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Relearning My Grandmother's Language Taught Me Where My Roots Lie

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Hamza Khan

born and raised

"Talk to Nani Maa."

Growing up as an English-speaking son of Indian immigrant parents, I dreaded those four words. Each weekend, my mother would hand me the phone to speak with my grandmother in Mumbai. And each time, I'd try to escape with an excuse.

When speaking to relatives back home, my mother spoke louder than she actually needed to (perhaps she believed that her voice wouldn't carry across the ocean otherwise). This always caught me off guard, because I couldn't accurately gauge how far away she was and how much time I needed to run to the bathroom and hide.

The sound of her approaching footsteps would send me into a panic. Beaming with excitement over connecting her son with her mother, she'd hand me the phone and mid-gesture say, "Talk to Nani Maa." And thus would begin an excruciating five to 10 minute call with my grandmother in which I'd shut the door to my room and speak in hushed tones in case my mom was outside, gleefully listening in on our awkward exchange. Mustering every phrase I knew in "Hinglish" (a messy combination of Hindi and English), I'd routinely ask this specific set of questions:

"How are you?"

"How is your health?

"How is the weather?"

"Did you watch any new movies?"

"Should I give the phone back to mom?"

That's the grandmother I knew from my childhood; a disembodied voice from a land far, far away. Someone I couldn't form a decent relationship with due to our language barrier. She only spoke Hindi, and I only spoke English. And we both somewhat understood each other.

Unfortunately through repetition of this weekly ritual, thoughts of meeting my grandmother in real life brought up feelings of dread, embarrassment and guilt. Dread over being far outside of my comfort zone; embarrassment of having others judge my poor Hindi; guilt over not making enough of an effort to be a present grandson.

The grandmother of my adulthood is very different; she is a complete person, pieced together from longer and nuanced stories shared over dinner tables, through live commentary while watching Bollywood films, through genuine moments of human connection and through fading photos like this one:


When she flew in from Mumbai for my brother's engagement last year, she looked more sickly and feeble than I'd ever seen before -- more grey hairs, more wrinkles and a more noticeable limp. While nobody in my family dared acknowledge it out loud, we all knew this was possibly the last time we'd ever see her. And while my dread and fear of meeting her were long gone, I was still wrought with guilt over not bonding enough. And so I made it a priority to simply be in her presence and makes as many new memories as I could.

While I anticipated that we'd sit in silence for most of our time together, I was surprised by what actually transpired. In her twilight years, perhaps confronted by her own mortality and a reciprocal eagerness to forge a deeper connection with me, my grandmother was more talkative than usual. I mean, really talkative. To the point where my younger sister and cousins threw elderly respect (or just plain old etiquette) out the window and retreated into their respective digital devices.

Meanwhile, I sat there transfixed. I listened to Nani Maa's stories. And I listened, and listened, and listened. And what I learned was nothing short of incredible.

Najma Mohammad, my Nani Maa, is around 70 years old. She is a seemingly ordinary woman who has led an extraordinary life. She's had courtside seats to the tumultuous evolution of the country my parents used to call home: India. The breadth of historic events that Nani Maa experienced first-hand is staggering. Here's a small snapshot:

  1. Partition
  2. Prohibition
  3. Freedom from British rule
  4. Three wars with Pakistan
  5. Presidential assassinations
  6. Rise of Mumbai's underworld
  7. Race riots
  8. India's nuclear proliferation
  9. India's billionth citizen
  10. Mumbai terrorist attacks

She travelled around the world, was alive during Gandhi's assassination, experienced the hysteria of The Beatles' visit to India, saw broadcasts of Neil Armstrong walking the surface of the moon and recently used Snapchat filters. All within the same lifetime.

She told me amazing stories of going from riches to rags in the wake of her husband's passing. She told me stories of police shootouts happening on her block, with police officers even stopping by her house to take water breaks before rushing back outside to resume their raids. She told me stories of having to discipline her sons for rubbing shoulders with neighbourhood boys that were part of street gangs (which would later evolve into the arms of India's underworld regime). She told me stories of Hindu vs. Muslim sectarian violence in the wake of catastrophes like the tearing down of Babri Masjid, as well as the 1993 Bombay bombings.

That summer, it hit me that her incredible stories would possibly die with her.

The history of Mumbai is so incredibly rich, and the history of India is even more so. And hearing it told through the vantage point of an uneducated, tough-as-nails single mother was more more vivid than any photograph, book or movie I'd experienced. Her narrative was raw and human, held together by intertwining threads of grit and faith.

That summer, it hit me that her incredible stories would possibly die with her. That grim prospect gave me a sense of urgency to capture her stories when she'd come around for my brother's wedding a few months ago, and to go deeper than merely a recollection of events. I wanted to know more about her specific context and her specific experiences in relation to these events. I wanted to ask, for each of her stories:

"Who else was there?"

"What do you think caused this?"

"When in the timeline of historic events did this occur?"

"Where exactly were you when this took place?"

"Why do you think it happened?"

"How did you feel before/during/after this?"

And as expected, these questions allowed me look below the surface-level conversations I'd previously held with her:

I learned that my grandmother was devastated by the death of her husband, and clueless as to how to raise six young children on her own. She sold every last one of her belongings to provide for them, including her wedding jewellery.

She was terrified by the police shootouts, but eventually came to befriend a prominent figure in the Mumbai police force. She counts it among her life's biggest accomplishments that she guided her children to become strong, independent, hard-working citizens. She can recall the horror of bomb sirens during the wars with Pakistan, as well as the panic around trying to acquire baby food during states of emergency.

While she was here this past summer, we watched a few Bollywood movies with the subtitles off. And it reminded me that while I understand Hindi perfectly, I still struggle to speak it.

It allowed me to have one of the most human moments I've ever experienced, a heart-to-heart that changed the way I see myself.

I spent half of my childhood in New York and the other half in Toronto. My family and the community around me always spoke a combination of English, Hindi, and Urdu (a very similar dialect to Hindi). Through osmosis, I was able to pick up the languages. But I could never speak it beyond a smattering of common phrases.

Knowing I'd meet my grandmother again this summer lit a fire in me to relearn conversational Hindi to not only better capture her stories, but to allow for a rekindling of our relationship. And I'm glad I did, because it allowed me to have one of the most human moments I've ever experienced, a heart-to-heart that changed the way I see myself...

Following a storytelling session, Nani Maa and I stood outside her guest bedroom. She looked at me with watery eyes. She began by acknowledging that her health was fading, and that she was saddened by the idea that this might be the last time we'd see each other. Seeing this rugged woman tremble and break down caused me to well up. With tears streaming down her face, she uttered these words to me:

"Mummy ka khayal rakhna, beta. Woh bohut hi strong hai."

Which translates from Hindi to:

"Please take care of your mom, son. She's a very tough woman."

Her forlorn request whisked me through my memories as far back as they could go, illuminating nearly three decades of interactions with my mother. Having freshly listened my grandmother's life stories, it gave my mother an entirely new dimension: the daughter of my grandmother.

It put into context that she was only a young girl when her own father died. Being raised by Nani Maa left an indelible imprint on who she is as a person today: a kind, selfless, tough-as-nails, tenacious woman. Someone built to withstand the vicissitudes of an immigrant experience during the '80s and '90s.

She lived through economic downturns, overt racism and strenuous demands on her mind, body and spirit. She tried to make it in America, and for some time lived alone with two children while my father tried to find new employment opportunities in Canada. Her early adult life and social life were uprooted in the pursuit of giving my sister and I a better life (a sacrifice we can never adequately repay). And she outlasted all of it. Because that's what my grandmother taught her to do: persist. Just like my grandmother's hut-dwelling mother, who lived through dire poverty, neglect and abuse.


I always thought I modelled my resilience after my father, but I was wrong. Most of it actually comes from my mother (and by extension my grandmother and my great grandmother). Tens of thousands of stressful experiences and interactions compounded to form the woman that raised me.

Today, I also see why grit is the defining characteristic of not just my mother, but all of her siblings as well. It's not simply a reaction to being immigrants , it's a latent skill set -- a mindset, rather -- forged in the crucible of an ever-changing and volatile country, that was simply activated by the stressors of changing circumstances.

Through my grandmother I've been better able to understand my mother and the values she imparted unto me. I am my mother's son. I am my grandmother's grandson. I am my great-grandmother's great-grandson. And if I have children of my own someday, they'll hopefully understand why I turned out the way that I did.

If you're the first-generation child of immigrant parents, you owe it to yourself to learn the language of your grandparents.

Working in marketing, I know that stories are the fundamental unit of human understanding -- they are our connection to the past, our guide to the present, and our map to the future. Learning my grandmother's life stories helped me to reconnect with my own Indian-American and Indian-Canadian identity in a way that Bollywood movies never could.

If you're the first-generation child of immigrant parents, you owe it to yourself to learn the language of your grandparents. Spend some time with them and ask them about their life. Where were they born? Where did they live? What did they do for fun? What schools did they go to? Who was their first love? What was their first job? When did they feel hopeless? When were they most full of life? Get them to share the details of their most memorable days. And more.

Go deeper than the mere sequence of events you might've never ventured beneath because of language barriers. It could just be the key to unlocking dimensions of who you are. And if history is cyclical, perhaps who you might become.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at

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