One of writer Shahana Raza’s favourite things about her grandmother Saeeda Bano’s memoir, Off The Beaten Track: The Story Of An Unconventional Life, is the detail with which Bibi, as she calls her, describes how homes in Bhopal were architecturally designed to keep women cocooned inside. There were no windows on the façade of the house. “And these women were in purdah. But the Nawab Begums had constructed playgrounds for ‘Girl Scouts’ where young girls and women could gad about freely.”
Bano, who became India’s first woman newsreader on radio in 1947, was influenced by her times, as both the book and Raza reveal. “Bibi’s identity and her idea of how a woman should be treated had crystallized and taken definitive shape before she even arrives in Lucknow,” says Raza, who translated the book, published by Penguin Random House India and Zubaan Publishers, from Urdu to English.
Bano truly broke convention in many ways and through a courageous and eventful life endured both struggle and success in various forms—she walked out of a marriage, witnessed the Partition, briefly lost her son in a refugee camp, quite literally broke bread with Jawaharlal Nehru and later fell in love with a married man. Professionally, through all this, she also shattered an important glass ceiling—on 13 August, 1947, only two days before India gained independence, she became the first woman newsreader in the country for All India Radio (AIR).
“Eminent poet and broadcaster Rifat Sarosh had said this about her as a newsreader: ‘A voice and diction of Saeeda Bano’s caliber will never be seen in this century, especially not now, since the century is almost breathing its last’,” says Raza.
Mint caught up with Raza, who is now based in Dubai, to understand Bano’s ideas of feminism and more, as well as what Raza learned from her grandmother and this book. Edited excerpts:
Conversations around a patriarchal society keep presenting themselves through the book. The women in Saeeda Bano's life, however, broke convention in many ways, whether it was her mother or mother-in-law, and eventually she did too. Could you tell us about the role women have played in her life to shape her ideas and ambitions?
Women played a crucial role in Saeeda Bano’s life, as did men. She was extremely influenced by her father and had high regard for her father-in-law, Justice Mohammed Raza as well.
However, it is with her mother and mother-in-law with whom she had more interaction, since they lived longer. She seems highly appreciative of the sort of wisdom they had, which she mentions was the kind that kept families together.
“Despite being shackled to the conventional thinking of an extremely orthodox society, both Chachijaan and Amma had managed to carve out a strong identity for themselves without letting ancient traditions dim their inner radiance. With their honesty and simplicity, they remained pillars of strength for the entire family,” as she writes.
Though these two ladies didn’t as such break convention in my opinion, they did give Bibi unconditional support through their silence. They accepted her decisions, whether it was to admit her older son in boarding or to leave Lucknow, without challenging or criticizing her. That in itself gave her the strength to follow through with her decisions.
Because she was born and raised in a city like Bhopal, women played an extremely important role in her life. The Nawab Begums ruled Bhopal for four successive generations. They encouraged women in Bhopal to have a distinct identity of their own, separate from that of their husbands. We know from the book that when an invite was sent, it was in the name of the woman, not as Mr and Mrs So-and-So, even the clothes women wore in Bhopal was less restrictive and cumbersome than the heavy trailing farshi ghararas women in North India had to endure.
What about your own understanding of feminism as a result of your interactions with her?
Feminism, as I understood it from her, was so subtly ingrained in me that I didn’t become a feminist, I suppose I was always one — that was my socialization. There were many grannies who depended on male approval, ate when their husbands ate, or after them, had to indulge the male ego, make efforts to include them in their conversations, not visit those relatives their husbands didn’t approve of … I’m talking of people of my grandmother’s age … I never saw her do any of this. She led her own life, ate her own meals, drove (till she could, then had a driver), lived alone, entertained like a queen! She didn’t need male approval or support for things like this. I didn’t think women needed them either. My own mother was also quite like this, so I always say to my husband (and kids), the concept of gender equality is (koot-koot ke bhara) in my DNA!
What did Saeeda Bano make of the institution of marriage, given her own experience?
She believed in marriage. After Nuruddin Ahmed’s wife passes away, she does want to formalize her relationship with him. When my parents got divorced, Bibi was keen my father settle down again — so she definitely believed in the institution of marriage. See, her own parents had a great marriage, she mentions this in the book, so this must have had a positive influence on her: “I never saw my parents fight or so much as argue with one another. Peaceful and balanced, the ambience of Anees Manzil was joyful.”
We did discuss marriage in the context of my parents’ divorce, several times. She felt sad about it. She would often say, bachchon pe bahut bura asar padtaa hai (divorce has an extremely negative effect on children). She could relate to it from her own experience.
Also, I want to mention that despite the issues she had with her husband and the fact that she ultimately left his house and Lucknow, she continued to maintain ties with his family, I remember meeting Aqila Daadi, (my grandfather’s sister) and several of our relatives from his side of the family at Bibi’s place while I was studying in Delhi.
Tell us about the meeting with Mrs. Pandit and later Jawaharlal Nehru.
Honestly, I don’t really remember discussing either of these incidents with Bibi … What I can say after translating the book is she was quite chuffed at having brown-bread-toast with Pandit Nehru, a tad guilty as well, as she wanted her sons to be there but they couldn’t make it for various reasons. After all, he was the first Prime Minister of India!
As she became the first woman radio newsreader on 13 August 1947, could you tell us what the 15th was like? What did she read, what was the pitch in the office and in her own mind?
Whatever I learnt about her as a professional newsreader was during the process of translating this book. I remember someone mentioning that before Saeeda Bano came on air to read news, they would hear the soft tinkling of bangles on radio. Indicating, it was a woman newsreader.
On one trip to Lucknow, I went and met Farrukh Jaffar, Bibi’s colleague. She acts in several movies now. She mentioned, that while they were producing this 9-hour long Urdu programme for AIR, (which is also mentioned in the book) they were always busy and stretched for time since there were only three of them working on it. My daadi would apparently get lots of food cooked from her house, bring it in the morning and keep it in the car for them to eat throughout the day.
What do you make of women's role in the media today?
I’m myself a media person, so the answer lies somewhere on the greyscale. If we speak relatively from Bibi’s time to now, it’s quite amazing. Women have established a strong foothold within the industry, they are definitely taken more seriously, they are here to stay.
But is it as easy for them as it is for men? I’m not entirely sure, especially for those women who have to face the camera. They are still expected to look a certain way. Viewers will still discuss and comment on the appearance of women newsreaders — what they wear, how they speak, and their diction is scrutinized far more.
What did you learn while translating the book?
A lot of patience, which I had very little of to start with. And a new fact about myself: I have noise intolerance! It took me almost three years to bring this book to a level where I felt confident enough to share it with a wider audience. I am not a professional translator, I know Urdu but I don’t read the language. I had to express her complex sentiments with English words and her Urdu vocabulary is outstanding.
On many days, I felt like a cross between the good ol’ Greek Sisyphus and Farhad from The Legend of Shirin and Farhad who is mentioned in the book. While the former is forever rolling a boulder uphill, the latter is doomed to divert a stream through impenetrable mountains! It was exciting but hard work.