Why was I so eager to read Urdu? At our house, during the 40 observance of Muharram, separate majālis for men and women were held every day. In addition, all year long, a majlis was held every Thursday in fulfilment of someone-or-other’s vow. That was the reason I was so keen to read Urdu. All the ladies in my family knew Urdu quite well. When, on some occasion, happy or sad, they visited other homes, or when other ladies came similarly to our place, my female relatives would read aloud from books on matters of faith and religious observances.

Listening to them, I came to know many of the same by heart – just as one learns stories. It did not, however, lessen my keen desire to be blessed with the gift of reading.

Once I went to all the ladies in the family one by one and implored each to teach me to read. I said, “Teach me just a little bit every day; I would be your slave for life.” But not one was moved in the slightest way by my pleadings. All of them gave the same response: “Have you gone mad, girl? Better find some cure for it. First of all, what would you do with it even if you learned how to read? Secondly, what makes you think it is easy to teach someone to read? It’s not. It is hard work. Who do you think has the time and energy to waste on you?”

I lost all hope when I heard those words, and began to weep. In fact, I felt so hurt that I burst into loud wailing. That made the ladies even angrier. “How nice!” they said, “Now you’re trying to scare us with tears. Well, your silly tears don’t scare anyone. It’s not nice to go around whining all the time just because you want to read. Who ever saw a girl like you? Most girls run and hide if someone even mentions a book. Children your age are scolded and spanked to make them study, but you, on the contrary, weep and wail, wanting to read! Look, you’ve already lost your mother on account of your wretched crying for lessons, who knows what might happen next. Go away! Don’t sit here crying. It gives me the chills.”

I was devastated, and my tears just kept pouring out. Then the ladies said, “For God’s sake, girl, go away! If your grandmother were to see you crying she would immediately assume that one of us had said something nasty to her darling.” God alone knows how I felt when I heard those words. I was not accustomed to such cruel remarks. My parents had brought me up with much love. They had always spoken kindly in my presence, never saying a harsh word to anyone and always treating everyone with patience and civility.

Those words of the ladies were like salt on my already wounded heart. I wiped my tears and, obedient to their command, walked away. But when I was by myself, I prayed to God: “Most Benevolent God, be merciful to me. Guide me to my goal across this dreadful chasm. I promise that if I ever learn how to read, I shall teach that skill to anyone who desires it – even forcibly, God willing, to those who might be unwilling – for so long as I live I shall never forget the pain I feel right now.”

Later one night, when I was beset with similar thoughts, it occurred to me, had I the text of a salām or mujrā, I could myself figure out the words. “It isn’t that great a matter,” I said to myself, “I already know the letters of the alphabet. Let them not teach me. What do I care?” The idea so enhanced my courage and hope that the very next morning I sent a maid to all my friends with this request: “I need some salām and mujre. Please loan me a few. I shall return them after getting them copied.” May God bless them, for each of them sent me one or two.

But who was there to copy them for me? It was only an excuse. I used it again, and said to my grandmother, “Please get me some paper. I shall ask Māmūñ Sahib to make copies of these poems.” She immediately sent someone to the market and got me some paper. Now the question was: how should I make the copies, and where should I hide while I was doing so? I well knew what a disaster it would be if someone became suspicious.

Writing was strictly forbidden to girls, and I had no mother to cover up for me. How was I to reach my goal and also keep it a secret? My aunt was already furious, and called me nasty names for reading the Qur’an so much. “Thank God, this girl hasn’t learned anything else,” she would grumble, “for then she would have time for nothing at all.” God alone knows what my aunt might have said had she ever caught me writing!

Thinking over all this at some length, I finally decided that at midday, when everyone else lay down to rest, I would make some ink with the blacking from the tawā and start copying. And that is exactly what I did. You have to believe me. I scraped some blacking off the tawā, took the ceramic lid from one of the water pots, and grabbed a fistful of twigs from the broom. Thus equipped I went up on our roof, pretending that I was going there to sleep, and excitedly began copying. I cannot describe my happiness at that moment. Childhood is a time of such innocence!

No sooner had I copied a few words than I felt I had won the battle. Before returning downstairs, I broke the lid in which I had made my ink and threw away the pieces. That was the routine I followed every day, using a fresh lid each time to make my ink. The ladies would find the water pot uncovered, and grumble: “What wretch steals the lid every day? May God break her arms!”

I felt so ashamed of my bad deed; I was also scared someone might find out what I was doing. I feared people, for I did not yet have enough sense to consider my misplaced boldness a sin and to fear God. The intensity of my desire made me blind to such matters. I did not give up my improper ways, and continued to blacken sheets of paper with my scribbles. But I had no idea what I was writing. I did not have the sense to know that one cannot learn to read without the help of a teacher. I believed it was like any other skill, that it was something one could learn just by watching others and imitating them. And so I continued to spend much time and effort even if it was for nothing. I still could not read Urdu. Consequently, my crying spells started again. Then God sent me a teacher.

Excerpted with permission from A Most Noble Life: The Biography of Ashrafunnisa Begum (1840–1903), Muhammadi Begum, translated from the Urdu by CM Naim, Orient Black Swan.