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How Saeeda Bano became the first woman in India to work as a radio newsreader

I was ready to deliver my very first news bulletin on air on the 13th of August 1947. Prior to this, no woman had been employed by either the BBC or AIR Delhi as a news broadcaster.

Saeeda Bano
Saeeda Bano

I arrived in Delhi during the most tumultuous time in our history, on the 10th of August in 1947. After 200 years of colonial rule India stood expectantly poised to celebrate its first Independence Day on 15th August 1947 after being irrevocably split into two autonomous dominions–Hindustan and Pakistan. Breaking through the chains of an extremely conventional and secure life, I had chosen to live the vulnerable existence of a single woman. Age was on my side; I was young and strong. The pressing demands of circumstances and the voice of my own conscience had compelled me to find my courage.

Overlooking all the gossip doing the rounds within the family, ignoring the criticism of society and forsaking the comfortable life of Lucknow, I broke bonds and ventured out, all alone, putting my life on the line. For a woman to walk out like this, alone – without any male support or approval, back in our days, leaving behind the safety and protection of home and family–was absolutely unheard of. I will always remain grateful to both my mother and mother-inlaw for handling an unprecedented situation like this with immense tolerance and patience. Despite the fact that both were uneducated, they did not create any emotional drama nor did they object to my decision. Instead they chose to maintain a dignified silence without crying on anyone’s shoulder. And not once did they turn around and blame me for this unfortunate sequence of events. What largehearted women they were.

When I arrived in Delhi on the morning of 10th August I was received at the train station by Mahmoud, the son of an old family friend by the name of Iqbal Hussain. The three of us, Saeed, Khanum and I went with Mahmoud to his house which was located within the Hutments on Sikandra Road. Built during the Second World War, the entire complex was a gated community, with just one point of entry and exit. In 1947, at the time I came to stay here, there were close to 50 families living comfortably within this colony. Each spacious house was well-equipped with four large rooms, en-suite bathrooms, a kitchen etc.

I had been employed as an Urdu newsreader by All India Radio and had to report and take charge of my responsibilities the next day. I was at the office on the 11th where I met with AIR’s Director of News and spent the entire day getting familiar with the premises and the layout of the building. I had to leave Saeed at the Hutments and even though Khanum was with him, he was constantly on my mind. After all, everything was new and unfamiliar to him. At the same time I was aware, that from now on, I would have to compromise with the demands of this phase of my life. By half past five that evening I was back at Sikandra Road.

Saeed came and sat quietly next to me. He did not utter a single word of complaint nor did he grumble; he was such an extraordinary child. I feel equally grateful to him, because if he had thrown a tantrum, become depressed or cried, then what could I have done? That evening, Iqbal Hussain’s brother Siraj Hussain came by. We knew each other and used to socialise quite a bit when he lived in Lucknow and practised law. We were sitting about chatting when Nuruddin Ahmed, one of Siraj’s friends from Delhi, dropped by to meet him and immediately began asking everyone to accompany him to some club.

When Siraj introduced us he insisted that I also go with them to the club. I excused myself. Siraj said, ‘Come along, we will introduce you to Noor’s wife and daughter. Both of them are very interesting.’ I apologised once again.

Mentally I was so stressed out; I felt as though the burden of the entire world was on me. How could I get into the mood to have fun at a club? The next day when I reported for work at the radio station, a weekly roster of my duties and timings had been prepared and was handed over to me.

On the 13th of August I was to reach office by 6am and read the 8 o’clock bulletin in Urdu. Mrs Vijayalaxmi Pandit, sister of Independent India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had been a frequent visitor to Lucknow. She was Beevi’s good friend and because of that I met with her quite often. She treated me like a younger sister. During one such meeting I mentioned I had sent a written application to AIR Delhi for a job. Mrs Pandit was a keen supporter of women’s rights and immediately asked me to give a copy of the application to her. ‘I will try and see what I can do.’

She then sent the letter to a certain Dr Syed Hussain in Delhi with instructions that ‘the work should be done.’ And so it was.

How could Syed Hussain not honour Vijayalaxmi Pandit’s orders? That is how I came to Delhi. I was ready to deliver my very first news bulletin on air on the 13th of August 1947. Prior to this, no woman had been employed by either the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or AIR Delhi to work as a news broadcaster. I was the first woman AIR considered good enough to read radio news. Of course they had to train me and I was taught how to first introduce myself on air with my name and then start reading the bulletin.

The quality of my voice was appreciated. The feedback I got was that listeners were quite impressed by the style in which I delivered the news. The Statesman newspaper even published a few words of praise about me. I believe some people said I must have planted this story. But that’s pure conjecture. When I didn’t know anyone in Delhi at the time, how could I get them to praise me?

That day when I got back from work around 5.30 in the evening Saeed didn’t leave my side for even a second. As I sat down to tea with Iqbal sahab’s family, I took the opportunity to inform my hosts that I would start looking for a place of my own the following day. Perhaps I could rent a small house or even two rooms as that would be enough for the time being. Iqbal Bhai’s wife was extremely affectionate, she laughed and asked, ‘What’s your hurry, Apa?’ ‘You have four rooms here which are just about enough for the needs of your family. Now the three of us have added to this number,’ I replied.

We were discussing the pros and cons of my moving out when Siraj and Nuruddin Ahmed arrived. Once again they began insisting that all of us should go to Roshanara Club with them. ‘Apa is going off to look for a house,’ Begum Iqbal said. ‘Okay, then let’s help her look for one,’ said Siraj. I readily agreed.

Off the Beaten Track by Saeeda Bano (translated into English by her granddaughter Shahana Raza);  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span> 449
Off the Beaten Track by Saeeda Bano (translated into English by her granddaughter Shahana Raza); 449

Saeed and I went and sat in Nuruddin sahab’s car and off we went to look for a house in Delhi. On the way Nuruddin sahab gave some sound advice. ‘You are a single woman,’ he said, ‘what will you do with an entire house? Why don’t you try and get a room at the YWCA, the Young Women’s Christian Association, for the time being?’ I was open to the suggestion so we drove straight to YWCA on Curzon Road. The secretary informed us that though they had rooms I would not be allowed to keep a child with me within the premises. She suggested that if I send in a request to the President of the Association, they might allow it as a special case.

After our meeting was over, Nuruddin sahab again expressed a desire to take us all straight from Curzon Road to the Roshanara Club. Once again I excused myself. ‘I’m on duty early morning at the radio station, please drop Saeed and me back to the Hutments.’ They dropped us back and headed off to the club. After this I met him another two or three times at the house, each time he invited me to the club. Each time I refused.

Meanwhile after a considerable amount of struggle I managed to procure approval from the authorities at YWCA to keep Saeed at their Ashoka Road hostel. I decided to send Khanum back to Lucknow. Saeed seemed to have adjusted quite well to both my work-timings and his new surroundings at Iqbal sahab’s place. I didn’t think, for even a second, that he could be distressed or that he would not be able to settle in Delhi. Yes, what used to happen when I got back from work is that he would not leave my side. And he would be like this till his bedtime.

On the 15th of August India gained independence from British rule. What a proud moment it was for all of us! For the first time, we hoisted our own flag from the grand ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. Every minute of the impressive proceedings was broadcast on national radio.

That day I left for work at the usual time in the morning but got back quite late. It was almost 8 at night by the time I reached the Hutments. I had prepared Saeed in advance that I would be at work through the day on the 15th and he reassured me, he would keep himself busy reading his books and would go outside to play with the other kids in the evening. Khanum was there, she had brought Saeed up from day one, he felt comfortable with her and they got along very well.

Excerpted from Off the Beaten Track by Saeeda Bano (translated into English by Shahana Raza) with permission from Penguin Random House India and Zubaan Publishers.

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