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Home > Tributes and Remembrances > India: ‘Return O Friend My Book of the Past’ | Syeda Hameed

India: ‘Return O Friend My Book of the Past’ | Syeda Hameed

28 March 2014

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The Citizen, 26 March, 2014

NEW DELHI: A woman died in the early hours of the morning on March 17, 2014. It was Holi. I had happened to meet her the day before and she had spoken to me about her driver, Jagdev, who would come after the Holi puja to touch her forehead with vermillion.

Sughra Mehdi was born in Bhopal, one of seven children. Her father was in the police service and her mother, a poet and litterateur – a talent that all her children inherited. As a child, growing up in the 1950s, she was brought to Delhi and lived on the Jamia Millia Islamia campus. Dr Zakir Husain, along with his comrades Dr Abid Husain and Prof Mohamed Mujeebhad, had laid the foundations of this school that had become the model of Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a national institution based on the Wardha ashram.

Sughra was a spirited child full of fun, short of temper and deeply sensitive. Her high intelligence and volatile nature had to be contained and honed and that was what her maternal uncle, Dr Abid Husain and his writer wife Begum Saliha Abid Husain did with utmost sensitivity and skill. As a child I was witness to that.
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It was a testimony to her innate talent and ability to learn that, by the end of her life, she had produced 40 books. The collection included novels, short stories, academic studies, translations, and even children’s books. She wrote all this even while she taught. Beginning as a school teacher in the Bulbuli Khana School in Delhi’s Walled City, she went on to teach at the Girls’ Higher Secondary School in Ballimaran. She then returned to Jamia to complete her PhD that critically appraised Akbar Allahabadi’s poetry. Subsequently, she became a lecturer at Jamia Millia Islamia and went on to be a professor of Urdu. Deeply involved in her students, she gave tutorials besides classroom lectures and guided MA and PhD students. Her home next door to the university was a hub for students who felt free to walk in at any time with their academic as well as personal problems. As a warden of the girls’ hostel she had to bring her deepest insights into play to discharge her responsibilities, keeping a strict but loving eye on her wards.

In 2000, she and I started the Muslim Women’s Forum to provide a voice to India’s 75 million-plus Muslim women. I had completed my term as Member, National Commission of Women, and had brought out the Report, ‘Voice of the Voiceless – Status of Muslim Women’, based on testimonies of ordinary Muslim women from across the country. Both Sughra and I realised that in matters pertaining to their own lives, Muslim women had no agency. While women’s voices have been silenced across the communities, Muslim women were victims of a double oppression. They faced repression at home because of the fear ingrained in them by virtue of being members of a minority community, and they were oppressed by larger society whose patriarchal interpretations of Muslim Personal Law were used by vested interests to keep them subservient.

Muslim Women’s Forum became a platform from where women could speak out on matters pertaining to their personal laws and civil rights. Its first big symposium was held in Vishwa Yuvak Kendra in Delhi with support from the Madhya Pradesh government through Dr Aziz Qureshi, Surgha’s good friend, who is the Uttarakhand governor today. Sughra Mehdi spoke for an enlightened Islam in the best liberal traditions that she had imbibed from her philosopher-mentor uncle, Dr Abid Husain. At many forums I found her fearlessly speaking of the soul and essence of the Quran, regardless of the fact that a majority of orthodox opinion went against her interpretation. What hurt her the most was the popular perception that Jamia Millia Islamia had become the epicentre of fundamentalism. She had lived and breathed in an institution that symbolised the philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, that enjoined the opening all the doors and windows of one’s mind so that winds could blow in from every direction. Jamia welcomed children of every religion and community, and allowed them to freely practise their faith.

One of Sughra’s closest friends was a young refugee boy, Jitender Kumar, who had been brought to Jamia after being found on a railway platform. His warden ensured that during namaz (prayer), while the other boys went to the masjid, little Jitender would pray at the small mandir that he had set up for himself in the hostel. Sughra, and her close friend, Azra Taban, began tying ‘rakhi’ to this boy and thus began a unique friendship. For 65 years without fail they would send ‘rakhis’ to their brother, wherever he happened to be. When it came to speaking out for secular causes, Sughra can best be described by the Urdu epithet, shamsheer- e-barehna (the naked sword).

Whether it was the backlash after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verse or, decades later, the incident at Batla House, Sughra Mehdi defended Jamia Millia as a secular and a liberal institution opposed to all colours of fundamentalism. She lashed out against those who for their vested interests marred the beautiful face of her alma mater, leading to the hateful perception outside.

The last book that she wrote – and some of it was written during the course of her last illness – was Hamari Jamia, a historical account of Jamia from its very inception in 1920 to 2014, six years before it hit a century. She had carefully selected photographs from her personal archives to make this book a truly worthy document of the institution she loved, and penned a memoir as a witness to its evolution over 60 years. She used to tell her publisher, Professor Khalid Mehmood of Maktaba Jamia, to hurry up with the publication if he wanted her to be alive to see the first copy, which eventually came out in January 2014.

Sughra Mehdi’s death marks the end of a road of companionship. She was a friend, confidante, mentor and inspiration. The last thing I ever asked her to do was to edit a collection of Urdu short stories of the famous writer and film maker, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. She went about the task meticulously, hunting the best of his stories and bringing out a volume ‘Aghar Mujhse Milna Hai’ (If you want to meet me). The volume was released at the international seminar on K.A. Abbas in Teen Murti on March 14, 2014, three days before her death.

Her brother Raza wanted her to come for the release but she declined with a smile saying, “You receive the first copy… I do not have the strength.” Today I think back on our many collaborations. They included India’s Maulana – Selected Works of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, written during his centenary celebrations in 1988; Parwaaz, A collection of short stories by women writers in Urdu that was brought out by Kali for Women (2005); and My Voice Shall Be Heard: Status of Muslim Women (2003).

Sughra was very different from me. She was, for one, a born humorist unlike someone like myself who cannot tell a joke to save her life. With so many contrasts, it was little wonder we were so well matched and remained good friends.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote these lines for his friend, Sajjad Zaheer. I offer them as an everlasting tribute to my friend:

Mujhko shikwa hai meri bhai ke tum jaate huey

Ley gaye saath meri umr-e-guzishta ki kitab

Uss mein toh meri bahaut qeemeti tasveerien thien

Uss mein baachpan tha mera aur mera aihd-e-shabaab…

Mujhko lauta doh meri umr-e-quzishta ki kitab

(I have a complaint my brother

When you left me you took away

My book of the past days

It had my rarest photographs

It had my childhood, my youth…

Return O friend my book of the past)

(Women’s Feature Service)


The above article from The Citizen is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use