By ANIZA MEGHANI
Its just over three months since my papa, Kurbanali Kassamali Mulji, passed away on 14th January 2022. I was aware that Simerg had a Passings category to which one can contribute obituaries or tributes for one’s deceased family members, but my emotions had been all over the place and I could not put pen to paper. How could I best write about my dad’s life and my 56 beautiful years with him? I felt the best was to write as though I were writing a letter to him. This, then, are some of my fond memories of my dad, my beloved papa.
Thank you for the fabulous 56 years of having been blessed as my father. As I sit and write about your life span of 86 years, I feel immensely proud that your journey began on 13th May 1935, in Masaka, Uganda.
Often, when we would drive around London, you would recall your history, and never once did you complain about how difficult it had been, and then you would tell me “I worked hard and I don’t think I have done badly,” with a slight smile.
Although you did well at maths, unlike me who still uses a calculator, it amazed me, that in your time, you had no calculators and your generation of mental maths was as good as today’s technology.
You never completed school or even had a degree to your name. However, having been gifted with a business acumen, and the experience you got through the family business, gave you a sense of a worldly certificate in how to survive and be successful in your own right.
Your father made you join the family business which, due to competition, was difficult to run and you ended up working in Jinja in a shop/bar/restaurant. For four years you slogged 7 days a week and managed to save 13,700 shillings. At that point, you decided to take a break and travel to Tanzania (then Tanganyika). During this short vacation, you met many people who inspired you, and the trip gave you a taste of wanting to travel more and have a better life.
You made your way to Kampala and came across “GOPE (Zulfikar, Suleiman Kanji, with whom you became best friends. He advised you not to start a business as yet, but perhaps take a course in hairdressing for men as there was only one shop in Kampala at the time, which was Madat’s Hairstyle.
So off you went to the UK with all your savings and reached 5 Palace Gate, which for years remained the focal point and headquarters of the Jamat as well as London’s main Jamatkhana, before the Ismaili Centre was opened in 1985. This property was bought by Prince Aly Khan. When you arrived there, they guided you on how to go about in London. You joined Bogins London School of Hairdressing, on Margaret Street, behind Oxford Circus Station. There you learned the art of trendy haircuts (college boy style) for six months. Mindful of struggles you had undergone, your teacher took sympathy for you as to how you had saved all your life’s earnings for this course. He kindly gave you extra lessons for free and helped you develop more skills. You studied during the day and worked at night at restaurants washing dishes to earn your keep. In those days, you barely made a pound a week.
After 6 months, you had mastered hairdressing and decided to return home. You purchased all the equipment required to start your business in Kampala. There was only one problem, while you were left with only 1000 shillings, your budget had exceeded by 3000 shillings. Although the goods would take a month or so to reach Africa you were worried how you would be able to raise the 3000 shillings needed to clear customs upon arrival. With panic in your heart, as to who you could ask help from, luck came to your rescue when you entered Salim’s Sweetmart and filled in the football pools lottery. You won £370! You had covered your expenditure and were left with enough to open a shop and name it “HairCo”.
Success followed rapidly and then another family encounter took place. Your brother Mohammed’s health was not so good and he asked you to help run his business that included selling anything from groceries to household goods to textiles imported from abroad.
In between working, you fell in love and married Nargis Rashid Ladha. Mum decided to work from home selling fabrics that were imported from the UK via Mohammed uncle’s business. Both of you then decided to set up a shop called Nargis Stores.
It was this trade of textiles that became your passion for fashion. You understood from nylons to chiffons and your taste in buying was simply outstanding. There would be queues for the next delivery. You were blessed with immense barakah and good wisdom.
However, in 1972 East Africa faced the biggest shake-up of the mass exodus of Ugandan Asians. With three daughters, myself, Ashifa, Azmina and mum expecting a fourth child,(Rahim born in London) you took us to the UK. I remember landing at Heathrow airport. The weather was dull and gloomy. Perhaps the signs of how times would be changing from sunny Africa to hard times ahead.
You rented a room in Kensington for a few months. A one bedroom, with five of us sharing it. You worked in a laundry, a perfume factory and eventually becoming a bus conductor for a few years. Never did you complain or compare the good times or the “struggle” that you had experienced in Africa and the UK, for it was the “meaning of life”. You worked, took all the shifts you could to make ends meet. Simultaneously from home, you set up a business selling washing up liquids, whilst mum babysat 4 children plus 3 others and catered for homemade takeaways.
This would carry on for 8 years, until one fateful day, while on duty as a bus conductor, you noticed a shop called Classic Textiles on Goldhawk Road, a fabric shop, with a “For Sale” signboard. History was in the making once again. In July 1981, you and mum embarked on making Classic Textiles a thriving business. From royalties, television, catwalk, to the future designers, word of mouth was the best form of advertising. We didn’t have social media but yellow pages phone books. Even though you both had retired, your blood, sweat, tears, and most of all your soul vibrated onto the shelves full of beauty, textures, and colors of rolls of fabrics.
You still came to overlook the shop during the pandemic to make sure all was well. However, in the late summer of 2021, the benign tumor, which you had for 15 years, suddenly erupted. I can still remember that cold month of November 2021. Both Azmina and I took you to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. You could barely walk but managed to make it to the consultant’s office for your biopsy results.
Consultant: Mr. Mulji, for a man of your age, to undergo a biopsy you did very well. But I am afraid, I don’t have good news. It’s cancer you have. I can’t tell you what stage, for that the oncologist will tell you more next week and what therapy can be recommended. Mr. Mulji, do you understand what I am saying?
Papa, when you heard this your face went white and blank. You held onto the stick. I don’t know what thoughts went through you, but tears just flowed from my eyes.
Papa: Well, I have no regrets. I have lived a good life.
Papa, you still had hope. All the previous years, you would ask me in “Do you think I will live to make it to the Golden Jubilee?”
When you made it through that, you dreamt of the Olympics in a similar tone.
Me: Of course, you will. Look Papa, all your wishes have been fulfilled. You saw the Golden Jubilee, the Olympics, Diamond Jubilee and you saw Serena Williams on the opening day of Wimbledon on court 1!
Papa: I hope I live 5 more years, then I can see Platinum Jubilee too. I will be happy for just five more years.
Me: Inshallah you will see that too.
A week later we went to Charing Cross and met the oncologist. By then you struggled to make it to the lift and did not want a wheelchair. You were quiet all the way. We entered the room and you looked at the oncologist, wishing or hoping for some good news.
Oncologist: Mr. Mulji, as you know that the biopsy report, showed that you have cancer. It’s stage 4. Do you know what stage 4 cancer is?
Oncologist: Let me explain. It’s a severe form of cancer of the lungs you have and it’s spreading to other parts of your body. Mr. Mulji, a man of your age will find chemotherapy or radiation treatment at this stage too invasive to handle. You are 86 years old. We stop treatment at age 80, that’s the cut-off point in the hospital. You were wise in all these years not to have it investigated as you saw fit that it had done no harm to you. We believe the quality of life is better than the quantity of life. Mr. Mulji is there anything else you would like to ask….
Papa: No. I have had a good life and I have no regrets. I had never been in hospital till recently. So I can say, I am blessed.
Oncologist: That’s very rare for a man of 86 years to have never been in hospital till now. Go home Mr. Mulji and enjoy the remainder of your life. We are still here for you.
We reached home in silence. You were very brave and dignified to have not asked the oncologist the time left. You took it in your stride that whatever time you had remaining you were going to embrace it with peace. When we went upstairs to your bedroom, it was at that point, that the full impact of what the oncologist had told you, really hit you. You burst into tears, you fell onto the bed with great shock and cried and said: “Forgive me if I was a bad father, but I only told you off because I love you all and wanted nothing but the best and to make sure you were all doing the right things in life.
Me: Papa there is nothing to forgive. Forgive me too if I have done anything to hurt or upset you.
I hugged him. I vowed then, that I would not cry in front of him as the doctors had given him less than a month to live. That evening, all the grandchildren, Alykhan, Jina, Amara and Alim came round to comfort him. He gave them sound advice for the future.
As I write this saddest moment we shared together, my tears are overflowing. I moved into my parent’s place.
Papa, you slept in the hospital bed and I slept on your side of the bed with mum. On that first night, all three of us were in one room. Papa had become the child and I became the parent.
Papa: I am so overjoyed/ happy that you are sharing this room with us.
I was overwhelmed by his sweet words that despite the seriousness of his ill health, he made me feel comfortable that his journey would be of no pain to me.
He was truly blessed, and the doctors were surprised that his level of pain was sustained by paracetamols. He had no morphine. I remember his own GP coming that first night and telling my sister Azmina and I: “We are doctors, scientifically we give time, dates, etc. But remember, it is the Creator, who only knows the time. Don’t think of days or times, just put that at the back of your mind, carry on as normal, spend time with him, and make it comfortable for him. If you worry about what time he has left, you will not be able to help him without constant pain on your face. Believe me, I have seen many miracles in my life when you expect death to happen, the living then somehow lives… so please don’t think of time, none of us know.”
With such words, we both forgot and carried on as normal. He made sure he spoke to everyone who called him. His days flew with many phone calls from his beloved friends and family around the world. The Zoom calls gave him great joy. The relatives, due to Covid-19, came by to see him in small groups. We were happy to see him talk in great depth about his history.
Five days before he passed away, I had cooked him kalio, rice and a dessert. We were so happy that he ate a full meal. He walked normal. For that whole day, I felt a miracle had taken place. I just couldn’t believe he got out of bed normal, without any walking aid. Little did I know that this would be his ‘Last Supper’. I have been told that just before anyone passes away, God kindly allows us to see few moments of happiness with loved ones. I truly have come to conclusion, that this indicates that life with the Creator gives us a foresight that their journey will be a happy one. The following day, Papa, called Altaaf (my husband) and I: “Altaaf, I want you to know, I am going very soon”.
Altaaf: No, you are not going yet. You are going to live still.
As for the shop, not a day goes by, when customers ask: “How are papa and mama?” At that point, I sit them down.
Me: Papa passed away three months ago.
Customer: “No way! My Lord! Papa Gone! Papa Gone. Good man papa was. He helped me you know. He guided me you know. Always honest in advice. Gave me credit you know. Papa gone, I can’t believe it! Am so sad…. papa you know is in heaven. Am telling you. He was such a good man. My papa gone…”
You taught me about how to run a business. How to be kind and respectable to customers. How to help them.
Papa: if any new customer/ designer comes in, give them discount. Let them make a bit of money Give them a helping hand to move up in life. If you help them, they will come back again. Customers are our bread and butter. I don’t mean customers are always right, but a little help to them goes a long way. Don’t overprice fabrics for more money. Its greed. A little profit is halal (permissible). God does not like greed. There will always be stock. Be honest in your transactions.
In the early hours of Friday 14th January 2022, I witnessed him call out to late Mohammed Uncle:
Mohamed, come back, Mohamed …
I knew then this would be his day to return to His Creator. This journey of time is really short. There were no tears, but thankfulness, laughter, conversations and prayers for 11 hours before the undertakers came.
As another dear friend quoted yesterday: Dream until its reality. MAN GIVES YOU REPUTATION, CHARACTER IS WHO YOU ARE…
Papa was a firm believer on these quotes. May his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.
Date posted: April 28, 2022.
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About the writer: Originally from Uganda, Aniza Meghani lives in London, England, and is an entrepreneur of classic textiles fabrics.
We invite you to read Aniza’s highly acclaimed piece Ismailis on Social Media: You Need to Take Care and STOP Indiscriminate Likes, Follows and Forwards!
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