As India completes 75 years of Independence, it is important to ask: what is the place of women in its historical imagination? Where in the corridors of memory – official, scholarly, and popular – are the women of this country to be found? The lives of women, whose voices have at best been indifferently preserved, necessitate that we think differently to locate and retrieve these marginalised histories. This also applies to the way literary historiography treats women writers.
Let us examine these questions through the archive of Fatima Alam Ali (1923-2020), an Urdu writer who lived in Hyderabad and wrote non-fiction essays in the genres of khaaka (pen-portrait) and tanzo-mizah (humour and satire). These essays were published in newspapers or read out over All India Radio, and later compiled into a book.
When Fatima passed away two years ago, her literary drafts, scholarly research, and college notes were found preserved in diaries and re-used school notebooks. She was also a fastidious record-keeper and left behind several hisaab ki kitaabein – books of expenses.
The way Fatima organised and conducted her writing offers us glimpses into not only her writing process but the realities of her life – as a busy homemaker with a husband and three children, and as a respected and active member of social and literary organisations.
She wrote on every available paper surface, demonstrating middle-class thrift in the way she used the blank pages of school notebooks discarded by her children and nieces at the end of every school year. She re-used institutional diaries – a common practice in the subcontinent – disregarding the outdated calendar year printed in them and putting them to any purpose she wished.
She produced entire drafts of essays, speeches, and letters on the backs of calendars, wedding invitations, and grocery receipts. She wrote with regular pencil, colour pencil, fountain pen, and ball-point pen, in inks of different colour. She did not follow any particular system of filling one notebook or diary before moving on to another, but moved back and forth between different ones with no apparent pattern that I have been able to discern thus far.
She wrote draft upon draft of some essays across notebooks and diaries. Sometimes she used the same notebook or diary from both ends for the same or different purposes. What we learn about her from this flexible approach to pen and paper is how versatile she was with these possessions and their applications in her full and hectic days, both because of the weight of the mental load she carried and because it was cheaper and more responsible to re-use things.
Among her papers are the many hisaab ki kitaabein Fatima maintained conscientiously over a number of years in re-used school notebooks. These contain details of her homemaking and domestic activity as well as documentation of important personal and family events, alongside drafts of her essays.
In fact, it is clear from the way these expense books were used that they were meant to serve as multipurpose sites for documenting and recording meaningful things in relation to her professional as well as her personal and family life.
The varied contents of these expense books give us insights into the social culture and domestic economy of the period; the contemporary history of her family; and Fatima’s writing process and the circumstances in which she produced her work.
Even in its most basic definition, a hisaab ki kitaab is of great importance to a historian or a sociologist for a time when people relied on writing to keep domestic records, something the advent of digital technology has changed forever for many of us. No longer do we maintain the kind of meticulous handwritten accounts that we may once have done. After all, online statements and instant text messages from the bank tell us when and what we have spent on groceries or school fees.
Itemised invoices sent by retailers and organisations give us a breakdown of what we have bought or how much we have paid for any service. Note-taking apps and other digital organisers help us to make sense of our everyday transactions and track our needs and wants.
But much before the arrival of digital technology, in the decades after Independence – that golden period in the history of this country when women finally had broad access to education and writing – these written accounts of domestic economy give us indispensable insights into middle-class households, lifestyles, and aspirations.
How did women manage homes? Can we tell from these accounts and lists how much time they spent in homemaking, ie, planning, management, and execution? What does that tell us about the quality of their lives?
What were the items – food and other necessities, such as fuel or paper – that were regularly consumed in a home, and what can that tell us about social position, class, and caste affiliations? Can we learn something about the aspirations of a particular family and, perhaps, by extrapolation, a certain society at a specific period of time, by looking at these weekly, monthly, or annual accounts and lists?
What commodities were sparingly purchased? What were the occasions for which special items were ordered, and what can we tell about the age from the things that were considered grand or fashionable? Can we learn something broader about the state of the economy and its impact on individual households by comparing prices, quantities, and substitutions that may have been made over months or years? What kind of wages were paid to domestic help and other service staff? How many such domestic helpers were there, and what role did they play in the family? Again, what can we learn about a family’s social or economic status from these things?
In short, there is a world of information and insight waiting for the willing in these unassuming accounts. These records of expenses are metaphor and synecdoche for aspirations, anxieties, and lived realities. They embody and document the everyday realities, banalities, and priorities of women’s lives.
A hisaab ki kitaab also often contains other kinds of lists and information about dates, events, people, and places. Fatima’s expense books contain lists of wedding and travel expenses as well as lists of books to buy or consider buying, which help us to re-create both everyday moments and unique experiences in her life as well as those of others around her.
But the most extraordinary and poignant documentation in her expense books consists of a single date on an otherwise blank page, bookmarked by an open blue Reynold’s pen: 8.6.2002. The eighth of June in the year 2002. Written at the top right corner of the right page, the date is the only writing on those two facing pages. Several pages – perhaps fifty on either side – are left blank. The date is significant, although no outsider could possibly know what it may have meant or why it is there. Fatima’s daughter Asma Burney, however, recognised it immediately: it was the day Alam Ali – Fatima’s husband and Asma’s father – had died.
Fatima and Alam Ali had been married for 53 years, and she had privately recorded the date of their earthly separation. The significance of this moment is marked in the brevity of what is written on the page. No words are needed to describe what had happened.
Fatima writes the date and places an open (still functioning) pen to mark the page, in recognition of its import and the magnitude of her loss. The blank pages before and after the recorded date appear to gesture towards the nature of bereavement. With grown-up children and grandchildren living elsewhere, Fatima was unarguably the one most affected by Alam Ali’s death, and so in some ways her grief stands alone.
One is reminded of Helen Macdonald’s words in H is for Hawk (2014), her deeply moving account of losing her father and trying to come to terms with her grief. “It happens to everyone,” she explains. “But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”
That Fatima allowed this date to vanish among the blank pages around it – separated from her accounts and lists – suggests that her loss was so profound that it isolated her from the bustle and activity of everyday life. She lived through it alone, despite the presence of family and friends who rallied around. Life was not the same again, and perhaps such an inscription was part of acknowledging that reality and coming to terms with it on her own.
And yet, the ink still flows from the pen that marks the page. Fatima continued to write and was an active member of various literary and social organizations, writing letters, giving interviews, and attending literary gatherings almost up to the year of her passing.
For women writers like Fatima, a hisaab ki kitaab can go even further than documenting domestic economy and important events in the life cycle. It may start out with the intent of being used for one purpose alone. But soon, the overburdened mind of the busy homemaker gives in to the demands of the writer, who begins to intrude quite aggressively on the business of the day.
In fact, Hyderabadi writer Zeenath Sajida (1924-2009), whose life and work are explored in my new book, once wrote that women’s expense books represent the daily struggle they undergo to find time and space for themselves and their craft.
Zeenath was one of Fatima’s dearest friends. She writes that every homemaking woman has a diary, in which household accounts, laundry lists, and knitting patterns jostle for space with nazms and ghazals. This, she stresses, is the reality of not only women who write, squeezing their compositions between lists and expenses, but also women who may not write but still indulge their creativity by copying a sher or nazm that has caught their fancy.
What she refers to, of course, is what we today call the mental load of women, ie. the constant pressure on the homemaker’s mind of the all-consuming labour and management involved in making a home and caring for a family, while also trying to juggle a writing career from home and even perhaps keeping a full-time job. Women write in the margins of time and space – at “the edges of the day,” as a weary Toni Morrison once explained.
And indeed, amid the pages of Fatima’s own expense books, sandwiched between the relentless and hectic paraphernalia of everyday life, are welcome drafts of her essays, worked and re-worked, again and again, with faithful and constant rigour. These drafts tell us how much labour and planning went into essays which seem so spontaneous and natural in published form, belying the workings of the craft that went into their making.
They demonstrate to us also what a normal day for her would have been like: full of the work that goes into making a home, her mind would still be preoccupied with her essays, so that she would stubbornly write and re-write until she deemed them ready to see the light of print.
Fatima’s expense books are also excellent illustrations of the workings of mind and memory. After all, neither thought nor memory is linear: it rambles and is frequently fragmented, disjointed, and interrupted, organising thought, feelings, and sensibility in shifting and fluid ways.
There are quick shifts in content and register in Fatima’s expense books as she goes from recording expenses to documenting an experience of intense loss to contemplating the title of an essay. These multiple registers of language, thought, and sensibility illuminate different aspects of women’s experiences and subjectivities.
They perform as well as demonstrate the gendered making, maintenance, and transmission of personal and family memory among women. There is so much more, then, to these multipurpose diaries, which encapsulate a way of life when seen in their entirety.
It is rare to come across such records in official or public archives, betraying our collective lack of understanding of not only the importance of hisaab in itself as a source, but also the multipurpose nature of the hisaab ki kitaab.
Furthermore, archives are not only sites of memory, but also sites of power, representing forms of national, public, and collective remembering. They embody official and institutional positions about what is believed to constitute knowledge deserving of transmission, who can thus be validated as a legitimate agent of such deserving knowledge, and what textual materials, therefore, are considered worthy of preservation. The inclusion of women in these archives is limited and conditional upon these constraints.
The circumstances of women’s lives and the conditions in which they work call for a redefinition of the archive. The dense, multipurpose notebooks and diaries that Fatima and no doubt many other women of her generation owned demand other ways of looking at women’s histories and also women’s writing, ie, the process and conditions in which texts are produced by women.
What Fatima’s hisaab ki kitaabein bring to us is a world gone by, where educated middle-class women used writing to document and capture their everyday lives, experiences, and aspirations. With the advent of digital technology, this world is rapidly changing for many women of this demographic.
It remains to be seen how digital records of home-making will fare in the choppy tides of history. Whether these will even take the same shape is debatable. What would a digital archive of homemaking by a woman writer today look like? It has never been easier to keep accounts and lists using apps with increasing degrees of sophistication and convenience, but it has also never been easier to delete data or lose it forever to the vagaries of short-lived technology.
In an age where there is so much information saturation and quick shifts in digital technology, data and the vessels in which we put them are, by definition, ephemeral. They become rapidly obsolete, moving along and beyond the conveyor belt of our days. With the ease of classification and separation into folders and labels, will digital records demonstrate the overlaps and variety of registers that Fatima’s work demonstrates and which Zeenath reveals to us as the reality of home-making women who write? Or are our records going to be equally chaotic, as we move from one app or device to another, depending on where we are and what we are doing? The mental load of women, after all, remains the same.
Also, how would the absence of tactility and materiality affect what we can learn from this digital archive? The smell, texture, and sound of paper; the conditions and locations in which records are preserved; and the uniqueness of an individual’s handwriting – shifting and changing with age, health, mood, and other circumstances – are particular to the written page and document the circumstances in which texts are produced and preserved. The ease of digital reproduction smoothens an individual’s handwriting down to the uniformity and anonymity of a font on a screen, so that critical dimensions of the human experience are lost from the archive.
Accounts such as the hisaab ki kitaabein of Fatima Alam Ali are vital for the historian of modern India. Such sources unravel and unmoor standardized notions of both history and archive, demanding greater creativity and, therefore, more effort to interpret and understand.
They attest to an age when writing became an important and accessible technology for educated women to harness in the management of their lives as well as in the channelling of their creative expression and aspirations.
While magisterial didactic tomes of domestic economy, such as those of Sultan Jahan Begum of princely Bhopal or Isabella Beeton of Victorian England, are known and celebrated and have been used by historians and scholars to make sense of domestic economy, the more modest everyday offerings – often interspersed with literary writings – have been neglected and deserve the attention and regard of both the social historian and the literary historian. Only then can we write more inclusive histories that represent the experiences of women in this country.
Nazia Akhtar is a Fellow of the New India Foundation whose book Bibi’s Room: Hyderabadi
Women and Twentieth-Century Urdu Prose has just been published by Orient Black Swan.