Updated May 05, 2017


After having spent a full life, one often wants to sit back, relax and take a journey down memory lane to reflect upon the highs and lows. Sometimes this reflection results in a book.

The author of Jasmine and Journeys: The Life Quest of a South Asian Woman, Najma Shamsi, is an educationist and writer. A recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) for service to humanity, she is the founding director and former president of the Canada chapter of The Citizens Foundation, besides having established and managed several schools in Pakistan.

She started to write her book with the intention to record — for the benefit of her children and grandchildren — “how they came to be ‘brown’ Americans,” thinking they might want to know why and under what circumstances the family left their homeland and their settled lives, not in the prime of youth, but well into middle age, to build a new life in a distant land. On a friend’s advice the book expanded into its present form “for a wider audience” — the story being not only hers “but a multitude of South Asians’” — encompassing the family’s tale and its roots and history as well as commentary on the changing times that impacted their lives.

A personal history framed against tales of migration

Jasmine and Journeys is a fascinating political and cultural history of the subcontinent interwoven with the story of Shamsi’s own family. She offers her views on crucial events and that makes her book an interesting observation on some aspects of our past.

We are taken on a journey through time from South Asia to Canada, with flashbacks from the past. Shamsi begins her account with the history of the Punjabi Saudagaran — the community to which she belongs — and how they settled in Delhi, centuries ago. She describes British rule in India, the 1857 war of independence and its aftermath, the political unrest and rising nationalism, Muslim alienation and the demand for a separate homeland. We read of the struggle for independence and Partition, the accompanying bloodbath and mass migration.

Her family lived through the turmoil of 1947 and came out of it safe and sound to settle in Karachi, later moving to Rawalpindi. After her marriage Shamsi went to live in Chittagong in former East Pakistan, where she led a carefree and stylish life, attending parties and visiting clubs. She was there during the tumultuous period before the war of 1971 and recounts the troubled days leading to the secession, an event that caused another uprooting from the place she had chosen to make home.

The move back to Pakistan was not as difficult as the efforts to make a fresh start once there. After helping her family settle their business, she began to teach and manage schools. However, this time around life was not so easy. Government policies affected the family and made things difficult for them as they did for many others in the country. The deteriorating economic and law and order situation resulted in yet another migration — this time of the children in search of greener pastures, followed by the parents in a desire to be near their children.

During the course of Shamsi’s journeys we meet many characters, some fleetingly and others in great detail, especially the patriarchs of the family. Her narrative brings the characters to life as real persons of flesh and blood. In striving to preserve her memories and pass them on to the coming generations to maintain some link with her past, she narrates anecdotes and discusses matters such as grinding spices for cooking, qalai [getting utensils polished], the maashki and bahishti [water carriers], razai [quilts] and dhunia [cotton carders] which this generation and the coming generations might never know of.

It was a large and lucrative business and we employed over a dozen staff, but I must confess it was emotionally the most challenging period of my life in Canada. I was not happy. I took charge of placing orders for stocks and communicating with the dozen or so companies which were our suppliers, but it was just a job — definitely not something I enjoyed. I missed working in my own field and longed for the day when I would go back to it. But I understood I would have to be patient. One business would have to be well-established before we could risk investing in a second one.I complained so often and so loudly about not enjoying Bulk Barn that a friend named it my ‘Bilak’ Barn — in Urdu bilak means to cry bitterly. It was not quite as bad as that, but close enough. — Excerpt from the book

Choosing to take things in her stride, Shamsi does not waste time lamenting over what she has to give up upon moving to Canada, such as being served tea in bed. She fondly recalls her father’s assurances that she will always have a cook and when she has to cook herself, says that the assurance has “run out of warranty.” Soon she begins to enjoy being alone in her “clean, well-ordered kitchen, free of meddlesome cooks.”

Migrating to Canada is a choice, but her heart aches for home. Especially in the early years, while enjoying the glamour and the summer fun of Toronto, she yearns to “smell the warm earthy aroma arising from the first monsoon drops falling on the cracked and parched brown dust of Rawalpindi [...] the fresh motia bracelets peddled by young boys at every street corner [...] the desi aam cooling in a bucket of ice.” She reminds herself that in Canada there are no electricity breakdowns, no load-shedding, no spending sweaty nights slapping at mosquitoes, yet her instinct “is to fry pakoras at the first sign of summer rain and make panjeeri in the winter following Ammi’s recipe.” In the new country the first plants she buys are motia [jasmine] and raat ki rani [cestrum nocturnum] “but they are neither as fragrant nor do they bloom as profusely as they do back in their native home,” she writes.

What makes the book interesting is Shamsi’s style of narration: it seems as though she is talking to her audience, and at some places she quotes from her past articles published in Dawn. As she herself says, “Memories and emotions were sharper and fresher then.”

The reviewer is a member of staff

Jasmine and Journeys:
The Life Quest of a South Asian Woman
By Najma Shamsi
Paramount Books, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696372516

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 7th, 2017