By Sonya Rehman
Born in Mashhad, Iran, my Great Grandmother, Shaukat Nasrullah Khan was addressed as ‘Nani Joon’ by her granddaughters – Nina (my Aunt) and Geethi (my mother). ‘Joon’ in Persian means ‘Darling,’ and years later, when my brother and I were born, we carried on the tradition of addressing our own grandmother, Raffath, as ‘Bibi Joon.’
Nani Joon was a very feminine woman – she married quite young (common in those days), but from whatever little my Aunt and mother remember, my Great Grandmother was an incredibly strong woman. Hard to guess given her slim, petite frame, her soft features and long hair, oft styled in a braid. She spoke Persian fluently, understood English – but wasn’t fluent in the language. Shortly after her marriage to Nasrullah Khan (addressed as ‘Nana Joon’ by his granddaughters), the ADC of Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan (known as Aly Khan), Nani Joon moved to Pune, India, as a young bride. She had two children, Raffath and Fateh.
Interestingly, Bibi Joon was very close to Prince Ali’s mother. So spoilt was Bibi Joon, that she would travel extensively to Europe with her surrogate mother for holidays and shopping trips, infact, my Aunt tells me, that Bibi Joon had a separate pair of shoes for each dress! This didn’t go down too well with Nani Joon.
Bibi Joon led quite an interesting life: Nani Joon wanted her to be a Doctor, therefore on her mother’s insistence Bibi Joon studied Biology in college. But when the time came to dissect a corpse, Bibi Joon passed out. That was the end of Bibi Joon’s career in medicine. She took up Botany instead. She was also an ace tennis player – almost all my immediate family members have played tennis at some point in their lives. But Bibi Joon pursued it quite seriously in India. So much so that she was ranked Number 2 in women’s tennis in India.
I was 14 when Bibi Joon passed away. That was my first experience with death. I loved her, but I was terrified of vexing her. My fondest memories of Bibi Joon were watching her getting dressed up to play Bridge at the Lahore Gymkhana. I’d sit on her bed and watch her with utmost fascination as she’d powder her fair skin lightly, darken her eyebrows with a pencil, gently apply blush to her cheeks – in one swift, light movement, and apply light, tea pink lipstick to her lips. She’d wear beautiful, unique saris (perfectly maintained saris that she’d brought with her from India) and match her outfit with light jewelry – diamond studs, pearls, emeralds, rubies, and thin, feminine, gold bangles. “I hope your nose doesn’t end up looking like a big pakora like mine,” she’d tell me frequently while gently honking my nose. Not one to be too physically affectionate, Bibi Joon’s eyes would well up when she’d see my brother and I every few months. And on some level, that was more than enough for me, although, my brother was her favourite.
My Aunt, my Khala, my surrogate mother throughout my baby years and early teens, has been the coolest woman I’ve ever known after Mum. She graduated from Harvard in ’77 and since, has lived her life on her own terms – a true academic. Like my mother, my Aunt hasn’t been too big on fashion, but during her Harvard years she loved wearing faded blue jeans “despite being overweight after eating all that American food.”
My mother too, is a very simple woman: she balks at lawn exhibitions, yet has a weakness for khussas and kola puris. The only thing that she splurges on though, is: haircuts. She loves short hair and often tells her favourite hairdresser at Nabila’s to give her a “Maheen Khan [the fashion designer] wallah haircut please!”
The Friday Times