In Salma Ahmed’s story of tumult and triumph, Anjana Rajan finds wisdom distilled through a life of uncommon struggle
Salma Ahmed’s reputation precedes her. As the first woman entrepreneur of Pakistan, as the founder and CEO of that country’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And more recently, as the author of an unsettling autobiography, “Cutting Free”. Launched by Roli in New Delhi this week, the book, subtitled “The Extraordinary Memoir of a Pakistani Woman”, makes unsettling reading. Now in her late 60s, the author has laid bare the story of a life that began in a privileged U.P. home before partition, continued thereafter in elite Pakistan society, and then, after only 16 years, dealt Salma the first of many blows.
Fall and rise
By the time she was 22 she was into her third abusive marriage and had three children. Suicide attempts, bitter tears, and then the indomitable spirit seems to rise again. She is partying, hobnobbing with the family of the Shah of Iran, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. She learns the ropes of starting an industry from scratch and rises to be recognised as the most successful woman industrialist of the country.
But all the while there is an underlying current in her life of pain and fear. It scalds the imagination to know that a woman who has successfully taken on the male bastion of entrepreneurship should attempt to arrange for a girl to satisfy her husband and bear him a son, knowing that otherwise he will take another wife. To write it all must have been scalding too.
“I have noticed a lot of people have commented on the candidness of my book. I’ve read lots of autobiographies with nothing to say. You don’t want to read just descriptions,” she comments.
Her admitted rebellious streak must have given her strength, but extreme youth was a disadvantage. “Perhaps, if I relived my life I might not have taken some of the steps I did. The most difficult part is the three marriages. But I don’t want to live them down.” She lays stress on learning and understanding, rather than making excuses.
She is the quintessence of one who has lived to tell the tale, and tells it with zest. Poised, peaceful, smiling, she has rushed and got a designer sari to wear specially for the book launch. “So much like a woman,” she laughs, describing her strict instructions to the tailor to stitch the blouse overnight.
“I’m very glad they’re having the launch in India. The reading habit is still there, and it is spreading quite rapidly. Otherwise I think the habit of reading is dying out.”
A frequent visitor to India, with many relatives here, she recognises the affinity between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as a natural fact. “I buy almost every book written by an Indian author, especially an authoress,” she remarks. “Basically I think writers of today are very interesting to read because you have a sense of belonging.”
It was her mother who ingrained in her daughters the idea of financial independence. “I think every woman feels bad to take money from a man. It is not a lene wallah haath,” she says. Significantly, she says, “We can’t change society and we can’t change women. Women have to change themselves.”
That is why she opened the Women’s Chamber. “By opening a women’s chamber we don’t mean segregation. We need autonomy. This is being felt in Bangladesh and in India and in Pakistan.”
Speaking about her tumultuous life, she says, “It has been fun and also something of an ordeal.”
Her frequent references to portents, astrology and the signs of the zodiac make one wonder if they are literary allusions or said tongue-in-cheek. “It’s literally so,” she states. “I’m very interested in astrology. My zodiac sign is the reason I married three times and my relationship with the Prime Minister came to nought. This trait came to me from my father.”
How does one sum up Salma Ahmed? Perhaps, her own words serve best. “I write as I speak. I was not two people saying one thing and doing something else.” There is something else too. “I think,” Indira Salma Ahmed points out, “I am the only person in Pakistan named after Indira Gandhi.