THERE’S a mother embedded in every girl and woman. In fact, a woman is a perennial mother. Even as a beloved or a wife, it’s the mother in her that guides her other instincts and roles,’ wrote Khalil Gibran. I experienced this when I met my (late) professor and soul-mother Dr Zaifa Ashraf in Cairo where I went from Oxford at the age of 20 to pursue my PhD in Arabic linguistics under her tutelage.
I lost my biological mother when I was born. I longed for someone who could give me motherly love and guide me through hardships and happiness that life offers so routinely.
She was a very elegant and stately woman, who taught Arabic literature and linguistics at Al-Azhar, Oxford and Cambridge. Hailing from a royal family of Pakistan, where her dad was a high-ranking air force officer, she left Pakistan and Islam for good and turned an atheist at the age of 17.
Though I was fluent in Persian and Arabic, my Urdu was not good. Apart from guiding me in my thesis in Arabic, she taught me the nuances of Urdu.
She learnt about my mother and became all the more protective and affectionate towards me. When she realised that I was a vegetarian and getting veg meals was rather difficult in the hostel, she would bring home food for me. I loved the aloo-matar and mushroom she cooked for me with love. She found a departmental store in Cairo, run by a Pakistani-Punjabi expatriate, where tinned sarson da saag was available. She would cook it, which I would have with naan and dollops of butter as makki di roti was not available there. I soon got to know that Dr Zaifa was also a vegetarian.
On Mother’s Day, I gifted her a shawl and wrote in Urdu: Ammijaan ke liye Sumit ki jaanib se (from Sumit to his mom). She cried and hugged me. We both cried. From that day, I started calling her Ammi.
Two and a half years just glided by. I finished my PhD and got A-1 grade. She was immensely happy and proud like a mother. Meanwhile, I got an opportunity to visit India and pursue research in lost dialects of the sub-continent. I asked her, ‘Ammi, Hindustan chalengi?’ She tenderly replied: ‘Mera beta mujhe jahaan le jayega, main chaloongi.’
I came to India in 2003. She lived with me in Pune. In December 2009, she was diagnosed with cervix cancer and after a year, she breathed her last at a hospital in London.
Her last wish was that her body be draped in the shawl I had gifted her. She passed away holding my hand. Since she didn’t belong to any man-made faith, her mortal remains were neither cremated nor entombed. She donated her body to a cancer hospital for medical research.
I still remember her every day and cry. There was no blood relation with my Zaifa Ammi, but she was much more than a biological mother to me. She was my soul-mom. Mama, I love and miss you every moment.
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