My grandmother lives in a cul-de-sac near the old police station in Jaipur, India. She used to walk around the neighborhood for exercise, but some time ago, she fell and broke her wrist. Now she walks the driveway instead. In summer, she walks at night by herself, just her and the stars.
Tonight I am with her. I’ve come for two weeks to spend time with her, having learned a bit about the realities of mortality. I am impatient to know this woman who’s shaped my entire life. I have questions only she can answer.
My father was born in a refugee camp, in a house his father found abandoned. My father’s spine wasn’t quite right, because of a lack of folic acid during gestation. His family didn’t have enough food while they traveled by coal car out of what became Pakistan. Still, my father lived, and so did the rest of the family. That journey changed everything, but I know almost nothing about it.
Tonight, I’m walking up and down the 100-foot-long driveway with my father’s mother, Bimla. I’ve been asking her for days what the 1947 partition of India was like, having learned only the bare outline of my family’s experience. It’s the dark secret of my family’s past, and I’ve always hated secrets.
She’s reticent, not wanting to delve into it and hedging when I ask. But I’m too young not to pry and too stubborn to let it go. I probably got that from her. Maybe that’s why my grandmother has always had a weak spot for me. I don’t know why, but she always makes sure my favorite foods are on hand when I visit, and she lets me get away with far more than she should.
I’m hoping that means she’ll let me get away with asking. I ask — and ask and ask — until finally, in the dark where I can’t see her face, she tells me.
I listen intently as she talks about wearing a burqa and the frustration of losing all depth perception. About being the best student in her district but never advancing beyond Grade 8 because her brother’s schooling was considered more important. About being out of school for years until the family could afford it again. She talks about standing whole feet taller than the other children when she finally returned, and the humiliation of being so much older. About leaving school again, never to return.
She doesn’t say, “This is why I ask about your studies.” Or “This is why I push my daughters and granddaughters to get an education.” She doesn’t talk about what she lost.
Instead, she speaks of the discomfort. Of the lack of agency and independence. Of wanting to stride freely into the market and to learn as she wished. A freedom that is curtailed even now, as we walk in the driveway instead of on the street or in the park.
She doesn’t use fancy words to describe her oppression, because she was denied entry to the places that would have taught them. But she knows how to tell a story. My grandmother doesn’t talk about herself or the past. She’s practical and focused on the present most of the time. When she told me to make sure to take care of myself before worrying about the world, I thought she was being pessimistic. But I didn’t know the whole story.
Now I understand that she knows what it is like to be denied something you long for, to be seen as a person of no importance. Somewhere inside herself, she resolved to make sure her children and grandchildren had more. She wanted to fight for us, and she wanted us to fight for ourselves.
So I fight — to hear the stories only she can tell, about who I am and where I come from. It’s not what she imagined I’d long for. But she grants it all the same, out here, walking in the dark.