1943 -2013

Naseem Jivanjee: A woman of substance

A eulogy read at Naseem Jivanjee's funeral at the APDBO Centre in Hamilton on 27 December 2013.


Naseeem Jivanjee

I had never imagined that this day would come so soon. Only the other day Naseem Behn was trying to organise a seniors’ get-together at her home. She wrote to the committee asking whether the Centre would subsidise the event. I called her back and said, Naseem Behn please you don’t have to ask, do whatever you think is fit. She said, the expense would not be more that 40 to 50 dollars, and she did not want to ask guests to pay 5-10 dollars each. It doesn’t look nice, she said. And I agreed. Who knew that that would be the last conversation I would have with her. And then two days before the get-together, she wrote to say that she was not feeling too well and would like to cancel the event. Soon after she was admitted to the hospital and never came home.

The seniors’ get-together remains pending, like so many other things that will now remain unfinished and incomplete. Forever.

How is it that a human being, a person of flesh and blood who breathes the same air as you, who shares your laughter and sorrow, who becomes your habit and your way of life, suddenly one fine day decides to leave. Just like that, never to come back. And if that person is Naseem Jivanjee, the loss and devastation is unimaginable. She was a force of nature. A force determined to do good, to make things happen, to make things better. Without that force now, nature somehow seems bereft and our lives so much poorer.

No doubt she was the centre of the universe for her family, but even for her ever widening circle of friends and community members Naseem Behn was a beacon, an inspiration. She attracted people around her like a magnet, she had that winsome personality. She made friends easily, and she cared and asked after you and your family. Her enquiry was genuine and her concern sincere. She listened, truly listened. And remembered, remembered to follow up. Everyone looked up to her for her advice, her guidance, her wisdom. She met everyone with open arms and an open mind, and touched every heart with a smile and a kind word. The number of people gathered here today is a testimony to her love, her popularity, her humanity. In our little world where she mattered, things will never be the same again.

I’ve never heard Naseem Behn speak ill of anyone. Yes she would be critical of people’s unreasonable behaviour but even that criticism would be tempered with a context. Always suggesting that this or that might be the reason why that person is acting in a certain way. There was always a mitigating factor. An eternal optimist, she always saw a positive side of things.

Naseem Behn was one of the founding members of Association of Porgressive Dawoodi Bohras of Ontario (APDBO), this fine institution where we gather today. She nurtured it with a love and commitment that can only come from that deep place in your being. Her dedication to the reformist cause was a given, it was a natural thing to do. There were many a crisis during this orgnaisation’s short history, and in each of them Naseem Behn was the voice of reason, ready to mediate and negotiate. But at the same time she had the courage of conviction to speak her mind. She preferred dialogue over argument, but she would never compromise on principles. Democratic values, equality, dignity and justice – the principles on which our reform movement is founded - were not negotiable.

Look at any major or minor event in the history of APDBO, there is none which is not shaped by her enthusiasm, energy and force of character. She was at the forefront when this organization was formed and later when this centre was inaugurated in 1986; in the early 90s she actively campaigned for the defeat of Bill S-13 in the Senate, the bill was an attempt by Sayedna sahib to become the sole owner of Bohra properties in Canada; in February 2000 when Asghar Ali Engineer was attacked and his house and office were destroyed in Mumbai, she led the protest march at Capitol Hill in Ottawa; and the landmark reformist Conference in August 2001 would not have been possible without her tireless effort and energy; and most recently in July 2011 she almost single-handedly organised the 25th anniversary celebrations of APDBO.

Despite the key role she played, she made light of her contribution. She would never take personal credit for a job well done, and always put it down to teamwork. While we would tend to bask in our successes she would take a sober view of things, and always found room for improvement. Never caring about power, position or applause she would do what had to be done – whether the task be big or small. Every year on Cleaning Day she would be one of the first people to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty, she would volunteer to pick up a garbage bag for disposal after an event or offer to take table covers and napkins for laundry. And of course she always offered to bring food. Her pineapple halwa, in my estimation, was to die for. The meals at her home were an elaborate affair, a veritable banquet. Naseem Behn was a generous and gracious host, I was fortunate to break bread with her many a time.

Born in Tanga, Tanaznia she came a long way – in social and geographical terms – to Canada, raised a loving, close-knit family and commanded love and respect of hundreds of friends and well-wishers. She did her undergrad in History and English, and finished her graduate studies in Social Administration from the prestigious London School of Economics, and her Masters in Social Work from the University of Toronto. Naseem Behn built a career as a social worker with the Toronto School Board and retired in 2002. After retirement she devoted her free time to social causes, to charity and to looking after the sick. She took personal charge of the Patwa sisters who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and would visit them every week to make sure that they were looked after and provided for. In recent years she also travelled the world, with Shamoun Bhai as her humsafar, her fellow-traveler. Shamoun Bhai could not have asked for a better wife and companion, and her daughters Maya and Ishu for a better mother and friend. The four grand-daughters – Sabrina, Sofia, Olivia and Saira - were the joy and pride of her life. They completed her. When she spoke of them, there was a lilt in her voice and a glint of gratitude in her eye.

The reformist community was her extended family, and she was like a matriarch – kind, gentle and considerate. Naseem Behn took praise and criticism with equal equanimity. This balance, this strength of character came from self-confidence, from lack of pretence, from genuine love for people, from commitment to values. With her you got what you saw.

Looking at her you could never guess what tremendous energy she packed in her petite figure. What was the source of that energy, even Shamoun Bhai could not figure out till the end. And now without her, without the light of his life, he will have a lot more to figure out – every step of the way. Shamoun and Naseem, like two peas in a pod, were made for each other. Like you cannot imagine night without day, you cannot imagine Shamoun without Naseem. They were inseparable, fused into one being. They spent 47 years of their lives together. Except for toothbrush perhaps, it seems they shared everything else, even the same email address.

As you all know Naseem Behn never dorve, so it was Shamoun Bhai’s job to drive Miss Daisy around. But when Shamoun Bhai fell ill recently and was unable to drive, she got her driver’s licence at her advanced age and drove Mr. Jivanjee around. That was her spirit and determination. She was irrepressible. Life just poured forth from every pore of her being, and infected you with hope and promise every time you met her. We cannot even begin to imagine the loss and sorrow the Jivanjee family must feel. How does one even begin to find solace and comfort in the emptiness and silence such a life leaves behind?

Let me to put this “leaving behind” in perspective. On many occasions some of us friends would go with Shamoun Bhai and Naseem Behn to attend lectures and majlises. After the event, it would so happen that we would almost always wait in the lobby for Naseem Behn to come. She of course was busy mingling with people, chatting and catching up – unmindful of us or the passing time. And there in the lobby Shamoun Bhai would shuffle uneasily on his feet and mutter in mock irritation, “this Naseem, she is always the last one to leave.” Looks like, Shamoun Bhai, she took the complaint to heart, and left before us. Before you.

It is said that death is the truth. Maut to haq hai. It is also said that to grieve over someone’s death is a sign of arrogance, because when you grieve you seem to assume as if you are never going to die. Which, in a way, is true. We all have to go one day. Our turn will come too, sooner or later. But until then, what matters is how we live. What we make of this life. In the case of Naseem Behn it is clear that she made much of her life. She lived a full and fulfilling life of 70 years. Busy, active and tireless till the end she found purpose and meaning in her life – and in doing so she enriched the lives of so many others around her.

When we are done grieving, when our eyes are dry and when hot tears have stopped stinging our cheeks, it would be time to cherish Naseem Behn’s memory. It would be time to celebrate her life. Her humanity, her love for people, her kindness, her humility, her boundless energy. In the end her body failed her, as it must for all of us, but her spirit remains. The spirit called Naseem is with us, about us and will always remain with us like a fresh breeze which is what her name means. Naseem, the fresh breeze, will continue to inspire us to live life to the full, to find meaning in service to others.

Farewell, Naseem Behn. May your soul rest in peace and may Allah be pleased with your life and your amaal. Ameen.


A poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.