Woman behind a famous man
DOWN MEMORY LANE The world remembers Columbus, but not Isabella the Catholic during whose reign and through whose generosity the discovery of...
DOWN MEMORY LANE
The world remembers Columbus, but not Isabella the Catholic during whose reign and through whose generosity the discovery of America became possible. Yet the self-same world repeats that there is a woman behind every great man! That was the logic that had driven me in June 1997 to interview Bilkees I Latif, wife of Air Chief Marshal IH Latif (retired). I sat in the drawing room, wondering what she would look like and, more importantly, how the daughter of Nawab Ali Yavar Jung would treat a journalist attempting to interview her at her house in Banjara Hill in Hyderabad without prior appointment. In walked an attractive and extremely well-dressed woman with a sharp, pointed nose, a high forehead topped by slightly graying hair done back straight, and eyes that looked habitually pensive. She had a peculiar, dignified charm and winsomeness. Maybe encouraged by these natural endowments, I started with, what my notebook says, a wrong question. Since she was born and brought up in Hyderabad of the Nizam's days, she should be able to say what it was like to be a Muslim girl in those days. After all, far too many curbs, do's and don'ts tend to stultify the growth of human personality, don't they? Calculated to needle her, the questions evoked from the woman of gentle nurture and refined instincts a disarming smile. "Yes, there were plenty of restrictions on girls those days, but they were not stifling, as you seem to imagine. Yes, again, the purdah was very much there, but it was a way of life with most girls, so much so that not many resented it. Girls belonging to the upper strata of society, however, enjoyed greater freedom." There was no face-mottling attempt to buttress her claim. "Take my own case. I studied in Mahboobia girls school. But boys up to the age of 10 were allowed to study in it. There was no mixing of boys and girls, though. Indeed, co-education had never even been thought of. For instance, my paternal grandmother Tayyaba Begum had opened eight schools for girls; only two of them are functioning today, and one of them has a strength of 1,200 students," Bilkees said, and that looked like the first thread in the little skein that had begun to curl in and out of her thoughts as she sat facing me. "All teachers in Mahboobia School were women, even though most women were not career-oriented those days. But enlightened, what you have called liberated, women like Lady Hyderi, Sarojini Naidu and Tayyaba Begum were instrumental in the establishment of the Mahboobia Girls School with a grant from the Nizam and permission and grant from the Resident. Love of education seems to run in our family. My father's obsession with it is well known; even my paternal grandfather, Imadul Mulk Syed Husain Bilgrami, gifted away his all to colleges and universities. Lady Hyderi was asked to plan the Mahboobia Girls School, as also what is known to this day as the Lady Hyderi Club." Bilkees has a marvelous memory and a phenomenal imagination. She is tender and sympathetic, with the simplicity of a child and the dedication and dignity of the blue-blooded. A thinker, all right, but, more importantly, a woman of deep and sincere feeling, and it is probably the latter more than the former quality that has endeared her everywhere to the poor and the slum-dwellers who are seldom thinkers but whose emotions are strong and easily roused. Deliberately, she is sometimes more diffuse than profound, although she can be profound when she chooses to be. She has spoken less than many patricians but said more. Amid her seemingly careless profusion, it may not always be easy for one to tell the grain from the chaff; but one does not want it to stick in the gullet of the poor; one should plant the grain carefully under the chaff. Suddenly, she remembers: "There was also Mrs. Nandy who joined others in obtaining permission for the school." Then Bilkees gets up to rearrange something which is not where it ought be. To her a loose end is like a botched-up bit of joinery to a cabinet-maker. She returns, resumes her seat and does a lot of quick thinking, to go by the way her lips waltz up and down with each other. "Somehow those days look different because of the outlook of the people. For example, when there were floods in the Musi River in 1908, both Lady Hyderi and Tayyaba Begum spent all their time on the bank, helping out the marooned and feeding them. Both of them were pregnant at that time"! Though the voice had the ring of girlish delight, dignity is a major component of her charm. "Of course, Muslim women observed purdah, but were active nevertheless. Ever heard of Zohra Humayun Mirza? She started a school for vocational training of girls. My mother-in-law was the State commissioner for girl guides, now known as Bharat Scouts and Guides." A happy by-blow of traditional Hyderabadi culture and modernity, Bilkees recalled: "My mother was French; she revived the Nirmal industry. Once she had gone to Adilabad and seen in a shop at Nirmal not only the famous toys but also a few specimens of gold-and-silver enameled work which, as the result of the use of a herbal mixture, preserved the purity of the metals and prevented them from losing their luster. My mother was told that only six artisans who could make it were around. MK Vellodi, who was next only to GN Chowdhary after the Police Action, saw the enamel works and asked my mother if she would help the revival of the art. The six craftsmen taught the craft to others, mainly through the effort of my mother. Today it is a flourishing cottage industry. Indeed my mother supervised the making of the Nirmal works which now adorn Rashtrapati Bhavan." Curiously enough, the narrative is uninflected. Bilkees was very young when she made the most momentous decisions of her life, such as, for example, that she would devote the best part of her life to social work, but her programme or aim was not callow. It soon drew on vast stores of vicarious experience in the longstanding traditions of Hyderabadi nobility. But such a vision could have sprung only from a soul that perceived in the labours of men a hymn to God. Even before her husband became Air Chief Marshal, she had got to work on improving the management of Air Force schools and the morale of their staff. She fought for a promotion policy in those schools and thus saved from demoralization those who could not be promoted for want of vacancies. Teachers realized that there were no vacancies but there was hope. All the same, it looks as though Bilkees came into her own after shifting to Mumbai, following her husband's appointment as Governor of Maharashtra shortly after retirement as Air Chief Marshal. Dharavi, known as the worst slum in Asia, and also many other slums soon came to regard her as an angel of mercy. Her social duties, which she has always looked upon as paramount, arise from the all-embracing charity that suffuses her soul. Very often they have brought far-from-easy sacrifices, but she has always lived up to her creed; to help the needy and to relieve the sick and the dying have seemed to her simple duties which she has cheerfully discharged. Her charity is liberal, not weak; her sympathy with suffering and her desire to improve the lot of the poor are so real and intense that the slums of Mumbai still look upon her as their savior. From 1974 to 1981 Bilkees was involved in flood relief work in UP, Orissa, Bihar, Delhi, and, of course, Andhra Pradesh, and also in projects for population control. From 1982 to 92 she was the chairperson of the Andhra Pradesh Central Social Welfare Advisory Board. In 1982 Bilkees became the founder-president of the Mumbai-based Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED, for short). This stint provided the ignition to a fuse that had already been laid. At the recollection of what she saw during her visits to the slums, a shudder ran through her and she pulled herself together visibly. She plunged herself into social work with total involvement. She got started extensive slum-dwellers' improvement projects in five major slums of Mumbai, including Dharavi, in seven villages and 18 tribal hamlets covering 12 lakh people, with extensive vocational training for more than 8,000 youths and women; more than 60,000 women and children were immunized and assured of Medicare as part of family welfare programme. Bilkees involved youths in these slums in fighting drugs; the number of addicts in Dharavi alone declined from seven per cent to 1.5%. Then communal riots broke out in Bhiwandi, and she arranged for the rehabilitation of 6,000 ruined families with household equipment and almost 400 families with self-help earning schemes. But that did not seem enough to her, for the sorrows of the dead seemed more real than the passionless games played by the living. "Death has no religion, and artificial death has still less of it," she said philosophically. But, then, life writes its story in tiny trails, delicate marks in sand washed away by the waves of Time. - MV