Most South Asian families have one. An Auntie Ji, who is not really a member of the family, but everyone’s Auntie. On the Subcontinent, they serve as marriage brokers and go-betweens, and keep the neighbourhood well-oiled with gossip. Amongst the Asian diaspora in Britain, the universal Auntie Ji performed an additional function: she served as a local moral guardian who kept a beady eye on the young. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the British Muslim community was finding its feet and mosques were few, the neighbourhood Auntie was a powerful figure. She would visit the households of her district judiciously, dispensing religious and social advice, occasionally giving Qur’anic lessons to children, and serving, when necessary, as a marriage guidance councillor. The Auntie Ji of Clapton Pond in East London, where I grew up, was called Auntie Rashida. A tall, dark woman, she was, in the company of other women, an exceptionally graceful and tender person. But when it came to men, she was transformed, approaching with the menace of a tough, no nonsense matriarch. Men would tremble before her; and she treated them with unreserved contempt. Among my mother’s friends, she had a reputation as a religious scholar, holding weekly religious classes for women in her house. Once a week she would visit all the households of the neighbourhood, taking tea and reading the riot act to deviating husbands and neglectful fathers.
My first encounter with Auntie Rashida was a memorable one. One night, on returning exhausted from a conference of Muslim students, I brought a young woman home. It was long past midnight; the lights were off and everyone was asleep by the time we reached the door of our flat. I had forgotten my key and so had to ring the doorbell. The sound reverberated around the tower block in which we lived and seemed to meet itself in unending echoes. We waited. The pregnant pause was interminable. A light went on, and my mother, affectionately known as ‘Mumsey’, opened the door wearing her white nightgown. I introduced my companion to Mumsey, my eyes fixed to the ground. Mumsey looked at me; Mumsey looked at her; Mumsey turned to me again. The complexion of her face slowly merged with the whiteness of the nightgown. Then she collapsed.