Ismat Mehdi’s journey is one that celebrates heritage and languages. The scholar discusses the plans of AP chapter of Sarvodaya International Trust and delves into Hyderabad’s past
Each year, in the first week of October, mass media and social networks debate the relevance on Mahatma Gandhi and his ideals in present times. Days later, the topic is relegated to the recesses of our memories. Persistent and sustained efforts by a few organisations try to keep the spirit of Gandhi alive through their activities in schools. “People abroad still remember Gandhi and try to emulate his ideas. Unfortunately, we’ve moved away from Gandhian philosophy,” says Ismat Mehdi, managing trustee of Sarvodaya International Trust AP Chapter (SITAPC).
At her residence in Jubilee Hills that overlooks the serene Durgam Cheruvu, Ismat Mehdi talks to us soon after partaking in a host of activities conducted by SITAPC at Gandhi Bhavan to mark Gandhi Jayanthi. As she discusses the manifold activities of the organisation and its plans of starting Gandhi clubs in many schools in the city, we are reminded of the strong nationalistic and patriotic streak that runs through her family over generations. Ismat Mehdi’s grandparents resided in Troop Bazaar, close to the Residency, and theirs was the first home in Hyderabad to respond to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Swadeshi movement.
“This was before I was born. I learnt that my family members piled their foreign clothes together and lit a bonfire. The then Resident was alarmed spotting the fire. Hyderabad was then ruled by Nizams and the Congress movement was virtually non-existent,” she says.
Ismat Mehdi’s uncles were actively involved in the freedom movement, some of them working alongside Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmathi ashram. “A few of them were even arrested,” she says. Back then, Sarojini Naidu was a frequent visitor to their home and years later, one of Ismat Mehdi’s uncles, Abid Hasan Safrani, went on to join Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) and eventually played a role in the battle of Imphal where the INA forces hoisted the Indian national flag much before India became independent. “I grew up watching my uncles spinning the charkha. We wore khadi and knew about the freedom movement in our growing years,” she reminisces.
Abid Hasan Safrani was posted to Berne, Switzerland, taking Ismat along with him. The move helped Ismat pursue higher studies abroad, getting formal training in foreign languages. She went to the University of Geneva, enrolled for the interpreters’ course to train to be an interpreter for the United Nations. She learnt French, German and English. “I was unable to complete the course since my uncle got transferred to Iraq,” she says. The move to Iraq brought in a new opportunity — she learnt Arabic at the University of Baghdad. She also lived in Egypt for three years and was the cultural attaché and Director of Maulana Abul Kalam Cultural Centre in Cairo. “I then got married (to Syed Latif Mehdi) and returned to Hyderabad, worked as a supervisor for the Arabic service of All India Radio. That was an exciting time since the Bangladesh war was on,” she adds.
Meanwhile, her academic pursuits continued with a doctoral thesis at the Osmania University. Over the years, she taught foreign languages at Women’s College, Koti, Centre for English and Foreign Languages (former EFLU) and the Arts College, Osmania University. Though she likes to call herself ‘retired’ now, she is far from leading a laidback life. Attending seminars and conferences related to Arabic, being involved in activities of Sarvodaya International Trust and partaking in a gamut of activities for Save the Rocks society, Friends of Golconda and other organisations keep her on her toes. “It’s nice to be retired,” she laughs, “It gives me more time to do things I love the most,” she says, mentioning being part of a Sufi conference in Algeria that explored the connection between Algeria and Deccan, the Bidar region in particular. “Sufism went through a period of decadence before seeing revival. World over, people are learning that Sufi is the answer to violence and poets like Rumi are bestselling even in the US,” she mentions.
Taking a sip of freshly brewed tea, she looks at the Durgam Cheruvu and the topic shifts to her other passion, heritage. Banjara Bhavan, built by her father-in-law Nawab Mehdi Nawaz Jung (the first Municipal Commissioner of Hyderabad), was one of the first houses to come up in the area. “Back then, there were just 18-20 houses all over Banjara and Jubilee hills. The houses had no compounds; panthers used to come and take the dogs away…” she trails off, as memories come flooding.
She rues the lopsided development that Banjara and Jubilee hills have witnessed in the recent years, destroying rocks and lakes. “Do we even know how many lakes the city originally had? Durgam Cheruvu supplied drinking water to the erstwhile Golconda. There were a cluster of lakes and by gradient, the water flowed into Golconda Fort,” she says.
In the larger perspective, she feels cities are losing their distinct identities as urban architecture makes cities look similar. “There has to be a blend of old and new keeping in mind the city’s architecture. The metro rail will end up dwarfing the architectural beauty of the Legislative Assembly, Ravindra Bharati and adjacent structures for example. And we haven’t done enough to save heritage structures. I had visited University of Pavia for a lecture and was amazed at how they have preserved the facade that dates back to 11th century, while the interiors have modern amenities. We have to go a long way,” she signs off.
A force more powerful
The Sarvodaya International Trust was started with its headquarters in Bangalore in 1995, with an eminent team of trustees from all over the world. The AP chapter came into being in June 1999.
The octagon logo represents eight faiths — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. The panel has two members representing each faith.
The AP chapter conducts activities all round the year involving school children in quiz, writings, plays, bhajans and screening special films on Gandhi.
The major activities of the organisation are conducted on October 2 (Gandhi Jayanthi), January 30 (Gandhi Nirvana Diwas) and on February 2 at Bapu Ghat to mark the day when Gyan Kumari Heda immersed Bapu’s ashes at Musi sangham.
Soon, the Trust plans to take Gandhi clubs to more number of schools in the city.
Scars of Partition
This year, on October 2, the Trust conducted a host of activities including hosting Khader Khan’s play Eshwar Allah Tero Naam, directed by Rammohan Holagundi of Nishumbita theatre group. The play is set in times of Partition, in a lunatic asylum and attempts to mirror the society through four men belonging to four different faiths.