Artist Fatima Ahmed’s semi-autobiographical work ‘In Haleema’s words’ narrates the story of a girl breaking free from a feudal system

The art world knows Fatima Ahmed through her paintings marked by tonal variations. The Pune-based artist put pen to paper to narrate her own story, almost. Fatima grew up in Hyderabad, struggling to find her identity in a conservative Muslim family before moving to Mumbai (then Bombay) to chalk her own course. Passages read out from Fatima’s book, In Haleema’s Words, at Daira Art Gallery recently gave a glimpse of the life of a young girl in Hyderabad of the 60s, discovering Bombay with the help of her friend Parvati and coming face-to-face with the hippie movement. Edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

You grew up in Hyderabad before moving to Mumbai (then Bombay). The protagonist in your book, ‘In Haleema’s Words’, takes a similar path. How much of the book is autobiographical?

The chapters and passages that speak of Hyderabad are mainly autobiographical. Fiction takes over when Haleema moves out to Bombay and later to London. For several years I had been jotting down my impressions of people and places that struck me as beautiful, odd or unusual. I was also noting down my experiences such as the LSD and cocaine trips. This went on for years but I had no intention of writing a novel. The mere idea of putting 400 pages together and calling it a book was daunting to me.

You are an artist first and then an author. What finally prompted you to write?

In 2008, after my last solo show in Bombay, I wanted a break from painting.  It was then that I started to write incorporating the stray bits into the narrative. The book took about two and a half years.

For a book set in the 60s, Haleema is a free-spirited girl wanting to discover the world and pursue her passion. Would it be fair to call her a rebel?

I wouldn’t call her a rebel. She did not have a flag in hand or a slogan on her lips. She had an innate desire to be true to herself and live life on her own terms. Given her circumstances conformity would have been an easy way out but she would rather face hurdles, get herself a bad name rather than betray her true nature. 

In the book, Haleema finds solace in a friend and confidante. You had mentioned recently about not having anyone to share your feelings as a young girl. How did you cope?

It was in Hyderabad that I (Haleema) could not share my feelings with anybody. It was extremely frustrating. Away from her family, Bombay was heaven to her with a true friend and confidante like Parvati by her side.

How did your family react to you moving out of Hyderabad to pursue your interest in arts?

My family’s reaction to whatever I did was always negative. But what they thought or said never mattered to me anytime in my life.

Does this idea of ‘breaking free’ also reflect in your paintings?

My figures are always solitary, centrally placed in my canvases. That emphasises my love and respect for the individual. I never followed the flock, never believed in cluttered compositions. I use only two colours with either strong tonal contrasts or softly nuanced, nebulous, ethereal effects.