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Shanaz Begum, Custodian Of Stories

August 16, 2016
by Delwar Hussain

Today’s story is the second of seven features by Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain

Shanaz Begum admitted that she had been rifling through the family albums in anticipation of my arrival with Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie. She found plenty of old black and white studio portraits of her parents wearing flash seventies sunglasses, shots of uncles and aunts in platform shoes, and snaps of cousins in eighties and nineties attire. But, out of the entire collection, she could find only one picture of herself with Ayesha Khatun, her dadi (grandmother).

It was taken in 1987 during Shanaz’s birth ceremony, a few days after she was born, when the azaan is whispered into a baby’s ear and hair shaven off the head. The strands of hair are weighed using the measurement for gold and the equivalent in money is donated to charity. In the photograph, a freshly-shorn and oiled Shanaz is held by one of two grand aunts, while her dadi sits on a low stool on the right.

Shanaz remembers her dadi did not like having her picture taken and there are only a few of her. She always said, “Why waste the film on me when you can take pictures of other people?” if anyone pointed a camera in her direction.

Yet this photograph was not what Sarah & I had come to see. From out of the wardrobe in her bedroom, Shanaz took out an unassuming plastic bag with leopard spots printed on it. It was the contents of this bag – full of memories and silences – that we had come to discover.

Carefully, Shanaz pulled out what look like sarees from the bag. They had once belonged to her dadi. Pealing the delicate layers of silk away, she revealed a little white box and a black woollen shawl, folded neatly. It had been handwoven by Manupri women in Sylhet where her dadi was born in 1940. As far as Shanaz knows, her dadi kept it her whole life and wore it at all times of celebrations, including weddings and Eid. “Why does Shanaz keep it in this plastic bag?” I wondered.

“It’s the same bag that dadi kept them in,” Shanaz answered, “She was a simple woman and I store her things in it because it preserves her smell.”

“Here,” she offered and I leant forward and took in a lungful. The shawl smelled faintly of attar (incense). “What does it smell like to you?” I asked, and Shanaz picked the shawl up and buried her face in it.

“It evokes warmth to me,” she replied, coming up for air. “It reminds me of her home on the Boundary Estate where she lived for more than thirty-five years after she moved to London to be with my ‘dada’ (grandfather). It brings back memories of growing up in that flat, living with my uncles, aunts and cousins, and of cuddling up to my dadi, and of the bond my mother had with her. She was a small woman but she had a fiery soul, and I can still smell it in this shawl.”

The first and – so far – the only time Shanaz wore her dadi’s shawl in public was when she was nominated for an award. Shanaz works on women’s education projects at Mulberry School for Girls where she was once a pupil. It was 2012 and by then her dadi was already unwell, the cause of her illness had been kept a secret among a select few by her family.

“In need of reassurance and confused as to why I was on the list of nominees, I spoke to her about my feelings and she said something I will always remember – ‘there is no-one who is your superior and no-one who is your inferior.’”

Shanaz won the award and was invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. “It made sense to wear the shawl at the occasion,” she said, “I wanted to embody both the grit and grace of my dadi.”

I watched as Shanaz opened the little white box that also lives in the plastic bag. Inside is a gold necklace. As she laced it through her fingers, Shanaz smiled and said that she and her dadi had the same hands. “Others in the family have slender, long fingers but I was blessed with her short stubby ones.”

In order for her dada to come to London in 1965, Shanaz’s dadi sold her gold wedding necklace to pay for his plane ticket. She did not tell anyone what she had done, Shanaz says, since people would have found it shocking. Married women are expected to wear the gold necklace until their husband dies, when they take it off forever. Thirty years later, dadi’s second son bought this necklace as a replacement.

However, unlike the shawl, Shanaz has never worn the necklace. “Gold is important for an older generation of women but I don’t like it very much,” she explained, “I’ll wear the necklace on my wedding day so my dadi can be present and because my mother will insist but, for younger women, it doesn’t have the same significance as it once did. My dadi and my mother didn’t have the same freedoms as men and were only valued on the basis of how much gold they had but, for my generation, we don’t need gold for validation. We have degrees and we have jobs but, most importantly, we have a voice. We can speak up.”

The very last time Shanaz’s dadi wore the necklace was two weeks before she died. She had taken it off, as she had done each time she went to the hospital over the previous five ears. “She had blood cancer,” Shanaz revealed, “By the end, she just gave up. She didn’t want to fight anymore. You could sense it. But she was only seventy-years old. She was so young.

Today, as the eldest of thirty grandchildren, Shanaz has been invested with the role of being the narrator as well as the caretaker of her dadi’s stories, passing them on so that they continue to live in the world. I ask Shanaz what she would like to pass on to her children.

“The shawl and the necklace have so much significance for me but really I just hope my daughters will recognise the lineage they are a part of, and see my mother as a strong and as loving a person as my dadi.”

Shanaz’s birthing bath, 1987

Ayesha Khatun, Shanaz’s grandmother, 1972

Ayesha Khatun, 1996

Shelly Choudhury, Shanaz’s mother, 1980

Shanaz and her mother today

Shanaz Begum

New portraits © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to take a look at

Boundary Estate Cooking Portraits

6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 16, 2016

    For the love of our grandmothers.

  2. Taryn Mounsmie permalink
    August 16, 2016

    What an interesting article to read. I found the pictures to be amazingly beautiful and has bought my memories back to life. I’d like to add ‘what a beautiful and inspiring lady’!

  3. Brick Lane Mafia permalink
    August 16, 2016

    It is so important that stories like this are being told. Well done.

  4. Franco permalink
    August 16, 2016

    What a beautiful piece of writing

  5. Jonathan Rickard permalink
    August 16, 2016

    This is one of the most beautiful stories I have read in a long time. Thank you, Delwar Hussein!

  6. August 17, 2016

    So touching, family memories are such an important part of growing up
    Thank you so much for sharing.

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