Women & Power: Marina Mahathir

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If you want to define fortitude, then my Aunty Leha was it. Throughout her 87 years, she endured the loss of her husband former Auditor-General Mohd Zain Ahmad and youngest son Zahari as well as seven serious operations.  I can think of no stronger woman than her.

I’ve always thought that my belief that women are strong stems from growing up with Aunty. From my own childhood, Aunty was always there, directing everything. I used to spend the school holidays at my grandparents’ home in KL and played almost every day with my cousins, Aunty’s three sons. Being at Aunty’s house meant all sorts of treats, from delicious cakes which we’d never seen in our little town of Alor Setar to books to going to see plays. Being a stalwart member of the Moral Re-Armament Association, Aunty was always quick to tell us off for less than exemplary behaviour.

Never in a bad way but always firmly.As we grew into adults and had our own families, Aunty was always the affectionate and encouraging aunt. I remember contemplating an act of rebellion once in protest at some bad treatment of women in a particular state. To my surprise, she was supportive. I think she just likes rebels. But otherwise she lavished love on her nieces and nephews and her grandnieces and nephews. She always remembers birthdays and I always got some gift from her whenever she’s around.

Aunty also didn’t like to be left out of anything, never mind that in the last few years she was wheelchair-bound. Once she was in hospital and seemed totally depressed and so was not recovering very well. Everyone was wondering what to do. Then Dad had an idea. He went and sat beside her and told her about every single conference and seminar coming up in KL. Sure enough, she recovered.

Another time I organised a mehndi (henna) party for her granddaughter who was getting married. It was a fun Bollywood party and we had planned dancing and games. We hadn’t really planned to invite the granny generation but Aunty came anyway and although she couldn’t participate in the dancing, she insisted in being included in the games.

When Dad had his first heart attack in 1989, our biggest worry was how to tell Aunty before anyone else did. The trouble was she couldn’t be found because as always she was ‘in orbit’, going around town seeing somebody or other. We knew that if she was not told instantly, we would get a shelling ( and Aunty Leha was not averse to shelling people for any infringements of good behaviour). Luckily we found her soon enough and she came straightaway.

Perhaps the most difficult time for Aunty in recent years was the passing, from cancer, of her baby, her youngest son Zahari. Indeed it was tough for all of us who loved him but it must have been worse for her. Two years later she would still sign birthday cards to me from all her family, including her beloved ‘Adek’.

My most enduring memory of Aunty is how generous she is with everyone, no matter what their background. Every open house or any event at her house was attended by all sorts of people, from every ethnicity and walk of life. Aunty was friends with everyone, from the Dalai Lama to the lowliest driver, and everyone was welcome. More than anyone, she taught us that it is good decent human beings who matter, not what race or religion they are.

I happened to be away when Aunty finally breathed her last. But I did see her before I left. She had grown uncharacteristically thin and weak, not the role model of aged female strength that my late frail mother-in-law was always holding up. But she was still alert; the first thing she asked was how my daughter was. Lying there in pain, she only thought of others. Typical Aunty Leha.

Rest in peace, reunited with Uncle Zain and Adek, Aunty. Al-fatihah.

By: Marina Mahathir