Reviews

‘Off the Beaten Track’ review: The right to make a choice

Society and patriarchal mindsets have often silenced women’s voices, but some have defied misogyny in a trailblazing manner. Bypassing stifling conventions, Saeeda Bano took the less travelled path and became the first Indian newsreader for All India Radio’s (AIR) Urdu service. Her delightful memoir, Off the Beaten Track, translated by her granddaughter Shahana Raza from the Urdu Dagar Se Hat Ke, captures the heart of Saeeda Bano’s journey.

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Liberal Bhopal

The memoir unravels Saeeda Bano’s personal saga and her forthright exploration of the socio-cultural landscape of pre and post-Independence India. Born in a middle class Muslim family of Bhopal, Saeeda Bano’s childhood was soaked in the liberal cultural values of the city that she treasured and embodied throughout her life. She writes that in Bhopal, “Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum was worried about the wellbeing of her female subjects and wanted to eradicate ignorance in their lives by making provisions for them to receive a proper education. She was also keen to liberate women from a life of social confinement.”

When her family moved to Lucknow, the young Saeeda found the atmosphere repressive for women initially. But things were changing there as well under British influence. Residents of the city were witness to the fact that the British gave immense importance to education. More schools opened for girls, and Saeeda took full advantage, choosing to live life on her own terms — “carefree, outspoken, daringly bold and extremely mischievous.”

In 1933, despite an emotional four-page letter to her father resisting wedlock, she was married off to Abbas Raza, a civil Judge from an affluent family of Lucknow. However, Saeeda always felt that her husband never respected her individuality, and their married life was scarred by their shared indifference. While in Lucknow she would listen to the radio and Begum Akhtar and wish her voice too could be heard on the air waves. Soon radio station officials were seeking out educated women to participate in discussions and debates. Saeeda got invites to narrate stories or compere discussions. Evenings would often be spent at Begum Akhtar’s home, an impeccable hostess.

Tumult in Delhi

When Saeeda’s husband left home in Lucknow to stay in Bhopal, she applied for an announcer’s job in AIR Delhi and got it, arriving in Delhi in August, 1947. She delivered her first news bulletin on August 13, quite a historic feat. Through the communal violence that erupted in Delhi, she was escorted to and from the studio by the police and was rostered to read the news only during the day. She writes a chilling account of the mayhem and recalls taking shelter with her son and other Muslim families at Rafi Ahmed Kidwai’s home. The lesson she wants everyone to remember is that “the only way to save ourselves from witnessing the destructive results of the seeds of hatred we have sown, is to not let these feelings grow roots.”

Filled with anecdotes — she was once invited to Teen Murti Bhavan by Jawaharal Nehru for tea and home-made brown bread — Saeeda Bano’s unconventional journey to be her own person sets an example for future generations. The lucid translation by Shahana Raza makes the book a joy to read.

Off the Beaten Track; Saeeda Bano, Translated by Shahana Raza, Zubaan/PRH, ₹499.

The reviewer teaches English at Jamia Millia Islamia University.


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