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     Volume 4 Issue 43 | April 22, 2005 |

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The Magazine and the Little Girl
(A tribute to Begum)

Perween Rasheed

How 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.

This 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.

Our 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".

Umm 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.

I 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.

The 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.

I 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 in Khulna.

Begum 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.

Two 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.

Umm's 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.

The following 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.

I 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 held it.

There 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.

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