these individuals I’ve written about would feel if they found themselves being memorialised by me – not that I could ask any of them, of course. I wonder how they would feel about me – a queer, sex-positive, anti-capitalist intersectional-feminist, crying all the way through this piece, who is trying to cope with trauma of her own?
A woman who yearns more than anything to help create a world in which women, non-binary people, people with disabilities, brown and black people and underprivileged people don’t have to be made of stone – and eventually crumble to dust.
When my Ma had died, a something inside me was strangled. What the brain forgets, the body remembers – but I didn’t have time to memorise the length of her nose, her gait, her laugh, her height. I know that some of these are material things; that I should remember her for her incredible spirit and resilience and powerful energy – but once in a blue moon, I catch a glimpse of her face in the mirror.