My grandmother, Dr. Shireen Lakhani (Valliani) has been one of the most significant influences in my life, and much of who I am today is because of her. Two weeks ago, she passed away.
In the fields of child development, psychology, education, and social work, we know the importance of extended family, loving adults, and positive role models in the lives of young children. My grandmother was an exceptional loving adult and positive role model in my own life, to say the least.
My siblings and I grew up with my grandmother as our family’s ‘grand’ parent (in the truest sense of the word), elder, role model, friend, support, inspiration, and guide. She was a loving and elegant presence, larger than life – the matriarch of our extended family. She was caring, intelligent, hard-working, strong, warm, and extremely giving.
From as far back as I can remember, every year she would return to Pakistan with my grandfather for five or six months to provide medical services at her clinic in Karachi. She continued to do this until she closed her clinic when she was around 80 years old. My childhood was filled with her telling us about the free medical services she provided to patients who could not afford to pay, the thousands and thousands of babies she had delivered (even now I often meet people who tell me that they were born into my grandmother’s hands), and the mobile clinic and dispensary she put together and traveled with to provide free medical care to poor communities in Sindh.
In later years I was better able to appreciate what an amazing and rare woman my grandmother really was. Her family had supported her to go from Karachi to Delhi to study medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College – a big deal even now, but perhaps even more so in South Asia in the 1940s. She received top honours (see S. Valliani listed as the 1944 recipient of the Lady Chelmsford Medal – photo taken by my sister Shirin in 2008), and completed her medical degree in 1947, becoming one of the first female Ismaili doctors in the region. She returned to Karachi to provide her medical services to the newly forming nation of Pakistan. She worked at the Civil Hospital, and volunteered at refugee camps and in rural villages of Sindh. In addition to her own private practice clinic in Kharadar, she established numerous maternal and child welfare centres. And she served extensively with Aga Khan institutions for the Ismaili Jamat in Pakistan. Throughout her lifetime, she served humanity as a professional, as a volunteer, and as a philanthropist in later years (with my grandfather). Some of her humanitarian work is described in this article written about her over 10 years ago. Throughout all of her work for society, her family values remained paramount, and she supported the lives of her siblings, her children / nieces / nephews, and us grandchildren, in innumerable ways.
In many ways, my grandmother inspired my affection for Pakistan even before I had seen it myself. When we finally went for a family visit to Pakistan in my later childhood, I couldn’t help but love it.
Years later, as a psychology undergrad, I told my grandmother that I wanted to volunteer at a particular hospital in Karachi during the summer. She was in Pakistan at the time and helped connect me to a contact at the hospital. He helped to facilitate a summer volunteer placement for me with the hospital’s psychiatry ward. This was my first real exposure to Pakistan, and to Pakistanis – from all walks of life, beyond the bubble of my own extended family, and I felt a strong closeness to the country. And this was just the beginning – in the years since then I have been blessed to be able to spend extensive time living and working in Pakistan, engaging in community-based work, research (including my doctoral research), and teaching/training in early childhood development and education.
Throughout all of this, my grandmother has been my greatest inspiration (p. 6). She was also one of my strongest supporters. She always wanted to know the details of my professional and academic endeavours, she shared her own experiences and thoughts, and she expressed intense pride in the work I was doing – research, professional, academic, paid or volunteer. Here is one of the many messages of solidarity and encouragement she offered me:
“Talking about Tando Jam, reminds me of the village work that I did for years and years. In those days there was no medical aid available in villages of Sind. I used to go there in my car and run a mobile dispensary every Sunday with a nurse and some social workers. Gradually we started maternity and child welfare center with a permanent health visitor and occasional visits by doctors. Your tasks are of high caliber, starting right from child development. (…) May Mawla bless you and give you success in your work.” – September 27, 2005
It’s not hard to see the many ways in which my grandmother influenced me: fostering in me strong foundational values of family, community, and service; igniting and supporting my pursuit of knowledge and education; and modelling compassion, hard work, and integrity. She lives on in me and in all those who have been touched by the love, strength, conviction, wisdom, and beauty of her soul.
Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation. – Rumi