For Nelofar Currimbhoy, writing about her mother Shahnaz Husain was an emotional and turbulent journey. The mother-daughter duo talk about the making of their lives and the book.
Sitting with Shahnaz Husain, one gets a sense of being in the presence of one of life's great personalities. Once she starts talking, the feeling only deepens. Husain carries her success like she carries herself, with undeniable aplomb and charisma. And now, her daughter, Nelofar Currimbhoy, has chronicled her mother's life in her first book, Flame: The Story of My Mother Shahnaz Husain. “She was the best person to do it. Over the years, I've got many offers from great renowned authors who've wanted to write about me. I always decided against it. Now, I know it was the right choice to make. No one else could have written about my life the way Nelofar has. She has taken this journey with me. She has always been there for me and, without her support, I wouldn't even be where I am today.”
Way with words
Nelofar is also the writer in the family. “She has a way with words. I think she was always meant to write a book. She is eloquent; my language is more direct, more hard-hitting. I couldn't have written this myself, though I did want my story to be told. I always hoped that my own journey would inspire other women, become an example for other women to emulate,” says Husain.
Born into a conservative Muslim family, where her mother wore burqa and her father attended Oxford, Shahnaz Husain has come a very long way. Yet, no one could be closer and more deeply attached to her family. “I worshipped the ground my father walked on. At the age of seven, he put me in an Irish convent. In those days, it was a big deal to even educate girls after a certain age. He was extremely fond of the great English poets and, every evening, I'd recite Keats and Byron for him. He passed on the love of the language to me. He recognised the fire in me to learn and educate myself. He was the Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court, and he wanted me to become the Chief Justice of the International Court of Justice in Hague.”
In Flame, Nelofar Currimbhoy writes about her mother's early marriage and motherhood. Married at the age of 15, Husain continued her studies after Nelofar was born, travelling to London with her daughter. “When I turned 16, she was a month old. She was like a little toy doll to me and then, as she grew older, we became best friends too. She attended junior school and I enrolled in senior school. We shared everything.”
Support also came from her husband. “I was madly in love with him. I don't think there's any actor today who's half as good looking as my husband. He was extremely supportive. He really moulded the person the world would see.”
Nelofar covers this and much more in her book, which she was initially very hesitant about writing. “I love writing, but I used to write poetry. I was more comfortable writing short pieces. The idea of writing my mother's biography really started in Barista. We'd gone for coffee there once and, those days, Barista had little bookshops too. My mother picked up a book and bought it for me. In it, she inscribed, ‘Write a book on me, Nelofar'.”
The idea, Nelofar says, stayed with her for a long time along with the nagging suspicion that she might not be able to stay completely objective while writing about her mother. During a visit to Bhutan, she was finally convinced to change her mind. “It was the Queen, a great fan of my mother, who told me that I was making a mistake by dismissing the idea. She told me that no one could write about my mother the way I could, because, after all, I'd lived the life I was going to write about.”
The life Nelofar documents has been an illustrious one. Right from a young age, Husain knew that she was born to lead. “I remember that I loved acting in school plays. I'd write the dialogues, be the heroine, direct the play and sing the songs. I was a one-man show, and I was never shy.” In her Senior Cambridge exams, which she gave at the age of 14, Husain scored 98 per cent in English. “My results came after I was married. Once I had Nelofar, my father offered to take care of her while I studied in London. But there was no question of leaving my husband and my child. In the end, we all went together. We made a great team, my family.”
The book reads like a novel, which Nelofar says is a deliberate effort. “This is my mother's story, but it's also an inspiring tale, one that I hope will make a difference in people's lives. I didn't want to let it become a boring cut and dry biography” The process, she says, was a beautiful and exciting one. “This was the best way I could have started my writing career, by writing about my mother. It was an emotional, turbulent, exciting and sometimes painful journey. I worked very hard, and I'm happy with the end product. It gives an insight into my mother that hasn't been available before. Very little has been written about her that actually reveals the woman she is.” Nelofar's research has been extensive. While most of it she remembers herself, she's talked to Husain's family and friends to paint a clearer picture.
And that is just what Flame does, paints a very clear picture of an extraordinary woman who's driven her own destiny, never lost sight of either her own sense of self or the importance of her family.
Flame: The Story of My Mother Shahnaz Husain;Nelofar Currimbhoy, Hachette.