Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Names of Grandmas around the world:
Lola / Inang (Philippines), Grandmere / Mémé (France), Oma (German), YaYa(Greek), Tutu (Hawaii ), Nona (Italy), Nai Nai / Ma Ma (China), Bomma / Bommi (Belgiun), Mórai(Ireland), Sobo/Soba(Japan), Babula (Polish), Avo (Portugal), Tatick (Armenia), Baka (Croatia), Bibi (Swahali), Nenek (Malaya), Amma (Iceland), Thakurma / Dida (Bangladesh), Babushka (Russia), Jadda (Arabia), Fafa (Danish), Mamgu (South Wales), Nain (North Wales), Ugogo (Zulu), Teetay / Teeta (Palestine), Nani / Daadi (India)
When you think of your name for your grandmother, I’m hoping it will more often than not conjure-up feelings of safety, comfort and fondness. The relative who you could run to for a secret hug. The person who you trusted implicitly. The last word in human warmth and cuddles so tight that you feared you might be squeezed to death; Deep down you know it was the squeeze of undisputed,
unconditional love. I dreamt of that love and still do. As a daughter of migrants, my grandparents on both sides of the family lived 5000 miles away.
I have two distinctive memories of my maternal grandmother – my ‘Nani’ and one of my paternal Grandma – my ‘Daadi’. I’d like to share them with you.
Nani and Daadi were ‘simple’ females (look up ‘simple’ it’s a lovely word). It’s something I noticed as a very young child in so many of the women of the Bangladesh of my childhood and respect for their generous humility has ever grown as I’ve grown and life has brought the kind of burdens and insights which they must have shared a thousand-fold. These warm, gentle, kind village women carried about them a real air of service and sacrifice. Both Nani and Daadi were most certainly typical of their kind.
The memory I have of my Daadi is like a dream. It’s more about feelings and visions than a clear picture of her, as I cannot to this day recall her face. I’m not sure where I was exactly, I suppose it was my father’s village in Kushtia. I must have been a baby that could walk and talk and I see the village. I was sitting on the step of an outhouse and I can sense (not see) a very kind lady (I know she’s kind!) walking towards me through the strong rays of very un-British sunshine. I know it’s Daadi. She has brought me a bowl of sweet puffed rice (Murree) a proper treat. That’s all I have of her; it’s a memory of wisps and feelings and shadows. But it is a cherished memory and I can never forget the feeling of happiness and calm in that moment.
The memories of my maternal grandmother - Nani – are clearer. She was a very ‘genteel’ woman. Very simple in her outlook and always smiling (at least when I met her). I had already become a ‘foreigner’ by then, along with most of my relatives, due to the fact that I was an English girl. So they treated me accordingly – the first and last time I was allowed to be a Princess. Nani, serving me like a royal guest, always extremely polite and very good-natured when I visited. She lived most of her life in a village in the now Bangladesh, but during British India times, it was an area where trading with the Brits was common and so her father, who had some ‘understanding’ with the colonisers, was a man of some means, in fact a leading figure in the area as was my grandfather – ‘Nana’.
My first memory of Nani is very hazy. I was a child on one of my visits to Bangladesh, but I can’t remember exactly how old I was. I saw her in the capital, Dhaka whilst visiting an aunty, I think. I remember not being able to talk to her much as I was a very shy child, but I recall the feeling of security of knowing that she was nice and caring.
The second and final memory of my Nani is as a young (girlish) 14 year old girl. I travelled with one of my four sisters – she was 18 – and it was our first time travelling to Bangladesh unaccompanied. We were of course excited and laughed pretty well all the way non-stop. When we arrived, my mother decided that we could go and visit Nani in her village and so off we all went. We travelled across water on a small ferry, crossed fields on foot and eventually ended up in Rajbari. Tranquil, green and beautiful. This was the proper Bangladeshi outback and we were there for a whole week without, tap water or electricity. A shared water pump for thirst and a hole in the ground for a toilet.
When sunlight disappeared, it was just the ‘click-click’ of the luminous, Snapping Beetles filling your ears, drowning the silence of the landscape. The gentle soundtrack of the Bangladeshi countryside. Just nature drifting, beating, wafting on the breeze – surrounded by an absolute, total inky black, liquid darkness. And the company. Wonderfully, I began to get close with my Nani and we started to talk and talk. I wanted her to talk. I wanted to know everything about her life and her memories. I wanted to learn all about my roots and how she had lived her own life. But most of all I wanted that squeeze, that unconditional love.
And the memories poured out. She started telling me about her eldest son – my eldest maternal uncle who had died when he was just two years old. Her face glowed as she spoke about him jumping on her bed when he was a baby, bouncing and still full of life. Her eyes lit up as she described his personality and her abiding love for him was clear - The first of the ten babies that she had never stopped loving. Then she started talking to me about her love for my grandfather who had also died (I never met him). Again, her whole face came to life as she described a husband and father without equal. She told me how wonderful her marriage was and how she missed him still. And in the darkness of those warm, humid evenings these were the stories I wanted to hear, wanted to listen to, wanted to remember. I was creating a rare memory, together with my Nani, that’s stayed with me forever, even in my dreams.
It was during this holiday that I would discover, much to my surprise, that both my Nani and my mother could swim. They took us to a hidden pond surrounded by tropical trees and I watched as the two of them slid through the water in their saris, swimming like over-dressed, silken otters - a comical yet deeply touching vision that I still bring to mind to bring light to dull Russian winter days. My Nani’s beautiful, black ringlets resting on the water, unbound. And she is free, giggling like a little girl.
The memories are making me smile now.
These are lovely memories of my Nani and Daadi of childhood visits to Bangladesh. Daadi passed away soon after that one trip and Nani three weeks before I was due to see her during my school summer holidays when I was 18 years old. After my Nani left us, I think I unconsciously ‘adopted’ my best school friend’s Grandma back in the UK. She was called Dorothy and one could very accurately describe her as an authentic ‘battle axe’! She was a traditional Welsh valleys girl, who travelled with her husband all over the world as he followed his work. She was a proud woman but I discovered that underneath a very tough skin was an earnest tender heart; A woman who had many a story to tell and a wealth of cooking lore that she eventually allowed me to share. She taught me old-fashioned British cooking – cakes, roasts, etc, etc. I was honoured when she asked ME to teach HER how to cook a good chicken curry. We ended up with a mutual respect and admiration and again, I have wonderful memories of this other ‘Grandma’.
As a person long grown used to the absence of grandparents, I haven’t been able to resist befriending old ladies in all the countries I have visited and Russia is no exception. Old ladies are a big noise here. You can’t miss the Babushkas. They rule the streets. They discipline the masses. They’re the social glue here as the have been for centuries where Male mortality has regularly cut bloody swathes though any hopes of a ‘normal’ life.
I see them looking after their grandchildren everywhere in this often contradictory city. And even though you better watch yourself as they aggressively shove past you as you get on a metro, bus or tram, they will smile when you smile, give you directions when you’re lost and give you a gentle hug when you need it. My Armenian Babushka neighbour used to check up on me and bring me plates of food before Big White moved in. She would knock on my door, beaming as she insisted that I tried yet another dish that I’d never seen in my life – telling me that I would like it.
I suppose my reason for writing this particular blog is to remind us that our Nanis, Nonas, Bibis and Baushkas were all once vibrant young women, with passion and dreams. They’ve given us our roots, they have priceless life experience, knowledge. They’ve grafted, they continue to graft and they play an essential, unspoken role all the world over. And though they can appear to intimidate, this is a chance to celebrate our grandmothers. We must cherish them and consider ourselves lucky when we turn to our own or adopted Babushkas for that squeeze, for that hug, for that undisputed unconditional love.
We must be kind to the Babushka. They deserve that at least.