While reams have been written about the long roster of literary stalwarts who contributed to the Progressive Writers’ movement from the mid-1930s till after Independence – Munshi Premchand, Mulk Raj Anand, Kaifi Azmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, to name just a few – the supportive role of their partners who held fort at home, as the luminaries chased their socialistic and literary dreams, has not been given due importance.

So it was refreshing to watch Nadira Zaheer Babbar on stage, at the ongoing Prithvi Festival in Mumbai, portray her mother Razia Sajjad Zaheer’s journey from a protected, traditional childhood to standing tall beside her husband, Comrade Sajjad Zaheer, one of the founding fathers of the Progressive Writers’ Association.

Mere Maa Ke Haath, written by Babbar and directed by Makarand Deshpande, has Babbar in a solo act, depicting Razia’s amazing life and the socio-political milieu of her time. The play opens with Razia having got wind of Babbar’s plan to write her story. A winner of the Urdu Sahitya Akademi Award, Razia thinks this audacious.

“Who can write about my life better than me?” she asked indignantly, and proceeds to pen her autobiography before her daughter could beat her to it.

Lifetime of respect

Starting from her early years in conservative Ajmer, where wrapping a dupatta over head and chest was mandatory for women, Razia recounts how she began secretly putting her thoughts to paper, using the pseudonym Dilshad. On discovering her passion for writing, her father gives her Mirza Ghalib to read. “I couldn’t really understand Ghalib but I got exposed to fine words,” remembered Razia, decades later.

At 21, her marriage was fixed to Sajjad Zaheer, son of a chief justice in Oudh. Razia’s narration of her arranged marriage, from the group photograph, in which she is posing with a tea kettle in hand, to the mooh dikhai when several women tilt her head this way and that, is a delightful spoof of traditional rituals.

Juxtaposed with this is her husband’s disregard for regressive social practices or romance. She recounts how, as a new bride, sitting in a train compartment, head duly bowed with a long ghunghat over her face, she could only see the handsome feet of the man with whom she was to spend her life. Waiting excitedly for him to make a romantic move, she is sorely disappointed when he, matter-of-factly, helped her lie down and fall asleep.

The next morning, as they approach his town, Lucknow, Razia reached for her burqa, but he forbade her from touching it. He gave her his hand instead to lead her out of the compartment.

“That was the moment,” Razia recounted, “when izzat and mohabbat were born.”

It was to be the beginning of a lifetime of shared love and respect, despite all the difficulties that came their way.

“Later, in our room in the palatial Vazir Mahal, when he took me in his arms, after I led him to it, I understood how a bandhan could set you free,” said Razia, who would blossom into a strong, independent woman.

Director Makarand Deshpande with Nadira Zaheer Babbar
Director Makarand Deshpande with Nadira Zaheer Babbar

Sajjad Zaheer’s work as a member of the Communist Party often landed him in prison, when Razia would be at the mercy of his mother. To protect her from his mother’s barbs, Sajjad Zaheer sent Razia to Allahabad for higher studies.

“The joy of entering a university, and sitting in a library surrounded with books, is inexplicable,” Razia said. “And how do I describe that moment when my eyes fell upon Das Kapital? It was like the opening up of so many doors and windows… I could understand what my husband was fighting for… I could understand Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry…I read voraciously. And then my husband joined me in Allahabad. Life was beautiful!”

But it was only a matter of time before the two were separated again. Sajjad Zaheer was sent by his party to set up a branch in Punjab. At the same time, the country was aflame with communal riots. In the midst of all this, India became free. “But what freedom was this?” asked Razia, shuddering as she recalled the division of the country. Her husband could not make it back to the new India, imprisoned as he was in Balochistan in what was now Pakistan. Theirs was a family torn apart by Independence and Partition.

Razia soldiered on. Thrown out of Vazir Mahal, she lived in the outhouse of her husband’s home and brought up her daughters single-handedly. Hurrying them into a rickshaw, dropping them to school before rushing for her classes (she had begun teaching in a college), cleaning the house, cooking and even hosting meetings of the Progressive Writers’ Association, she faced challenges stoically.

Then, she braved a trip to Balochistan to meet her husband. Through the bars of the prison they talked. Sajjad suggested she shift to Balochistan with her children. But, ecstatic at meeting him, Razia was outraged. “Never! Never will I live in a country that is based on religion,” she declared, and returned to Lucknow. Thereafter, she fired letters upon letters to the Pakistan authorities, asking for her husband’s release. Eventually, she succeeded.

But again her joy was short-lived, as Sajjad Zaheer was asked by his party to re-locate to Delhi. His wife and daughters’ pleas not to leave Lucknow fell on deaf ears. Sajjad Zaheer’s loyalty to his party was above all other considerations and Razia had to live with this fact. She narrates how only the floods of 1960 in Lucknow forced her to leave her beloved city and move to Delhi where they all lived together again.

Razia’s account of her life ends here.

A moving story, the ebb and flow of her life is well presented through the rise and fall of Nadira Babbar’s voice, as well as through excellent lighting that sets the mood for each phase. However, one is left with a certain sense of dissatisfaction – though we are told about Razia’s daughter Nadira Babbar joining the National School of Drama, no mention is made of what her other daughters did. Also, a glimpse into the writings of this indomitable lady would have given viewers a deeper understanding of her mind.