In the early 1950s, not long after she had arrived in Bombay as a newly-married bride, my mother portrayed Anarkali in a theatrical production. The director, K Asif, happened to see the play and was so taken with her performance that he wanted to cast her as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam. Over 200 photos of her were taken on the movie set, including ones with the iconic feather grazing her face.
Ultimately, she had to decline the role owing to family pressure, as in those days women from respectable families did not act in “pictures”. The photos remained in an album which she sometimes opened whenever she felt like reminiscing about her life before migrating to Pakistan.
She had vivid memories, but my mother did not view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Though she never spoke of it publicly, she carried an immense pain throughout her life. Once she felt I was old enough, she began to share her secret history with me, speaking with the utmost frankness, mother to daughter.
Her public life in Bombay was filled with the trappings of glamour. There were movie premieres with film stars like Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Kamini Kaushal, photos at official functions with heads of state like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and history-making individuals like Tenzing Norgay.
The glamorous mirage masked a terrible reality.
My mother was being violently abused, physically assaulted by her husband at the time. For the duration of the daily abuse, a period of seven years, she kept up appearances, accompanied her politician husband on campaign rallies, hosted elegant soirées with the pallu of her sari draped just so that the bruises would not be visible.
She begged her family to intervene, only to be ignored time and time again.
After one particularly brutal beating, my uncles came and took her back home to Bhopal. However, her husband persuaded them to hand her back with a written apology and an undertaking that he would never hurt her again.
Needless to say, the abuse continued, until one day her gynaecologist, the eminent Dr VN Shirodkar, told her plainly that she would be dead within six months if she did not divorce her husband.
My mother took his advice, but the price she paid for going against that devious and influential monster was enormous. He was a barrister and a politician and she a woman with minimal education and no defences against his cunning. He took custody of both her young children, my step-siblings.
She spent the next 20 years desperately searching for them. When she was finally able to track them down and met them in their adult years, they had already been brainwashed against her by their father.
The final manipulation came in the form of the threat that if they ever reconciled with their mother, he would disinherit them. It worked.
After the briefest of reunions, her long-lost children cut off all ties with my mother, breaking her all over again.
My mother cried herself to sleep every night of her life. No joy could fully overcome the pain of the separation from her children.
It was remarkable that she had the courage to keep on going in spite of her agony. Constantly harassed by the police in Bombay, she decided to take a break and visit Karachi for a family wedding, where she met and married my father, a love marriage across Shia/Sunni sectarian lines.
Bia carried herself with great poise in her new life in Pakistan, but never failed to journey to India every year for the next two decades in search of her children. Each time she would return newly heartbroken and dejected.
Bia loved music as well as singing. Music for her was a kind of opiate. She had a gorgeous voice, had studied a little with an ustad in Bombay and was a great aficionado of the ghazal form.
Time and time again my memory goes back to dwell on the early years of my childhood, between the ages of six and nine, that were spent in Karachi with my mother as head of our household, while my father was a prisoner of war. She never let us feel the lack of a father.
Our rooms in the Services Club had no kitchen, so come evening it would be time to discover a new restaurant or revisit a favourite eatery. We would pile into the bright red Dodge, which she drove at race car speed with the top down and her hair flying in the wind. There were weekends on the beach at Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit and endless trips to bookstores.
I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.
Recently, I have been drawn to reconstruct some of that time in a novel set in the Karachi of my girlhood in the 1970s. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon a video of Bia in the audience of a Zia Mohyeddin show. It was a surreal moment: there she was in her trademark chiffon sari, all smiles, and swaying in rapture at Mehdi Hasan singing Ranjish Hi Sahi.
I remember being seven or eight years old and being taken to mehfils where Iqbal Bano or Farida Khanum or Mehdi Hasan or Habib Wali Mohammad were performing. As a little girl, I found all that boring, but the music must have penetrated my subconscious in a kind of osmosis, as it is now an indelible part of my being.
I recall Bia singing each night before going to bed; when she was putting me to sleep, it was a lullaby, but when she thought I was asleep, I would tiptoe out of my bedroom and hear her sing. Sometimes it would be a Noor Jehan ghazal, sometimes an old film classic like Mujh Ko Is Raat Ki Tanhai Mei Avaaz Na Dou. It is only now that I realise what was haunting her.
I myself have never spoken of this publicly before. But I feel it’s time. My mother passed away in 2012; before #Metoo and #Timesup, she and countless other women of her generation were vilified and deliberately estranged from their children as an act of revenge for asserting their independence.
I suspect my mother, who gave a full page interview in an Urdu paper under the headline “Begum Ali has Grave Grievances Against Men”, would have loved that so many powerful figures in the West have been knocked off their pedestal by this newly-empowered social media savvy generation of women.
Unfortunately in South Asia, although there are cracks and tremors the past and present pillars of patriarchy remain firmly entrenched. Case in point: my mother’s first husband, though long dead, remains firmly on his pedestal. He is revered in India as an author and Islamic scholar. His two oldest children, my step-brother and sister, worship his memory and resolutely deny my mother’s assertions of physical assault and emotional torture.
If I had only denied my mother’s reality and accepted the version of events that their father fed them, that my mother was a woman of questionable morals who abandoned them at the tender ages of four and six, I would have been accepted by my step-siblings, but I refuse to accept the erasure of my mother’s being so easily.
Bia used to write Urdu poetry on little slips of paper that she kept in her ghazal collections. I’d be perusing Faiz or Nasir Kazmi and a nazm would come floating down like a feather.
After her death, I went through all her books and her poems were missing. All except for one. It reads:
tou pani hai
Chahé jis bar
tun mei bhar lo
Shani was her nickname. The double entendre of bartan (vessel) with bar (bridegroom) and tun (body) is so subtle and stunning. This tiny little poem contains the constrictions of a woman’s life so succinctly.
Given the opportunity, I am sure my mother would have been as renowned for her creativity as she was for her looks and her grace.
Writing is a means by which we counteract erasure. After my mother’s death, I gave up both paternal and married surnames and adopted my middle name, Naz, as my surname, as well as takhallus.
Naz was given to me by her symbolically breaking off a piece of her own name, Shehnaz. Own in the larger sense that she had chosen it for herself at the ripe old age of five, after rejecting the family’s given name.
Now and until death, I will proudly wear the mantle of this matronymic, forever my mother’s daughter, Sophia Naz.
All photos by the author.
This article first appeared on Dawn.