I’d like to tell you a story.
By 2006, it had been four years since I visited Pakistan. I was twenty-two and change and I had kept myself busy in Toronto with a work and study routine that had not allowed me to travel anywhere. But thankfully, my eldest brother was getting married there in August and I was really looking forward to going back. I had particularly wanted to spend time with my grandparents as they were aging quickly and I felt that I had so much to talk about with them. I wanted to hear stories about their childhood, the colonial and partition era, their views on religion, and learn what they felt to be some of the very basic lessons of life.
I still remember the March 18 night in Canada when I got a message from home that Dada Abu had passed away (urdu for my grandfather from my father’s side). I immediately broke down. All of a sudden, I felt so far away from all that really mattered. The news shook me very hard. I think somewhere deep inside this had been a fear of mine. I knew that Dada Abu was getting weaker but I did not like to imagine that life could end. Though I had not spent much time with him, I felt very attached, and in an instant I was filled with regret at not having gone back to Pakistan earlier and speaking with him the way I had wished. Now it was too late.
A couple of months later, my Nana Abu (my grandfather from my mother’s side) came to Canada for a visit and to live with his son for a brief while. I promised myself that I am going to make the most of this opportunity and spend as much time with him as possible. Nana Abu was used to praying in the mosque five times a day, a routine which was not possible during his time in Canada. So I decided with my uncle that I would pick them both up very early in the morning and we would then pray Fajr together in the mosque, pick up some breakfast from Tim Hortons, and then go for a walk by the lake before I make my way to work each day.
As we watched the sun rise, I would press my grandfather with questions about his past. It was on these lovely, long morning walks that Nana Abu opened up and first started sharing his stories. I was hooked. Almost every day I would return from work in the evening and head over to my uncle’s apartment to spend time with Nana Abu and hear more about his life. Little by little, it grew upon me that I don’t want to forget these amazing stories, and perhaps that others in the family may not have heard them before either. With that in mind, I began jotting down his thoughts and life experiences.
My grandfather had no clue of what I was up to. Slowly, my notes took the shape of short stories, and then I got the idea to turn it into a little book that I could distribute to the whole family (my mother has eight siblings). The whole process, from beginning to end, took a little over a month. The book was edited and printed just a few days before I was going to leave for Pakistan to attend my brother’s wedding.
To this date, giving that book to him has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I still vividly recollect his reaction. He had the most incredible smile on his face – he was beaming!
He said to me: “On the Day of Judgement, angels will hand us a book with a full list of our deeds in this world. You have given me that book right here, in this life, in this world.” He made me sit right next to him while he read the entire book from cover to cover. He laughed out loud, corroborated the stories told, and spent the evening entranced with joy. From that day onwards, the book would always be by his side. He would take it with him everywhere – like a prized possession – and never fail to tell people about it. Without doubt, it brought him a tremendous amount of happiness.
Almost five years later, on an April morning in 2011, my Nana Abu passed away in Faisalabad, Pakistan. My last meeting with him was less than two months prior in February when I was in Islamabad for a short visit.
One afternoon during that stay, he called me into the study room where he was engaged in a discussion with a friend. As I walked into the room, he raised his hand towards me and asked the gentleman if he knew who I was. The visitor hesitated to answer and then Nana Abu proceeded to say: “He is Nusrat’s son; he is the one who wrote that book about me.” I could sense that he was very proud.
The following morning I went over to Nana Abu’s room to say good-bye. I had lunch plans elsewhere and was not going to return. As soon as I spoke of my departure, he felt disturbed. He was not feeling his best and he grabbed me by the arm. It was Friday and he asked me to take him to Friday prayers, “I will feel stronger with you next to me.” I told him of my lunch plan and tried to excuse myself. I re-assured him that my young cousin would take him to prayer, like he always did, and that he will be just fine, there is nothing to worry about. He did not want to hear that, he asked again. Once more I tried to find a way out. But Nana Abu was adamant, he insisted yet again.
And then, at that moment, suddenly, I was overcome with an incredible sense of guilt. I couldn’t believe that I was being so selfish. Thinking about it now, I still can’t believe it took three attempts from him to ask me before I decided to finally change my mind. How ridiculous! In any case, a few hours later, we went together for Friday prayers along with my cousin. Nana Abu held my hand as we walked. We prayed and returned home right after. He thanked me and I felt extremely ashamed. I kissed him as he got into bed to rest and that was the last I saw of him.
Of course, I did not think that would be our last meeting. And now, imagine not having this memory of him. I would never have forgiven myself. I almost feel that Nana Abu purposefully exonerated me from the feeling of life-long guilt by insisting repeatedly that I accompany him to Friday prayers. There is something to be said about that. I should have been the one thanking him.
As I reflect on my relationship with Nana Abu, I have much to be thankful for. But for me, the one thing that stands out most – in terms of his contribution to my life – was learning what little I could of Allama Iqbal from him. Nana Abu was the first person to really properly introduce me to Iqbal’s works. He read me his poetry and beautifully explained the seminal piece Shikwa (Complaint to God) during which he would breakdown and weep.
As time rolled on, my own personal interest in Iqbal eclipsed the very basic introduction I received from him during his summer visit to Canada. Nana Abu would repeatedly say that we must strive to be Iqbal’s Shaheen (an Eagle). His avian symbol that carried a number of inspiring features: independence, self-respect, self-control, character and honor, courage, lofty thinking, spiritualism over materialism, constant struggle and endurance, perseverance, and purity of soul and passion. I did not understand the full-weight of what he meant at the time, I do now.
You ask me of the marks of a man of faith?
When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.
– Allama Iqbal