We Need to Memorialise the Stories of our South Asian Female Elders Before It’s Too Late

Featured Illustration: Joey Guidone

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We often forget the legacies of those before us, legacies that lift us up and constantly inspire us. So much of human history has been memorialised through stories of love, war, and tragedy. Through navigating and talking about our own family histories, we can also add our own pieces to this great story compiled of human experiences.

I recently lost my great auntie, a surreal experience that still does not feel completely real. My experiences of grief and loss have taught me so much — I’ve realised how important it is to stay present and make memories when interacting with your loved ones, especially with the family elders.

It can be quite difficult for members of our generation, who have grown up being surrounded by a completely different language and culture, to form meaningful bonds with our generational elders. Communication is foundational to any attachment; blank stares and awkward silences only go so far. Sometimes, our ideals and visions of the future clash with what our elders expect of us, only creating more tension. I feel like sometimes, we push our elders into this new world instead of gently guiding them. Contrastingly, the cultural ideals of our elders dictate absolute respect, which can be alienating sometimes.

There has to be a balance. We cannot just leave our elders behind. Their sacrifices and struggles have lifted us up to the positions we occupy today. My maternal great grandparents left their home country of Pakistan and moved to the UK because they wanted a different life for their descendants. My great-grandfather was one of the first South Asian GPs in Bradford, England. Every elder in my family has so many stories about their experiences, coming to a foreign land and soldiering on to make a home for their descendants. In all these stories, the themes of sacrifice and unconditional love never cease to amaze me — there are so many lessons we can learn and implement ourselves.

In this piece, I wanted to focus specifically on the women in my family who have taught me so much through their existence. We often minimise the impact of the women in our lives, because, at some level, the women are always expected to carry generational burdens and stay smiling effortlessly through it all.

My Naniji (Great-Grandmother)

The tale begins with my Naniji. If I could describe her using one word, that word would be “regal”. She was a generous queen, always giving and building up everyone around her. Her life journey has always been a strong source of inspiration to me — through her, I learned the value of connection, love, and family. She moved to the UK with my great grandfather in the ’70s with her children. She experienced and overcame so much, but she never stopped going forward. The love she gave out filled rooms and made hearts lighter. Without her, the world felt heavier, for her kingdom had lost its queen. Writing this is an act of remembrance. She passed away when I was 16, but it still feels surreal seeing her empty room. I imagine her still sitting on her throne, surrounded by generations of family, all united by their love for her.

My Bari Nani (Great-Auntie)

They say that grief is unspent love. It’s wishing and yearning to have that one last moment, shadowed by strangling reality. My Bari Nani (great-auntie) recently passed away and writing about her like this is so surreal because she still feels so present. I could spend hours talking about her — she was that person who gave out love immeasurably, unconditionally. From her, I learned that true strength is creating your own happiness. She was always so present and connected and her infectious laughter brightened the darkest of rooms. She wasn’t a passenger in life, she made life hers. She didn’t let any negative experiences define her; in a sea of horror and negativity, she was her own life jacket. Her energy consistently remained youthful, she was always working on a little project, knitting, sewing, or organising get-togethers with her friends. We can so often become overwhelmed by spare time, but she never let a minute go to waste. Each time I remember her, I am always in awe at how dynamic she was. I wanted to share one of her sayings here which really encompasses her spirit:

kiya kar, kiya kar, aur nahi to uder ke kiya kar

(Translation: Keep doing it, keep doing it and if it fails, unstitch and start again).

When you lose someone with such a strong presence, they are never truly gone. Her tenacity and love shine through the sequins on the outfit she sewed for me from scratch the night before a wedding. Through her, I’ve learned that love is the biggest investment you can give to someone. If you dig deep enough in the desert, you will find water and if you love hard enough, the love will continuously blossom and grow even when you’ve gone.

We all grieve differently, but I’ve tried to grieve her in a way she would be proud of. I’ve realised the importance of connection and of sharing memories. And as I continue on my journey, I hope to embody even a fraction of her flowing, evergreen spirit.

My Naniumy (Grandmother)

I struggle to put into words how much my grandma means to me. Imagining a life without her is terrifying, but as I have learned, spending time with your elders should never be taken for granted. I have been so lucky to be surrounded by women who embody ideals of independence, bravery, and resilience. My grandma came to the UK in 1971 as a nurse after qualifying in 1969 in Pakistan. Whenever my grandma tells me her stories, I’m always struck by how much she achieved. She came to a foreign country, did a university course to improve her English, and worked to support her family. She worked her way up to a Sister position, where she was in charge of a nursing ward, really displaying her drive and passion to excel. I’ve learned from my grandma to never be scared of speaking your mind, especially in rooms where you’re the only female or minority.

I am especially close to my grandma because I lived with her and my grandfather for a few years. I was never left wanting for anything, whether that was love, attention, or even food. We tend to communicate a lot through food — when my grandma makes my favourite meal, I know she’s showing me how much she loves me. I’m always struck by how much she remembers, her memory is still so sharp and focused, I cannot imagine how she must have been at my age!

There are people in your life who make up a piece of your life, and without them, you don’t feel alive anymore. My grandma is one of those people for me — we’ve really struggled in lockdown not being able to see each other as much. When we’re together, even our silences are whole and enough. I’ve realised through her that one person can be a family, a home. Her spirit energises everyone around her, her children and her many grandchildren. I will end with her story, one that continues to inspire me every day.

Let’s all make an effort to talk more to our elders, especially our female elders who are often minimised and ignored. They carry generations on their shoulders and they are worthy of so much respect. So many stories are being left unheard and in the dark because we do not assign importance to them. It’s time to change that.