Journey to the Past
This morning I woke up thinking of my maternal grandmother and the women who came before her, so maybe it’s time to tell this story. This is more for me because it has turned out really long, and not everyone has a vested interest in reading it. I don’t know how much genetics plays a part, but your family are often your first teachers, and as a woman, I am looking back at the women in my family, their lives, their ideals, to learn a bit more about me.
Rogayah Hanim Abdullah
In 1864, a girl was born somewhere near the Black Sea. Somewhere along the way, she had been taken by the Royal Palace of the Ottoman Empire to be trained and educated in a harem so that one day she could be an accessory in building ties between two countries. At the time, there were two types of harems. One was what we often read about, ladies trained to please men of the court, and the other, was a place where young girls were educated so that one day, they would be able to run households, do the accounts and be good wives. We never knew what her real name was, but the name we know her by is Roqayah Hanim Abdullah. We never knew where she came from, or what her family was. She was a mystery that came and built a family. This woman was my great-grandmother.
I often wonder how scary it was for her, being about 19, and being shipped off, with her sister and another girl of around the same age to a place where she didn’t speak the language, and knew not of the customs. But that was how a Georgian girl was sent from Turkey to Malaysia. Considering what could have happened, these girls were lucky. Roqayah’s sister (Khatijah) was married off to the then Sultan of the State of Johor, and she herself was married three times – once to a younger sibling in the Royal family, then to a man of Arab decent (after her first husband had passed) and then later, to the Mayor of the state of Johor. So this woman set down her roots, and became the matriarch of a very large family. She probably never imagined that among her descendents there would be a Prime Minister, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Royal Professor, a National Traditions Expert and the first female Governor of the National Bank.
Kamariah Dato’ Jaafar
Among her children with the Mayor was another woman, Kamariah (meaning moon). According to stories, she was a quiet woman but when she let her guard down, she was as temperamental and changeable as the moon. My pediatrician, a Bengali lady, who was also her friend used to tell me stories of how she could be funny and sharp in private, but how she was so reserved in public that nobody ever knew what she was thinking. She could also swear up a storm apparently, and was one to make lewd comments, but according to the stories, not everybody was allowed to get into her secret world. She was one of those women who offered a silent challenge and it’s almost like you had to make a cut to know the real her.
Kamariah became the second wife of one of the Johor royals, whose first wife, a Dutch lady had passed on. Just like that she had a family, and added on with two of her own, my grandmother, Abrizah Abdul Rahman and her brother, Ahmad Abdul Rahman.
Abrizah Abdul Rahman
As her father had passed on early in life, and her mother was taken in by an uncle, my grandmother grew up in a massive home filled with relatives. Now I understand that being someone whose father left at an early age, she probably never truly felt like she belonged. She was in her early twenties, yet unmarried when World War II hit. I used to love sitting at the foot of her bed as she told war time stories. Coming from her background, she was protected from the brutal acts that the Japanese were capable of.
My grandmother was 29 when she married. Late for the time, but perhaps she was waiting. Waiting for this man who was so different from anything she knew – a man who came from very humble beginnings, went to study law in Oxford on a state scholarship and got caught there when the war began. There’s a silver cigar box that my mother still has which belonged to my grandfather. It was a reminder to him of being in Oxford during the war and working in a coal mine.
The magic of fate. Their marriage made the newspapers. Clippings bear the title “Royal Weds Commoner”. Different as they were, they built a life. My grandfather worked for the government, so they lived in a few states when my mother was growing up. At the end though, they went back to his home state where he built a massive house, which is still in our family now.
My grandfather knew where he came from and knew where he wanted to die. My grandmother was never really grounded, so when he passed she moved to a house that belonged to my late uncle, and lived there until she passed. She is now buried close to where her children are. The house my grandfather built still stands. My mother’s friend, an artist, takes care of the house when she’s in the state now.
As a person, my grandmother was very quiet. She was the one everyone called with their problems. She could gamble like a shark though. The first game my grandmother taught me was gin rummy. In her later days, her house was where people came every single day to play cards and chat. When she got too feeble to do that, she would hold court on her bed and there would be visitors every day apart from weekends. Even when she was in the hospital, with a tube to help her breathe, she held court from her hospital bed. People came every day to just sit with her.
What made her so special? It was this – even when she was on her last legs, with a tube to help her breathe, the first thing she would do when anyone came to visit was sign and ask them how they were doing. My grandmother was a giver. She never really talked. She always listened. She was always ready to be the shoulder to cry on, or be the listener when someone was having problems with someone else. She did have a bit of a fiery spark though. Once when my uncle’s girlfriend at the time was threatening suicide, she just said in the most relaxed manner “let her do it.” My beautiful grandmother, with her blue-grey eyes and brown hair. What a woman.
First child. Headstrong. Daddy’s girl. That was my mother. She’s lived her life thinking that she’s more like her father, but there is a part of her that is like all the women who came before her. Somehow, I think, it was denying that part of her, and chasing time as she was almost 30, that led her to my father, and a very quick marriage to a man who on paper, was perfect. They had the almost exact same family background, and her father and his grandfather were friends. The marriage went bust after seven years. She did love him though, and she continued loving him for 10 years after he broke her heart and shattered her dreams.
She also started exploring her independence then, and continued exploring when I left home six years ago, at the core of her is a very strong, very independent, very grounded and very resilient woman. She’s not very open in talking about emotions, an introvert, and in my life, I have never heard her say “I love you” to anyone. She’s old fashioned in some ways, but really alternative in others. Among her friends are true family women, single girls, and a weird bunch of artists who she hangs around with, including a few very openly gay men. A lot of them are really eccentric. I remember camping trips when I was younger where my mother’s gay friends would put on performances for us including dancing to Bollywood songs and little sketches, where they would, of course, play women parts.
Fifth generation… something. In writing this, and knowing these women, I am understanding me a bit more. Sometimes, you need to go back to the past to know the present. For a long time, I admired these women, as they are the first female influences I have in my life, but for a long time, I couldn’t look past the physical, as unlike them, with their light skin, brown hair and grey/brown eyes, I have dark skin, jet black hair and very black eyes.
Somehow, in writing this, I realized so much of them has survived in me. Like Roqayah, I have left the place where I was born to start all over again, and have, through a relationship taken in a new culture. Like Kamariah, I am unpredictable and moody, and I take time to let people know the crazy outrageous side of me. I am a silent challenge saying “if you want to really know me, you have to dig deeper”. Like Abrizah, I am quite giving, and have moments of very dry sarcasm. Like Jaazah, I can love through heartache, betrayal and disillusionment, and have a very eccentric and varied group of friends. Like all of them, I was trained to be a “diplomat’s wife” – complement a man and build him a home, smile in public when he messes up and never show how much effort it takes.
There are also other parts of me that just belong to me. Some parts of me are the typical girl who can watch Sex in the City and has somehow convinced myself that I do need 59 pairs of shoes. But there is also the geek in me who can spend hours debating why the Phoenix from X-Men could be so much more if she chose Wolverine instead of Cyclops. There is the eternal child who sees the glass as being half full. There is the centered and peaceful yogini who can sit in silence for hours, and the fiery side of me that most people only see flashes of before I hold her back again. The girl who used to walk out of the house and sit on a tree to read a book in silence still survives in me too. Sometimes I am headstrong, fiery and compulsive, and sometimes I am docile as a lamb. Sometimes I am a contradiction, sometimes I am a mystery to uncover, and every once in a while, I appear as clear as day. You look at me waiting for something to happen and nothing does, then you look away for a second and I am someone else completely.
Sometimes, I am a ball of fire like the sun, and sometimes, I shy away like the half moon. I am never truly gone… merely hiding. Sometimes, I don’t see any part of them in me, and sometimes, I look into a mirror, and Kamariah’s eyes stare back at me.