Amina Sadruddin Virani
- S.S.C (10th)
- Seamstress, Housewife
Born in 1932 Bombay
Amina Bai would be a hero to Khojawiki, even without her incredible life story – that's because, at the ripe age of seventy-three, she started a hand-written one hundred page autobiography of her life (in English) so that she could pay tribute to the people - her family, neighbors, and strangers, who helped her through her difficult life journey. Even when it became physically difficult for her to write - in the introduction, she says “I have written this book with my failing eyesight- I have macular degeneration and have lost vision in the right eye”. At Khojawiki, we salute such brave seniors particularly women, who are willing to share the details of their personal struggles so that others can learn life lessons from them. (Credit also goes to her son Shiraz Virani who bought the blank book & pen and “forced” her to write - she says “ If anyone reads this book, first be thankful to him”)
What makes Amina Bai’s story more compelling is that this Khoja Ismaili senior citizen has seen it all - from the ghetto of Dongri, Mumbai to a tour of seven countries in Western Europe, to a total of twenty six visits to the UK and finally to starting a new life in Canada in 2001 – an incredible achievement when you discover that not only was she an orphan at the tender age of six, but that she was raised and educated until her marriage at a Khoja Ithnasheri orphanage in Bombay.
Amina was an only child – she was such a “chagli” favorite, she says, that her father who was a supervisor at a cotton mill used to bring new pieces of dress materials weekly, which her mum made into beautiful frocks so that Amina never wore the same dress twice. An old picture shows Amina wearing eight gold bangles on her hand. But when she was only two, her idyllic childhood ended when her mother died in delivery. To help raise her, her father remarried but the stepmother turned out so cruel that she was jailed for torturing little Amina with burning charcoal - To this day, Amina Bai has a two-inch burn-mark on her thigh.
At age six, although she was strictly not an orphan her father persuaded the Khoja Girls Orphanage established by Sir Ebrahim Currimbhoy-see here, located on top of the Habib Hospital in Dongri to accept her. But within a year he also died and little Amina, now a real orphan was accepted at the Orphanage for freeboard and her education paid by them until she was married.
Since the hostel was Khoja Ithnasheri, everyone had to say namaz but the Ismaili girls had special permission to use the terrace private area to say their daily dua. All the girls went to the Rehmet Bai Habib High School in Kadak, Bombay (est. 1938) Rehmatbai-Habib-High-School-For-Girls from 1st to 10th Standard (S.S.G.) in English. The hostel was very simple and quite strict but in her autobiography, Amina details all the good times about her life during those days.
Amina studied hard at school and built a formidable memory whilst helping others at the hostel in their studies in exchange for not having to join cooking & cleanup duty. When she got 1st class in SSG (Grade 10), both the School & the Orphanage arranged a huge event to showcase her results to all the local Muslim communities and Amina got recognition and awards.
At the hostel, she also learnt how to stitch dresses, embroidery, etc. from a favorite teacher and became very popular by stitching dresses for students as well as teachers. The Orphanage Trust was not set up to prepare the girls for college - instead, they were taught to cook, sew, etc. and once they finished high school, they were expected to be married off within their respective communities. Once a week, mothers would come to the orphanage looking for prospective brides for their sons. It was all very well organised-The mothers would fill in a questionnaire about their son’s education, income, etc. and that information would be sent to living relatives, if any, of the orphans. The relatives could reject up to two “magas” or marriage offers but they had to accept the third proposal or else take the girl home. Upon a proposal being accepted, the girl would then be married at the expense of the Orphanage and given sarees, a full jewelry set and also furniture. Looking back, Amina says her days at the School and the Orphanage were truly some of the best times in her long life.
Amina ended up being sent home to her one of her uncles but they soon arranged a suitable match with Sadruddin Habib Virani, whose family had a successful tyre business in Mumbai. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chor_Bazaar) and she was married on 22nd February 1952. Her good education and the training at the hostel landed her a relatively well-off family (by the modest standards of the majority of the Bombay Khojas) but her kasoti – life-trials - did not end with her marriage. As she writes" I was married 44 years and for 42 years, I passed my life as I had never wished".
The first two years went well - her father-in-law, who was born in East Africa had a modern outlook and the family itself was very decent. Her husband worked in the tire store and Amina won over her husband’s younger sisters in the joint family home the same way she maneuvered her life at the Orphanage - by making them modern dresses from the latest patterns. But whilst the girls went to school daily, Amina had to take the place of the house-servant, who was let go after her marriage - Amina had to cook on a charcoal “chula”, twice a day for a household of twelve people even though she had never learnt that skill at the Orphanage. Once again, she traded favors with her elder bhabhi sister-in-law, who taught her how to cook well.
Unfortunately, just 2 years into the marriage, her husband had a medical mishap and after that, for the rest of his life, he was mentally unstable. He would go into a rage, leave home and get lost frequently and was unable to play a meaningful role at the tire store. This increased pressure on Amina to make a larger contribution to the household chores where her day now started at 6 am and ended at 11 pm.
Amina stitched dresses on a very tiring hand-operated sewing-machine until she had the courage to ask her father-in-law to buy a foot machine, convincing him that she would be able to teach his younger daughters to sew and increase their marriage eligibility. Later, her sister-in-laws became well-known in the community for their modern well-made dresses.
But Amina had to do a few things without knowledge of her orthodox, suspicious mother-in-law who always treated Amina with “firmness”. Amina never complained but being educated, she was seen by the mother in law as a “challenger” and because she was an orphan with a husband who was unwell, Amina became an easy target.
In those days, Khoja wives acquired respect if they produced children. So, despite her husband’s mental state and the fact that all twelve of them lived in a two-bedroom flat, Amina felt the pressure to have children. But she had difficulty in conceiving and eventually, the family consulted an hakim (Muslim traditional doctor) who gave the couple two clay vessels with some soil and pills and told them to put in their first urine every morning After 15 days, when only her pot had small shoots growing, he gave her husband some pills to swallow. Amina got pregnant soon after but when the next child was conceived, the mother-in-law developed some unfair and unsavory suspicions, with which she vehemently taunted Amina when others were not around.
Amina was graced with four sons but not the one daughter she also desired. After every pregnancy, her life got a little harder because as soon as she returned home, she was required to get back in the grind of household work. She graciously says there were many light moments in the Bombay joint family life - every evening after their meals, the whole family would gather around for sing-songs - her in-laws were talented harmonium players and singers and she got to hear the latest Bollywood songs.
Both of her younger sisters-in-laws were married in 1956 and Amina took over the sole responsibility for the two elderly parents until their death. About the marriages, she writes that her father-in-law was very determined that their husbands and in-laws be “modern” otherwise he would refuse the “mago” proposal whatever their financial position. Even then, one daughter’s marriage did not work out as that family went back on their word to let her work but Amina’s father-in-law had no hesitation in taking her back into his home.
One of her sisters-in-law got married into Uganda and started a business of importing Indian dress outfits. Amina became her agent and started receiving good home income. This sister also helped the elder brother-in-law to get a separate flat so now there was more room for Amina Bai’s growing family.
When the father in law died, the inheritance was carefully split between the mother in law and her three sons. Daughters did not inherit. Unfortunately, Amina’s husband was not good in business and soon lost most of the cash but the family had wisely paid-up for a flat for his family. Amina was now an expert seamstress and worked out of this flat as well as selling washing powder (detergent) to the rest of the apartment complex. Initially, when her family was poor, her eldest son Amin went to do “ferry” i.e. go door to door to sell the washing powder. Sometimes the family survived on bread and fried eggs and received free medical care from a lady doctor.
Luckily, her children went to a school that was in their own compound but her husband's unstable condition caused some distress Often, he would go to the school and after making excuses of one kind or another, he would bring his favorite child home and would start playing children games with him. Being poor, as the children grew older, Amina was often advised to get her eldest son to drop out of school so he could help but she was firm believer in the value of education. Life was hard but all the children were in school.
In the autobiography, Amina Bai recounts all the help she received from many people during this time. Once when she was really down and her eldest son was almost ready to give up, when out of the blue a neighbor offered him an education bursary for 1000 rupees per month. Another time, another sister in law whom Amina had helped in meeting her future husband away from the eyes of the orthodox mother in law, employed both Amina Bai and her two grown sons in their a garment export business.
When her eldest son Amin finished his SSC, his Uganda aunt invited him to come to Kampala for a holiday. But because of the situation with General Idi Amin, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idi_Amin) they had to be away from the country and for a few months, at the ripe young age of 16, Amin was solely responsible for their business in very risky times. He could not return for a few months and even with the temptation of making good money in East Africa, it is a credit to Amina that her son was determined to continue his college education in India. Whilst at college, Amin got a good part-time job at a diamond exporter and the family’s prospects got better.
Raising children in Mumbai was not without its dangers-her younger son, Riyaz got burnt with some really hot tea whilst playing cricket. The hospital in front of their home, the Ismaili Platinum Hospital refused to treat him despite her pleas as he was a victim of “a case of accident”. They then him rushed to JJ Hospital where it took three hours just to admit him. In those days, families had to provide “blood” for the doctors to use. Somehow, the wrong blood was used. His body rejects the different blood type and after a few days of high fever, he died. The police asked Amina to file a complaint against the negligent servant girl but Amina Bai refused to take senseless revenge.
Another time, her other son had a motorbike accident and the wound was stitched at the local hospital. But he kept throwing up and his wound hurt a lot. Finally, a family doctor opened up the wound and a lot of black blood came pouring out. It seems the hospital had just stitched him up without cleaning the wound.
Her first son, Amin went to work for a hospital and her second son Nasir took a bookkeeper job with the local diamond merchant and instead of the 200 rupees per month that he was expecting, his salary was increased monthly to 600 rupees, a handsome amount for a student in those days. Her third son did his B.Sc. and then took over the job with the same diamond merchant when Nasir went abroad for higher studies.
Amin joined as a volunteer with the Ismaili community and in 1967, he received a bursary to go to London, the UK for further religious studies. Whilst there, he worked part-time and managed to surprise Amina Bai with a gift of a vacation to Europe, which she took with her niece. She proudly says it was she who got the visas for those places from their embassies in London. Amina Bai travelled from the UK though Germany, Belgium France, and Switzerland and finally got to tour Italy. Her trip was memorable as she remembers vivid details of all the statutes she saw in Italy as well as the ceiling paintings by Michelangelo, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter%27s_Basilica ) “who slept on his back for 4 years to do the painting”, she writes. Amina Bai also writes “All the Popes lived on the third floor of St. Peter's Church. There is an elevator for the Popes but we had to climb more than 300 stairs”. Perhaps it seemed amusing that God’s representative on earth needed the help of an elevator to get to his quarters.
In her book that is full of memories, Amina describes her trip to Venice in detail and marvels that at one time in her life, she had no money for a litre of milk and now she was visiting all these foreign countries. After Europe, she got to go to Vancouver where she stayed for two months, with her ex-Uganda sister-in-law.
After a few years, Amin found an excellent part-time job with a family who were willing to loan him the money for his brothers to join him in London for their studies. He also arranged part-time jobs for them in hotels etc. to cover the costs of their education. So Amina’s second son ended up becoming a Chartered Accountant and eventually moved to Canada. Amin got a management degree and returned to India to work.
During this period, Amina visited the UK twenty-six times - every year, her son's sent her a ticket. Eventually, she retired from sewing, as her sons’ had assumed full responsibility for her and her husband's well-being. In 1991, her husband passed away and in 2001, when Amin and Mumtaz, his wife, with whom Amina had spent most of her life decided to move to Toronto, she came with them.
Today. Amina Bai lives with them in Toronto, Canada (and continues to play Soduku!).