My Life With Karim

I grew up in Kilosa and Dar es Salaam during colonial and early post-colonial times. My father first worked as a sisal plantation supervisor. Then he ran a small shop. My mother cooked, cleaned and raised three children. As the youngest child with an older brother, Issa and oldest sister Roshan, I was spoiled. Roshan was a great help to my parents. I have fond memories of my grandmother who also lived with us.

Income from my father’s shop hardly made ends meet. Compared to the other Asian families in our neighbourhood, my family was one of the poorest. Yet, it was a close-knit, caring family. Loved by all, I was happy and content. My musically talented father instructed me in song and Indian dancing. I won prizes in school dance competitions.

Because of family circumstances, my education took another turn after I completed secondary school. Instead of going on to A levels, I enrolled in typing and secretarial courses, and began work as a typist in order to supplement the family income. Not only was I one of the main breadwinners, but I also was the first to learn to drive. That was in 1967.

I met Karim sometime in 1968. Living nearby, he was one of Issa’s university friends. Issa was studying law at the University of Dar es Salaam. Karim took a Swahili class with me. When I told Issa that I had fallen in love with Karim, he asked me whether I was sure, because Karim was known to be a very serious man. In fact, that is the quality that most endeared me to him. One day, Karim took me to Oyster Bay beach, on a hill overlooking the water. He declared his love and threatened to jump into the water if I did not marry him. I had other prospects, but he was my first choice, so I said yes! My sister, Roshan, made my wedding dress in the latest miniskirt fashion, and we created shock waves when we refused some of the religious ceremonies. That was in 1973. Karim lectured in mathematics at the university and I got a job as a secretary in the Faculty of Science. Our daughter Rosa was born the following year.

Our life then experienced a jolt. Karim was ejected from the university in April 1974 and was assigned to a position in a remote part of Tanzania. Rosa, who was just two months old, and I joined him a few months after. Sumbawanga was a very cold small town with no electricity, cut off from the nation during the rainy season. But, despite the difficulties, I have pleasant memories of those days. It was a life of fun, adventure and learning about rural realities. Cheap, nourishing foods – fruits, vegetables, grains and fish – were aplenty.

I attended to home duties and Rosa. Our routine included long walks and visiting new found friends. One of Karim’s cousins ran a textile shop in the town. Their generous hospitality and the delicious chapatis and curries made by his wife made our day. Rahim, their son, was of the same age as Rosa. Soon the duo became inseparable. 

But Karim yearned to return to his teaching. Our idyllic life thus ended in November 1975 when Karim managed to get a job at the new National Institute of Transport in Dar es Salaam. He taught there for five years. In that time, I worked as a personal secretary at a paper milling firm and, encouraged by Karim, I joined a year-long residential certificate program at the Institute of Development Management near Morogoro, about a hundred miles from Dar es Salaam. Karim and his parents cared for Rosa, while I focused on my professional goals. My time at the Institute was memorable, and I made many friends.

That phase of our lives ended at the end of 1980 when Karim enrolled for further studies at Harvard University in Boston. Rosa and I joined him three months later.  In a life quite unlike that in Tanzania, I saw gigantic supermarkets and apparel stores with a mind-boggling variety of stuff on the shelves. We learned to live in the snow. Living in a university-owned building that catered to international student families, we developed close, supportive friendships with families from Sudan, Ghana, the Netherlands, India and elsewhere. Its inclusive atmosphere greatly helped us cope with the cultural and social aloofness of the broader society. Rosa frolicked almost daily in the adjacent playground with other children.

But Karim’s scholarship spend was too little. While he slogged at his studies, and worked as a teaching assistant, I took care of house matters, enrolled Rosa in an elementary school, interacted with her teachers, typed the essays of other students to supplement our income, and joined an evening degree program in management at Northeastern University. Because my classes ended late at night, Karim met me at the University and we would walk home together. During those days, much of our clothing was from second hand outlets. But we had few qualms. Besides social gatherings at the international house, we went to public parks, rose gardens, museums, riverside walks and film festivals. It was a hectic but enjoyable life.

After completing his doctoral studies, Karim secured a professorship at the University of California in Los Angeles. Punctuated by short and long visits to Dar es Salaam, we stayed in the LA area for over one and a half decades. My sister and her family were also in LA. I had gained an interest in healthcare, and with Karim’s further encouragement, I enrolled in nursing school, while working for a tax company. After graduation, I worked for ten years as a nurse in a large hospital. Now work was no more an issue of typing papers but often a matter of life and death. I enjoyed bedside nursing and worked a demanding 12-hour shift. I gained expertise in rehabilitation nursing, and was frequently assigned as a charge nurse, overseeing others.  

Rosa went to elementary, middle and high school and eventually obtained her degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was involved in many aspects of her schooling. I attended her parent-teacher conferences, concerts (she played the violin), and drove her and her friends to their social events. We were a close family, and spent our weekends taking hikes or going on other outings, and our holidays with short trips. We drove across Canada and introduced Rosa to our many relatives and friends that had settled there. I became interested in fitness and attended aerobic classes consistently at the local YMCA. I attended family events at my sister’s house and accompanied her to events organized by the religious community, though Karim was not involved in that.

Rosa graduated from law school and now practices disability and civil rights law in Los Angeles. She met a wonderful man, Johnson, whose family is originally from Kerala, and married him. They have blessed us with two lovely grandchildren, Emma (20) and Samir (13).  Karim and I spent many happy days caring for and playing with both of our grandchildren. Karim, in particular, spent many hours with Emma reading, teaching her mathematics, collecting shells and other projects. Samir was born with developmental delays, so I decided to cut back on work, and assisted with his care which included driving him to his early intervention services. I have a close bond with both of them.  Emma and I enjoy dressing up in traditional Indian clothes, watching classic movies, and talking about various topics. She is in university and texts me frequently.  Samir is my darling, and has a charming and funny personality that reminds me of my father.  They are both musically inclined, Emma plays the cello and Samir is an expert drummer. Samir and I have spent many hours playing card games, and he enjoys my cooking. Both of them are doing well and we are proud grandparents.

 Karim and I were always intent on returning back home. Rosa was settled and we had to take care of our aging parents. After our return, Karim became a Professor of Medical Statistics at the Muhimbili University in Dar es Salaam and taught there until his retirement in 2012. I worked as a nurse, first at the Aga Khan Hospital, then Muhimbili Hospital in the surgical ward, and then at Hindu Mandal Hospital, until I had to dedicate my time to care for my in-laws. Nursing in Tanzania presented challenges unlike any I had faced in the US. Here, basic personal protective equipment, like gloves, were not available, and nurses ran the risk of contracting illnesses. Karim was my advocate and champion. Still I threw myself into my work, and learned about how to make-do with the lack of medical equipment and how to use my nursing skills to figure out the best way to care for patients.   I learned about tropical medicine. Eventually, even though I retired from formal work, I continued volunteering at local health clinics. I enjoyed volunteering in labour and delivery with assisting labouring mothers, an experience that I had not had before. Until the pandemic, I travelled frequently and stayed for extended periods with Rosa. She and the children also visited us in Dar es Salaam, and Emma came regularly, each summer.  

There was however an expanding dark cloud that seriously affected our lives. After leaving Sumbawanga, Karim’s health entered a downward spiral. First it was persistent cough and chronic ulcer. Treatment did not help much. He had surgery for ulcer in Boston. The ulcer was gone, but in a few years, the side effects of the surgery manifested themselves. His ability to digest normal foods became limited and his diet had to be reduced to pureed foods. His ability especially to digest protein and fat declined sharply. The gravity of the situation is illustrated by the fact that Karim has not been able to share a single meal with his grandchildren. He cannot go to hotels or party with his friends. And for the past three years, he has to deal with facial numbness and other neurological problems. This has weakened him physically.

Stabilizing Karim’s health has been the biggest challenge I have faced in life. Without my support, it is unlikely that he would have been able to continue an active teaching, research, and writing career. At times, he is reduced to being fed with IV drips. But with the help of good doctors, he manages to resume his ‘normal’ diet. For three years now, he has been home bound. He tells me that without me, none of his books would have seen the light of the day.

Karim always supported my educational endeavours, to improve myself, and challenged me to rethink some of the traditional practices and thought processes that I had grown up with; and become aware of the world around me. He has helped me to be disciplined in my way of life. I would never have gone into nursing without his suggestion, and it became a rewarding experience. Sometimes, we have sharp exchanges in the course of the day. But we have a strong bond, and understand each other. We have loved and enjoyed life. He has taught me to value reading and learning, to never give up and to be kind and compassionate towards all human beings. Our house was full of friends and visitors. But during the pandemic, I am mostly home bound as well.

Karim continues with his writing and mild exercise. I cook, read, go for walks -wearing a mask of course – solve Sudoku puzzles, visit my brother, engage with friends on social media and watch movies. Both of us listen to classical Hindi songs. And we play a running game of scrabble every day. Much to his chagrin, I usually win! My life with Karim has liberated me in ways that would not have been possible in the traditional community that I grew up in. I am forever grateful for the life that he has given and shared with me.



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