MEHRU JAFFER | 14 MARCH, 2017
The Amazing Writer and Woman, Razia Sajjad Zaheer
It was a great idea of theatre lovers in Lucknow to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Razia Sajjad Zaheer on 8 March, International Women's Day with Meri Maa ke Haath, written and acted by Nadira Zaheer Babbar, her third daughter out of four.
Born in February 1917, Razia had spent more than two decades of her life in the city ever since she came here as the 21 year old bride of Lucknow born Sajjad Zaheer, Communist Party activist and Urdu writer and critic. She taught at Lucknow's Karamat Hussain Girls College and brought up three of her daughters on her own as her husband languished in a jail in Pakistan till 1956. Her first novel published in 1953 was written in the city. Bitter sweet memories of the childhood spent in Lucknow made Nadira visibly emotional as she took a standing ovation at the end of a most magical solo performance hosted by Dastak, a local organisation.
It was an emotional moment for me as well. For I was fortunate to spend some years with Razia when my parents lived in a home opposite to hers in New Delhi's Hauz Khas neighbourhood. Those were years when children like us were at our irresponsible best. All we wanted to do in life was to play hide and seek.
Despite many similar playful ambitions I could not help being awestruck by the life led by Razia. Indeed she was at her creative best in the wee hours of the morning as mentioned in Meri Ma ke Haath. My undying memory of Razia is of her in bed propped up by pillows and covered in a fluffy quilt in the thick of a winter morning. A coal angheeti was lit and parked by her bedside that always had the day's lunch cooking on it. I remember watching Razia writing furiously one minute and stirring the pot of the delicious broth in the next. And when she went into thought, she would take a puff from a cigarette.
What a sight of a woman that was that makes me smile to this day.
Nadira's play is precious as it gives us many unknown details about Razia's life as mother, wife and daughter in law. For Razia is not as well known as some other writers perhaps because she wrote in Urdu, a language published and read by less people. Although Razia won many awards for her novels that revolve mainly around women. As a writer she had concerned herself with the life of ordinary Muslim women and the many social and emotional pressures faced by those who are hardly able to express their pain and sorrow even to this day.
The play tells us that it was her father who encouraged in Razia a life long love for books and writing. This is not surprising as he was the principal of the Islamia High School in Ajmer and the education of youth was of utmost importance to him. Razia was already a graduate when she married and was later encouraged by her husband to study for a masters degree at the Allahabad University. She had published short stories as a teenager under the pseudonym Dilshad.
This was something almost natural to do at a time when writing in Urdu was at its revolutionary best. The newly formed Progressive Writers Association (PWA) had attracted the most creative Urdu poets and writers who met in Lucknow in 1936 at a conference chaired by Munshi Prem Chand. The PWA was a great pillar of support to the freedom struggle of Indians against the British.
But even before the PWA, Tahzib-un-Niswan, Urdu’s first weekly was launched in Lahore way back in 1898 with Muhammadi Begum as editor. Published by her husband, Mumtaz Ali, Muhammadi Begum wrote short stories and some novels. This female editor had encouraged Muslim men to revisit their own views on women’s rights and invited both women and men to write for her paper on similar issues.
Apart from Muhammadi Begum’s articles on education, household management, advice to the daughter in-law on how to get along with the mother-in-law and why girls should learn English, there were political features on self rule and comments on international events such as the First World War. Nazar Sajjad Hyder, mother of Qurratulain Hyder one of Urdu literature’s most loved writers was there appealing in 1921 to readers to give up using foreign cloth in exchange for khaddar.
Khatun, a monthly women’s magazine was published from Aligarh till 1914, followed by Ismat, published from Delhi in 1908. The support that Razia received from her husband in the 1940s was only in keeping with the times when progressive men were inspired to take a serious look at women’s issues with the PWA movement encouraging all writers to talk about subjects ranging from rights to sex to politics.
There was Mahmud uz Zafar whose letter appeared in the The Leader published from Allahabad in 1933 in protest of the ban on Angaarey, a collection of short stories by four authors, including Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and himself. In fact it was the ban on Angaarey that had led to the founding of the All India Progressive Writers Association.
This was the largest literary movement in South Asia against censorship by religious conservatives. Now available in an English translation Angaaray has five stories by Sajjad Zaheer writing on the adverse effect on the mind of human beings when they are made to feel guilty over their desire for sex.
The great stage performance on the life of Razia, has led to another desire to also witness a sequel perhaps on the work of this author. About the circumstances and situations that made this great writer put into print the novels and short stories that she did. Will Nadira do the honours once again please?