In equal measure

The creative dexterity of Faizi sisters remind one of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte

Published - March 17, 2017 01:35 am IST

ERUDITE WRITER Atiya Begum Faizi

ERUDITE WRITER Atiya Begum Faizi

Did the much-maligned patriarchal Muslim society in the later half of the 19th century produce three sisters whose creative oeuvre closely resembled with highly appreciated works of Bronte sisters?

Did Muslim women of yore, contrary to widely held perception of being mired in domestic skirmishes, surrender, sentimentality, posturing, compassion and entitlement also produce an alternative narrative of creativity and self-reliance? Did life of opulence thriving on family business not go deep in some of them who found living off others quite disgusting and loathsome? These questions fetch a definite yes and it is what the awe-inspiring accomplishments of three Faizi sisters. Eloquently articulate, born in an affluent family of Mumbai, three sisters Zehra Begum Faizi (1866 -1940), Nazli Rafi Faizi (1872-1968) and Atiya Begum Faizi ( 1877-1967) not only learnt Urdu, Persian English, Arabic, and Turkish but also developed a way with words. They got professional training in music, dance and painting and their creative dexterity expressed in Urdu and English with equal ease enthralled the literary giants of Urdu including Iqbal, Shibli and a plethora of equally eminent writers .

Sir Mohammed Iqbal

Sir Mohammed Iqbal

At a time when cultural ethos and social underpinnings did not permit any one to write to any female except close family members Iqbal and Shibli considered to be highly revered religious figures, notwithstanding their literary acumen, communicate with them frequently and Atiya got their maximum attention. A reputed scholar and researcher, Shams Baduni astutely edited Shibli’s letters to Atiya and Sahitya Akademi published “Khutoot-e Shibli” recently. It is the first collection of letters in Urdu that was addressed to a women who was not a relative of the person who wrote them. Faizi sisters’ writings, not widely known in literary circles, unfailingly reminds one of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte who peel many layers of ordinary life and each layer is simultaneously tender and searing.

Sensitive to insecurities

In his brilliantly written introduction, Shams Baduni points out that Atiya was the first Muslim lady who went to England on a government scholarship and she travelled across three continents and wrote extensively on Indian music and visited several European countries and the USA to delivers lectures on Indian dance and music. In 1907, she had an interaction with Iqbal and soon they became close to each other and a book, “Iqbal’s Letters to Atiya begum” was published in 1947. Her Urdu book “Zaman-e- tahseel” provides a vivid account of the time she spent in England. Her anecdotes make it clear that she was acutely sensitive to insecurities that an alien culture, no matter how captivating one found it, produces.

Despite centrality of religion to our life, it always betrays a slight air of dread and get our heads spun around. The comfortable space it supposed to create, can only be found in absences, in silences and in not knowing and it is what her book “Gardens” argues.

Shibli’s letters to Faizi sisters do reveal a streak of admiration but they also turn attention to all that cause unease and impel us to reject much touted sugary solution to life’s tough questions and they transcend the themes that they are supposed to explore. Instead the letters vividly create a subtle artful deviousness that leaves the reader awestruck. Shams Baduni’s painstakingly researched and detailed end notes and references make the edited version much more than a collection of letters. It has essentially become the most authentic testimony to an aspect of Muslim women that is not known at all and Sahitya Akademi rightfully deserves appreciation.

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