Magazine and the Little Girl
(A tribute to Begum)
old was I then -- maybe eight or ten. One late weekday afternoon,
my father, no sooner had he entered through the gate of the
bungalow swinging a box of sweets from Taj Bakery, started
singing "tomar mayer kobita chheppeychhey"
in his gruff, melodious, yet exuberant voice. What kobita?
What chhapa-chhapi? What big feat had our Umm achieved
that my father came home from work to celebrate the occasion?
My brother and I skipped around our father more with the interest
of catching the barfi box, than what had been printed.
was in the early sixties. Our family of four had been living
in this obsessively manicured area in Pakistan where there
was no dearth of Punjabi and Pathan neighbours and school
friends. We (the family) were voracious readers and I guess
that made the postman very happy. He could always count on
his baksheesh of do anney or chawanni
or even an athanni for his niswar or lassi
every time he delivered books and magazines to our house.
One such delivery always assured him of his do anney
and later, 12 paisa. The package always came marked
"bookpost". It was a neatly twice-folded, slender
newsprint package, secured by a brown paper band with the
name and address of my mother. It came regularly. Umm practically
lived for it. The little book posted package had occupied
a very significant place in my mother's life. On top of everything,
she revered it as her life line with Bangladesh -- a name
every Bangali East Pakistani used to refer to their part of
the two-winged country even in those days -- "amader
Bangladeshey…" was a common speak among the
Bangali East Pakistanis.
house used to be littered with English and Urdu magazines
but there was only one Bangla magazine. This magazine occupied
the prime visible place in the drawing room on Umm's insistence.
Perhaps to bear on the guests that there is more to a Bangali
than rice,fish, sari and spoken Bangla. Umm was very possessive
about Begum-- her look of 'go-and-get your-own Begum'
to other Bangali ladies was quite famous. Begum slowly crept
into our lives and silently became a part of our living. My
brother and I had no patience with Bangla as we were already
groping with English, Urdu and Arabic, plus street Punjabi,
Pukhtu and working Kashmiri. And of course math. The only
Bangla I said I could read, if you call it reading, was the
word "Begum". The big, beautiful lettered word "Begum".
had "Begum days". The day she read the new issue
and the day she read it all over again. Umm whipped up fish,
vegetable and sweet dishes from the Begum recipes.
She was not quite a master cook in those days. We bore her
experiments with Begum recipes with brave smiles.
Since neither my brother and I looked forward to eating fish
or veggies any day, new recipes from Umm's beloved source
were hardly welcome. Father was altogether a different story.
He used to get so excited the day mother announced she would
be having a Begum dish that he got to the dining table before
it was set for meals. We always had Begum dishes for dinner
as mother wanted everyone present -- like paying tribute to
the dish. My brother and I had terms like 'cooking Begum',
'Begumi size', 'Begum party', 'what a Begum idea', etc, with
which we teased Umm. We had family Begum hour when Umm used
to make all three of us, including father, sit on the drawing
room carpet and recite poems from the magazine. Two among
the audience were hardly ever in a position to appreciate
the literary pieces, but our parents were adamant. They staunchly
believed that such family ashors were necessary to immerse
children into Bangali emotionality and its rich literary heritage.
learnt about Begum Rokeya Sakhawat and Begum Sufia Kamal (Umm's
favourite poet) from these Begum ashors and with
eager help from Umm, once wrote a school essay on "My
Ideal Person" anchoring on Begum Rokeya. I am sure if
I had anchored on Fatima Jinnah like all the other girls except
my best friend Qaisera, I would have got an A too. Qaisera
wrote on Razia Sultan. Both of us got a B. But we were very
proud and felt intellectually superior that we had acquired
knowledge about women of substance beyond Jinnah.
tabloid-size of Begum became a tangible piece of
pride for us. Urdu magazines like Shama, Hoor and Zebunnissa
that my Auntie Thoraiya, Auntie Qadeer and Auntie Awaan read,
were magazine size. All these ladies and Umm used to have
afternoons out at one or the other's place where they relaxed,
read their favourite magazines and drank tall glasses of anar
(pomegranate) sherbet or muggas of green
tea as their mood would take. Begum's size, subconsciously,
gave the others a complex. Aunti Qadeer had remarked once,
"O jee, saddey iththey bi vaddey size dey risaley
paeen jaandey ney." (Oh yes, you can also find large
sized magazine here). Promptly from the following week, an
Islamic magazine Qandeel, appeared among the ladies' selection
of magazines -- more to flash its size than to be read. Umm
could only smile in triumph. But then, the ladies listened
to the stories from the Begum in Umm's punj'du,
tried out the recipes together and also the embroidery designs.
had great interest in Begum as far as the cover picture and
pictures of newlyweds were concerned. I had a brown paper
scrapbook for the cover pictures I liked. Qaisera and I used
to pore over the pictures of the couples and register our
opinions as a game. So we had the Begum game too -- "chalo,
Begum-Begum khelain"-- as to whose choice of the
picture -- groom would win the coin toss. The treasured scrapbook
was among all the things in the family we lost during 1971
must have inspired Umm some way or the other, to tweak her
own feelings. Umm scribbled verses on pieces of paper, on
paper boxes, and white edges of Pakistan Times newspaper as
and when her spontaneous powerful feelings overflowed. And
that could have been any time of the day. When she got free
time from her chores, she assembled and shaped her verses
into poems. Sugrabi, the housemaid used to get very impatient
and mutter her annoyance in unintelligible Punjabi when Umm
made her wait after she finished her duty, only to write down
her flowing feelings on paper. My father loved my mother a
bit too much. He literally nagged her into getting her poems
to Begum. My brother and I got a feeling that our
Umm would become a grand personality in a distant land once
they got published.
of Umm's poems got printed in the Begum issue which
was delivered one afternoon of late northern Pakistan autumn.
So there were the barfi sweets.
beaming face, her nervous excitement, my father's exuberance
that evening with other Bangalis at the big people's ashor
where Umm, in her Madhubala hairdo and hoop earrings recited
her poems holding the Begum, the sort of envy in
the eyes of other Bangali ladies present, smothered Umm in
an aura of a star personality. I was sure Umm had acquired
the status of a film star and that needed to be announced
to the world -- at least to my class.
Monday, I stole the precious Begum issue to school. Qaisera
thought it wasn't a great idea at all to boast about parents
at school. I went ahead with my mission. During the Nature
Study period our Class Sister, helped by Abdul Wadood was
showing how it was possible to pass a boiled egg through the
neck of a bottle. I broke everybody's rapt attention by telling
Sister De Britto that I had a very important announcement
to make. She smiled and gave me the go ahead. I opened the
<>Begum<> magazine, showed the page containing
Umm's poems and told the class my Umm was a famous star who
wrote poems. There was complete silence and the class gave
me idiotic stares. Sister DeBritto asked everyone to clap
for Umm, which all the children obeyed.
was then asked to read the poems. Read them? How? Qaisera
was right, it was not such a great idea after all. During
recess, class girls wanted to see the magazine with strange
alphabets. I only read them the magazine's name -- Begum.
Shehwar asked me "Eeay khahan Bangaali hai, eeay
to hindi hai. Baatein banati ho. Naam to begum hai, kia Dhakey
mey mussalman hain-tum to ho na?" (This is not Bangla;
this is Hindi. Just your tall talks. The name is Begum but
are there mussalmans in Dhaka -- are you one?) Suddenly, something
broke inside me. I felt very lonely among all who had been
my friends. We have been together since 1954, but now they
seemed strangers who questioned my particular state of being.
Did I really know? Why did I need to know -- no one asked
Inkesaar whether there was a Mussalman identity problem in
Dera Ismail Khan? Little did I know at that age that Begum
magazine was playing a significant role for the advancement
of Bangali Muslim women. Qaisera and Rubina took my hand and
was a strange awakening in me. From Umm, I learned to draw
my name in Bangla. I then drew it prominently on my class
work drawing copy and moral science copy. At the next Begum
hour at home, I sat beside Umm and insisted that she read
something interesting to me besides verses. I grew up and
till I learned to read Bangla the proper way, Umm read me
pieces from Begum.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005