The Improbable Greatness Of An Improbable Life

Shan Rizvi
3 min readMay 29, 2020


My maternal grandmother, Khair-un-nisa Bibi

Wrote this in April 2014 in memory of my maternal grandmother, an extra-ordinary woman who overcame suffering and adversity to become an entrepreneur, writer and thinker.

She was born in the 1920s, somewhere around Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, India, to parents with an unfortunate and seemingly never-ending string of encounters with infant mortality. Hence, she was deemed a risky investment of emotional capital by her father, who kept his distance from her for the first few years of her life. Perhaps just as the reality of her life was beginning to dawn upon him, he reached the end of his own, leaving her under the protection of an uncle.

In her early teens, she was married to an older man, a relative of the uncle, under the looming threat of a mass homicide in the family. The man, of whom I admittedly know little, is said to have had an interest in education, resulting in her pursuing university education up to the post-graduate level. While bearing and raising children, she developed skills that would serve as the foundation of her passion for writing and intellectual pursuits.

Death, however, would prove to be recurring theme in her life. She suffered through the mysterious disappearance of a son who was a victim of human trafficking and bonded labor in Aden. She begged god, pirs, and ghosts (literally) alike for his return, and he returned five years later, only to suffer from an untimely death years later. She witnessed the untimely death of her eldest son too. And then she lost her husband.

In the fifties, her husband had set up a business dealing in scientific instruments and equipment. Upon his death in the eighties, their youngest and only surviving son was too young to take over the business. With her spirit undeterred, she took charge as the CEO, running the business till her son came of age, at which point she decided to retire and focus on her literary pursuits and family.

Strangely enough, she retained no personal equity in the business, no personal wealth to my knowledge, and no direct management role beyond the point until which it was necessary. Her passion for language, rhetoric, literature, and writing, remained free from materialistic concerns, and essentially pure.

In her eighties, she began to show clear signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Beyond the obvious affliction of the disease, it is particularly tragic, rather poetically so, that as the disease progressed, the first memories to fade seemed to be the pleasant ones that she had endured through life to acquire. Left with mostly memories from the largely troubling part of her largely troubled life, it might not be wrong to say that she suffered twice, with the second iteration being more painful. This time around, she probably found herself undistracted by responsibility, and physically and mentally unable to work towards the resolution of problems she had already solved once in her life.

Is her story a triumph of gender equality for she proved to be far greater than her fellow men? Or is it a triumph of traditional gender roles, for she leaned back while the men suited up to take charge? Should it be celebrated as a story of what a person can do in excruciating circumstances in a particularly cancerous society, or should it sadden us that her brilliance could not even convince her own self against the very gender roles that seek to suffocate women like her?



Shan Rizvi

Technology entrepreneur based in New York. Interested in art, music, philosophy, psychology, machine learning, neuroscience, physics, and nature.