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“You are the granddaughter of a family that has known war and trouble like it is the back of our hands. Building hope where there is none it is part of our legacy.” My grandmother said these words, gently but firmly, on a recent phone call that I had spent lamenting the state of the world, and the pandemic, and feeling rather sorry for myself.
She was right, as she often is.
The youngest of nine children, and a teenager at the time of India’s independence, my grandmother had her whole life uprooted during the country’s partition. Her home was set alight before her eyes; the family survived the flames only through the foresight of her oldest brother, who knew war was coming. As they drove away from the only home they had ever known, through mobs and the wreckage of their village, they stopped to pick up as many of their neighbours as they could. To do this, they had to leave behind all their possessions. “People over things,” my grandmother said simply, and I hold this family memory tight in my chest to ground me in a world where people do not always do what is right by the vulnerable.
Even then, tragedy was not alien to my grandmother. Her mother had suffered from dementia since my grandmother was a little girl. Her oldest sister brought her up . And before she turned 20, she would lose her soldier brothers to war, and a sister to illness. Her father died shortly after their house was destroyed, when they arrived in Himachal to rebuild from scratch.
“But how did you do it, Nani?” I asked her when I was 12, only just beginning to fathom that a home could be ripped away so violently. My memory of her in this moment is especially vivid: wearing a pale blue salwar kameez, tossing golden brown potatoes in mustard oil as she made Dum Aloo, a Kashmiri delicacy. “It wasn’t easy at first. We struggled and we mourned,” she told me. “But we knew that grief couldn’t consume us. So we built a community. Leaned on each other. We were kind to those we did not know and soon they became our own. We shared stories and recipes. We learned courage from our history.”
So often, trauma destroys families. Partition is a largely unspoken trauma. My favourite great aunt injured her back permanently and refuses to tell us the story, because she doesn’t like to remember that time of her life. And yet, what remains of my grandmother’s family is the happiest family I have ever known. They have a smile and a helping hand for everyone. The bonds between the remaining siblings are so strong that I have never seen them fight in three decades. My great aunt, when I was visiting her in Delhi seven years ago, said, “If we didn’t let the pain bring us closer, it would have torn us apart. And that was not acceptable to any of us.”
This hard-earned wisdom has stayed with me through this last year, through all the lockdowns and the global grief. I’ve called my mother and my family more than ever before because I know that pain can bring a family closer, even when they are so far away from each other. I have realised the small mercies I have that my grandmother did not: Facetime and Zoom calls so I can see the people I love even from thousands of miles away, TV shows and movies to keep me distracted and entertained. More than anything, I had poetry, and the time and peace to write it.
The last time I spoke to my grandmother she told me about the morning after the fire: how, when she woke up, she heard birds singing as the sun rose. They were still on the road and she remembered how strange it felt that the world simply kept moving – the sun rising and setting, the rivers flowing, unaware of the new borders being established around them. “Nothing taught me to live in the present more than this moment did,” she told me. “I didn’t know anything about my future. We had no certainty to rely on. Only hope, strong in our hearts, and the determination to create a new life.”
As I write this, the sun has come out over a cold February day. The trees outside are bare bones of themselves but will grow leaves soon, and this is something I can rely on. Like my grandmother, I do not know what the future holds. There is still darkness to survive yet. But I know that I want to face it with the same hope and determination that she did all those years ago, on a road leading her to a brand new life she didn’t yet know.
Where Hope Comes From: Healing poetry for the heart, mind and soul by Nikita Gill is published by Trapeze (£14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Struggling in lockdown, I have found solace in the wisdom of my grandmother | Nikita Gill | Books