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To end the news, the headlines again: The life and times of Saeeda Bano

Rihan Najib | Updated on November 23, 2020

As it is: Bano’s book opens with an exacting portrait of upper-class Muslim society in Lucknow and Bhopal in the 1930s   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

The memoir of India’s first woman radio newsreader is a ringside view of the country’s political and social revolution

* Saeeda Bano, the first woman radio newsreader in India, was also known as the doyenne of Urdu broadcasting

* Bano’s carefree adolescence came to an end with her marriage at 17

* She was instrumental in assimilating the singer Begum Akhtar into the famously exclusive drawing rooms of the Lakhnavi elites

* Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life, originally written in Urdu, caused a stir after its publication in 1994

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Unorthodox lives invariably make riveting memoirs. It is no different in Saeeda Bano’s case. In her autobiography, Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life, she asks, “How can a person who has gone through such exciting trials in her life not write her story?”

Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life / Saeeda Bano; (Tr) Shahana Raza / Penguin Random House / Non-fiction / ₹499

 

As the first woman radio newsreader in India, who was also known as a doyenne of Urdu broadcasting, Bano has had a ringside view of the country’s social and political evolution. But she was no mere spectator to history, rather an active participant in it, constantly expanding the meanings of freedom in her own life as well as that of the women around her. Her memoir, originally published in 1994 in Urdu as Dagar Se Hat Kar, has now been translated into English by her granddaughter Shahana Raza. In the introduction to the book, Raza notes how ‘Bibi’, as Bano was addressed by everyone, was unlike most other grandmothers of that generation — intimidating yet affectionate, she drove a car, lived alone, and was “brutally frank”. True to Bano’s independent and candid nature, the book documents the life of a woman shaped entirely by the directives of her own mind.

The book opens with an exacting portrait of upper-class Muslim society in Lucknow and Bhopal in the 1930s. With unforgiving precision, she observes the social and architectural imprint of the purdah system. “Women were prisoners in their own home,” writes Bano, describing how women, across classes, were tethered to the endless monotony of domestic chores and invisible labour. It is reminiscent of Tamil writer Ambai’s storyA Kitchen in the Corner of the House, which also examines the ways in which architecture is influenced by gender norms. At the same time, Bano writes about the ‘tehzeeb’ or the etiquette of the purdah system, the respect and affection accorded to women, but only within the limits of the zenana. A woman leaving the security of such an environment was unheard of, but, as Bano notes, life had other plans for her.

After an idyllic childhood in the then princely state of Bhopal, a city known for being governed by women rulers for generations, Bano moves to Lucknow. “Obstinate, cheerful and mischievous”, in her own words, her carefree adolescence comes to an end with her marriage at 17 to Abbas Raza, a judge from a wealthy family.

The account of their troubled marriage is punctuated by elaborate descriptions of Lucknow high society. There is also a chapter on the legendary singer Begum Akhtar, and how Bano was instrumental in assimilating the singer — ostracised for her courtesan lineage — into the famously exclusive drawing rooms of the Lakhnavi elites.

A new voice: Bano secured a job at All India Radio as an Urdu newsreader; she moved to Delhi on Aug 10, 1947, days before India became an independent nation   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Despite Bano’s best efforts to keep her marriage alive, she is unable to bridge the gaps between their distinct and divergent personalities. “My husband liked me a lot. He also disliked me intensely,” she writes. Their eventual separation proves to be the turning point in Bano’s life. She applies for and secures a job at All India Radio as an Urdu newsreader. She moves to Delhi on August 10, 1947, just days before India becomes an independent nation.

Bano’s account of her life in Delhi takes on a somewhat breathless quality — given the turbulence of the time she lives through and her work in India’s premier radio station. The horrors of the Partition, which she experiences first-hand, are countered by Bano’s steadfast courage and grit.

The reader is treated to encounters with a veritable revolving door of famous personalities, from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Jawaharlal Nehru to Feroze Gandhi and MK Gandhi. But the one encounter that truly alters her life is with the barrister Nuruddin Ahmed, who is eventually elected mayor of Delhi thrice and also awarded the Padma Bhushan. Though Ahmed was married, his friendship with Bano evolves into an abiding love that lasts 25 years, a relationship Bano describes as a “continuous trial by fire”.

Like most memoirs, Off the Beaten Track is a book that can only be written at the end of one’s life, out of kindness for the people written about as well as the necessity to look at the past and its chapters from a distance. The book, in its Urdu original, caused a stir after its publication, but it mirrors the forthright nature of its creator — who writes about her life with the same integrity she lived it with.

Despite the arresting content of the memoir, it could have been edited better. There are several repetitions in the text and enough grammatical errors to make one wonder if one was reading the first draft.

In the preface, Bano writes about how the famous Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder reached out to her when word about her memoir got around. After reading the book, Hyder wrote Bano a single line of feedback — “it is readable”. It is certainly more than merely readable. It is a remarkable record of a woman who lived uncompromisingly and fearlessly, bending the world to her indomitable will.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on November 23, 2020
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