The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

The Visiting Grandmother is written by Qaisra Shahraz who is a highly acclaimed British-Pakistani author whose literary contributions have made a significant impact on contemporary literature. Born in Pakistan and later settling in England, Shahraz has a unique perspective that reflects the intersection of cultures and the complexities of identity.

She is renowned for her evocative storytelling, vivid descriptions, and compelling characters that navigate themes of love, loss, and cultural clashes. Shahraz’s works often explore the experiences of South Asian women, highlighting the challenges they face while shedding light on their strength and resilience.


Her writing beautifully captures the nuances of human emotions and relationships, drawing readers into immersive narratives that provoke thought and inspire empathy. With a distinct blend of cultural insight and universal themes, Qaisra Shahraz has become a prominent voice in contemporary literature, garnering critical acclaim and a dedicated readership.

Her works serve as a testament to the power of storytelling to bridge gaps and foster understanding between different cultures and communities.


The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

Rabia Bibi sat in an infant school hall, celebrating Christmas with the schoolchildren and their teachers. Rabia’s eyes followed the prancing figure of her granddaughter Roxana, around the large noisy hall. Roxana worked as a reception teacher at this school. She had taken her grandmother to the school party, to show her how English children celebrate Christmas at their schools. The music was on, and the Christmas games were in full swing. Giggles and squeals of laughter from the young children echoed around the hall. For the last game the children held each other’s hands and under the guidance of their teachers made two circles.


Then they moved round the hall with the music. One minute they twirled around, the next wriggled their bottoms to the beat of the music, almost squatting on the floor, and then rising up and jumping in the air. The teachers did the same. Rabia Bibi stared hard, amused and bemused at the same time. It was all new to her. She might as well have landed from another planet, for all the affinity she had with her present surroundings, she felt so alone and miserable.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

She tried very hard to locate the whereabouts of her granddaughter. For Roxana was the tangible link between this world and that of hers, in Pakistan. Yet Roxana seemed to have blended well with this world. She felt tears creep up into the corners of her eyes. She brushed them away with the edge of her headscarf, dupatta. Then she wanted to cry not only because she couldn’t identify with this environment of the school, but also because she was mourning the death of her cousin, Noor Begum. The latter was Roxana‘s other grandmother. She had died a fortnight ago.


If only she was in Pakistan when Noor had died. She hadn’t seen her since she arrived in England eight months ago. And now she would never see her again, and had missed out on the mourning period. Mrs Johnson, the headmistress of the infant school, passed by the benches, where Rabia and other parents sat. Bending her head in acknowledgment here and there, she spoke to some of the parents.

Rabia dreaded the headmistress’s approach—Roxana had introduced her grandmother earlier in the afternoon to the headteacher and had especially schooled her to say `Hello’ and ‘How do you do?’ and to flash a smile, a ‘plastic’ smile that the English people were very good at. They always seemed to smile at you, whenever they caught your eye.

Rabia didn’t know how to react. She couldn’t very well smile at any Nethts Pethu, at any Tom, Dick, and Harry. Mrs. Johnson’s gaze encompassed Roxana‘s grandmother. She summoned a special smile to her lips, she had wanted to make her feel at home. Earlier she had spoken to her at length, although she knew Rabia wouldn’t have understood a word. The grandmother had appeared so lost and harassed and cut a sorry figure, as they trailed silently behind her granddaughter, nodding her head dumbly as she was introduced to the other teachers. In reciprocation, the muscles of Rabia‘s face worked in an attempt to force a semblance of a smile to her lips. It was too late.

Mrs. Johnson had already passed on. Rabia was disappointed. She looked around at the other people sitting around her. With the exception of one or two older English women, most of them were mainly young. There were a couple of young Pakistani mothers, but they sat at the other end of the bench. They were too far for Rabia to speak to them. She so much wanted to speak to someone who spoke her language. She had eagerly caught their glances once or twice and smiled at them. Rabia glanced again at the older women.

She was interested in them because they were of the same age as herself, and yet between them lay an ocean of difference. They must be grandmothers or great-grandmothers of the children attending this school. Rabia drew her dupatta over her head. It had fallen on the collar of her coat, no one else had their head covered—she was the only one. The old woman, with the red hair, glanced in Rabia‘s direction and catching her eye, smiled pleasantly at her.

Rabia warmed to it, and nodded her head in acknowledgment, letting her face break into a smile readily. Like most of the other older English women that Rat) l had seen, this woman had very short-cropped hair and it was all curled up around the crown of her head. She wore make-up too. Lipstick! If she had cut her hair short as that (like a man’s) or worn make-up, she would be the butt of ridicule, and become a laughing stock in her community in Lahore, Pakistan.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

People would laugh and exclaim, ‘What has happened to the old woman?’ What does she think she is doing tailing herself up like that?’ Shouldn’t she be looking her age?’ She should be ashamed of herself!’ It was just another way of life, another perspective, she argued with herself. English people’s culture was very different from hers. In the eight months she had been in England she had learned so much about the English people, their culture, and their habits. She was fast becoming attuned to life in England.

When she first arrived, she was aghast at what she saw of the ‘decadent’ and ‘permissive’ West coming from a Muslim country. The contrast was especially piquant. She had asked her daughter-in-law, why English women exposed so much of themselves, their legs, their arms, and sometimes almost the whole of their body, clad only in two scraps of material. Her granddaughter had told her in reply, that the English people in their turn, were similarly surprised at their way of dressing. They had asked why Muslim women covered their bodies and hair.

Rabia Bibi would never forget that day, however, when she was confronted by two bikini-clad young women on the beach at Blackpool. Never had she felt so embarrassed before in her life, as she did at that time—with her son by her side, she felt so ashamed. She hadn’t known where to look, at the voluptuous curves of the young woman or the donkeys prancing on the sand, with children on their backs. How could they do it? She asked herself aghast. Later she shook her head. Who was she to judge them? She told herself unconvincingly.

That was their way of life. For the same reason, she daren’t watch television when everybody else was watching. You could never trust English TV programs. One was never sure when men and women on ‘, the screen would begin to kiss and cuddle one another or get into bed together. Every time such incidents flashed on the screen, her cheeks would begin to smart from the heat, from embarrassment. In order to rid her discomfiture she would begin to talk about any topic, about Pakistan, and about their relatives and friends.

She would look anywhere but the television, yet her grandchildren carried on watching nonchalantly as if nothing was the matter! Parents began to clap their hands to the beat of the music. Rabia Bibi too joined in the clapping, opening wide her palms and fingers, as she always did at the Bhangra dance in Pakistan. She caught sight of the bulky figure of an elder teacher, waving and shaking her arms over her head, like the children, and then wriggling her bottom from side to side vigorously.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

Fancy an older woman making a fool of herself like that in public. Hadn’t she herself, however, taken part occasionally in wedding ritual dances at the hen party, she conceded. She too, probably according to the on-lookers made some ridiculous-looking movements. Her granddaughter was imitating the same movements; her hair flying out behind her, joining in the laughter of the children.

The music stopped; the clapping ended, and the hall grew quiet. The children sat on the floor in lines. Roxana sat with the other teachers on the chairs. The headmistress stood at the top end of the hall and made a speech. ‘School’ and ‘Christmas’ were the only two words that Rabia Bibi understood. When the speech ended, it was time for the children to return to their classrooms to tuck into the party dinner. Under the guidance of their teachers, children filed themselves in neat lines. The children then left the hall, class by class.

Roxana was almost going to leave the hall, when she remembered her grandmother. Locating her amongst the parents and with a reassuring smile on her lips, Roxana beckoned to her grandmother to follow her. With a beating heart and felt very awkward at having to leave her seat while everyone else was seated. Rabia got up with her shalwar making a rustling sound around her ankles. She followed Roxana‘s class into one of the classrooms, dotted down the school corridor. Rabia hadn’t been in this room before. She stood in the doorway and watched in wonderment.

The room looked so lovely. It was decorated with children’s pictures. paintings, and Christmas cards, pinned to the display board. Tissue streamers crisscrossed across the room, from wall to wall. In the middle of the room, six tables were laid out with large pieces of colored tissue paper covering their tops. The tables were laden, with plates, and bowls, containing food. Roxana placed a chair in one corner of the room for her grandmother and asked if everything was OK. Her grandmother uttered the word ‘Yes.’ Satisfied, Roxana returned to her class, the children having already been introduced to Miss Gulzar’s grandmother, who spoke in a funny language.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

Some Pakistani children in the classroom had heard and understood what Miss Gulzar had said but were too shy to acknowledge that they had. Wearing their funny looking tissue papered hats, the children) began to tuck into the food. Sandwiches were passed around.) Orange juice was poured into small plastic cups, and crisps and cakes were plucked by eager infant fingers from the school’s Pyrex bowls. Roxana took a plate of sandwiches to her; grandmother and offered them to her, speaking in Punjabi.

‘Lay la, Ama Ji.’ ‘Betio, kya hey?’ What is it daughter?’ she asked, looking suspiciously at the plate. Then she shook her head. A glimpse of something creamy and green oozing out of pieces of cut bread didn’t appeal to her. She wasn’t sure whether it would be real. There was probably churbee, animal fat in it. Roxana turned the plate to the table. Taking one sandwich, she munched away, apparently enjoying it very much. Sometime later she returned with a glass of orange juice and a bowl of crisps. These her grandmother accepted readily. She knew these two items. She had eaten them before, although the flavor of the crisps was different from the ones she had last time.

Roxana watched her grandmother and smiled reassuringly at her. In the hall, she had looked so lost and so abandoned. Love welled up inside her for her grandmother. But then what did one expect? The school was such an institution, that it even reduced English parents to a state of nervousness. Let alone, her grandmother, who had come from another country, another way of life, and another culture. She just wished that her grandmother would attempt to smile as much as she could, rather than look so glum.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

When the school bell was rung, parents were already waiting outside the classroom to collect their son or daughter. After the children departed, Roxana, with the help of another teacher began to clear up. Her grandmother got up to help too. She was good at tidying up places. She just needed to be told what to do, and where to throw the used paper plates and cups. Rabia mused over her predicament. While in Lahore, in her household, she was the mistress, giving advice, instructions, and orders to her two daughters-in-law and her granddaughters, here she was at the receiving end of instructions.

Her mind dwelt on her two sons and their families in Lahore. They all lived together in a large house. There was always a lovely, happy, and merry atmosphere around the place which was sadly lacking in her son’s family in Manchester. Here everybody always had something to do. The children, if they weren’t doing their homework, they were either reading newspapers or watching television, or speaking to each other in English.

She didn’t have the same rapport with these grandchildren as she had with those in Pakistan, she was just the visiting grandmother. The one they saw for a short space of time, after a number of years, and the one who was staying with them temporarily. Her elder granddaughter, Roxana, and her daughter-in-law were the two who made a special effort to make her feel at home, to see to her needs. With the place tidied up and having said goodbye to the other teachers, grandmother, and granddaughter left the school.

Roxana felt high-spirited and buoyant and she and her class had enjoyed themselves thoroughly, although her bones ached after all that running around in the hall. She wondered whether her grandmother had enjoyed herself too, and she asked if she had. After a slight hesitation, Rabia nodded her head, more for Roxana‘s sake. She knew Roxana had enjoyed herself, but then she was part of this world and would do so anyway. As for her – well that was another story.

It had been one of the worst moments of her life and she had never before, felt so lonely, so alienated, surrounded by complete strangers, and had never before experienced the feeling of timidity and helplessness. Above all, the day had stripped her of her personal dignity and self-confidence—she had, for the first time, come across the real England, not the one, in the safe confines of her son’s home. When they reached their house, Rabia looked around the room with renewed interest.

Today she viewed it as a sort of haven. It was familiar, warm and cozy, containing people she knew, loved, and held dear. Ironically, it was only yesterday that she had felt suffocated in this small enclosed house. She was used to open surroundings, open courtyards, and a large house with large airy rooms.

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

Later in the evening, her son asked her jokingly what she thought of her visit to the school. She listed the things she had seen and marveled at, and the people she had met. She omitted to say how she had felt during the day. No one would understand her. Above all, she said, she had a taste of the life that her granddaughter lived day to day at her work. She marveled at Roxana‘s ability to weave in and out of the two worlds, cultures, languages, and identities.

What alternative did Roxana have anyway? She had to. All of a sudden she recalled the subject which had made her cry in the school hall: the death of her cousin, Noor Begum. Cautiously she brought up the subject of her return to Pakistan, while her son was in a good mood. ‘Son, I have been here for the last eight months; I think it’s time I went home.’ She wasn’t talking in vain; there was a determination in her voice. Her son noticed this. ‘Mother, stay for two more months, then you can go,’ he rallied. ‘Your visa doesn’t expire until four months later.’

He didn’t relish the thought of sending his mother away; it had been great having her around the house. There was a special merry atmosphere in his home since his mother had arrived and his family had reveled in it. ‘No, my son, I must go. I must get back to Pakistan, before the end of the mourning period and the fortieth-day prayer gathering of the relatives for Noor Begum, your mother-in-law.’ ‘But that’s only in two weeks’ time, you can’t possibly go so soon?’ ‘I must. I can’t miss out on that gathering. What will our relatives say about my absence?

Anyway, I want to be there. I must represent my family, otherwise, your younger brother will have to take up all the responsibility and he is so busy as it is, and anyway, I feel so redundant here. I know you all want me to stay, and love me very much, but there is nothing much for me to do. In Pakistan I have so many jobs to do, and so many responsibilities which all keep me healthy and busy. It is also getting very cold here for my bones and I am getting too old. I don’t want to die here, one never knows when one might die—I want to leave England a live woman, not a corpse in a box.’
‘Oh, mother, don’t talk about death. You are in the best of health. We need you so much.’
‘It happens my son. What happened to Noor Begum? I left her a healthy woman and now I have been deprived of seeing her face before she was buried.’

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

‘OK mother, as you wish,’ her son said quietly. It would make a hell of a difference in his household when she went. He would miss her cooking too. He couldn’t keep her against her will, however.
Rabia Bibi’s heart began to thud with excitement. She was going! And so soon. As she had to be there at the fortieth-day prayer in honor of Noor Begum’s soul, it looked as if she would reach her destination in a week’s time. If she delved in her heart she knew that she was using Noor Begum’s death to leave England. Only yesterday she had resigned herself to stay in Manchester for another three months.

For the most part, she had enjoyed her stay in England. She had seen so many places and met so many people. She had been pampered and made to feel very special and cherished. Her son, his wife, and her three grandchildren had showered love and presents on her as she never envisaged. So many dinners were given in her honor. She had gone on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, three months ago.

There was so much to do if she was going to Pakistan next week. Rabia Bibi got up with renewed energy; she must sort out her clothes, and the presents she was going to give her grandchildren, and her three children. She had been saving them for the last few months. She left the room a happy woman. Her son was already on the phone enquiring about plane tickets to Pakistan.

A week later, as Rabia sat on the plane to go to Pakistan, she was overcome by a mixture of feelings. She was sad at leaving her son, her grandchildren, and all the friends she had made. Would she see any of these people again? Yet she was so happy at going home, her ‘home’.

As she looked down through the plane window at the cottony clouds as London disappeared below her, she fully accepted the fact that she was actually leaving.
Her mind switched to Pakistan. A poignant thought occurred to her. Did her grandchildren living in Manchester have the same thoughts and feelings when they said goodbye to Pakistan and returned to England, ‘their’ home?

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

Did her son, too, who was born and bred in Pakistan, regard England as his home and have the same feeling for England as she had for Pakistan? For the first time in the last twenty years, Rabia had an insight into the mind of her son. The son who over the years had become a stranger to her. He had settled in England in his early twenties, and in the last twenty years had made four short visits with his family to Pakistan. With a sinking heart, Rabia realized that the son was lost to her. She couldn’t deny the loss anymore.

Rabia brushed these thoughts away determinedly. She wasn’t going to become morbid. A week of excitement lay ahead of
her. Now, who would be there at the airport to meet her? They would all be there, every one of them. They would flock to Lahore Airport from towns and cities. Her relatives and she had been to Hajj and were now Hajen twice over. A special car would be hired for her, a special feast and…

The Visiting Grandmother by Qaisra Shahraz

The pretty Pakistani hostess passed by and enquired of Rabia, addressing her as ‘mother’ as was the custom for older people. ‘Ap theek hey, Ama Jan?’ (Are you all right?)
Rabia nodded her head and smiled happily.
‘Ji han, beithy. Meh apney ghar jathi hue.’ (‘Yes, daughter. I am going home.’)
The hostess passed on.
Rabia closed her eyes, lost in her thoughts of England, and the family she had left behind in Manchester.

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