A lifetime of love – and laughter

As Valentine’s Day comes around, Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore brings you a series about love stories from Singapore.

Hasanali and Zenab celebrating his 90th birthday.

By Desiree Koh

Hasanali Dhilawala, 91, and his wife Zenab, 88, sit across from each other. She’s chattering away about playing in Dahod, a small town in India. He’s tries to keep up, but his hearing isn’t what it used to be. Zenab laughs at him, as she always has, and then they are laughing together.

“These days, my father is often happiest when he sees her laughing, which in turn cracks him up,” says their daughter Sakina, 55, who herself sports a huge smile.

Married for more than six decades, Zenab and Hasanali are each other’s closest friend and confidante. They are rarely apart, and he worries constantly about her loss of vision, and her dementia that has been slowly worsening for the last 15 years. There must be a way to fix it, he regularly tells his daughter.

Despite his own deteriorating health, he cares for her and treats her with the same tenderness today as he has throughout their years together. He spoils her, and even when she doesn’t remember, he never forgets to present her with an ice cream or some other little treat each night after dinner.

“When you’ve been with someone that long and know that person so well, you’re the left and right of each other,” says Sakina. “The way you care and treat them doesn’t change even if they have.”

The two were virtual strangers when they met and married in Dahod in Gujerat in 1951. An orphan mistreated by a brother and sent to work in Bombay as a teenager, Hasanali came to Singapore in 1952 to work as a timber supervisor for his uncle. Zenab only came here five years later.

Hasanali and Zenab with Ejaz in 1997.

Zenab had come from a vastly different background – she was from a wealthy family, and was doted on. So Hasanali, who was as progressive as he was kind, did all the cooking, and gave her as much as he could afford – a pair of earrings here, a pendant there. He encouraged the creative Zenab, clever with her hands, to take in knitting jobs, which she did, supplementing the family income. When the couple had children – two girls and a boy – he gave them the best education he could afford, then encouraged them to aim for the stars. Serious and generous, he made his family his core focus in life, and Zenab sat in the middle of it all.

She ruled the roost with a combination of love and a vibrant sense of humour. A practical joker, she once had her son-in-law rush home from the office by telling him she had fallen down the stairs – then greeted him at the bottom of said stairs. It was an April Fool’s Joke.  And however hard a day he had had, she could always lighten her husband’s mood, assuring him that “we’ll be fine, we’ll get through this, don’t worry.”

“They’re contrasting personalities, yet they complement each other so well,” says Sakina. “It’s kept their relationship strong.”

When Hasanali retired at 65, the duo focused on their five grandchildren, and went on frequent vacations together. Cruises were a particular favourite. Her dementia diagnosis in 2001 dealt a blow to the couple, made worse by her vision problems.

It has been hard for Hasanali to watch the woman he loves deeply slip away, even as he deals with health issues of his own. But he continues to care for her the best he can.

Like his children, he holds on to Zenab and the memories she still has, which largely involve her childhood and the day she met Hasanali.

Even if she may not remember the finer details, she recalls quite well “the handsome fellow in the building across the street.” It’s a memory that always gets her chuckling. And then they are both laughing again.

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