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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Attia Hosain (and others): Memories

On the 23rd January, 1998, Attia (my Baaji Jania) passed away.
This year is her 100th birthday.

Attia Hosain was my ideal person since I was a child. She lived in England soon after the Partition of India in 1947, although she did visit Pakistan and India sometimes to meet her extended family.

Baaji Jania (BJ) was married to her maternal cousin, Ali Bahadur ‘Sonny’ Habibullah, much to the ‘disappointment’ of both sides of the family as we were often told. (Her son, Waris, a director of plays and films, was in the USA but came to London when BJ was ill. Shama, her daughter, lives in Mumbai but was also with her in London during her last days.)

She was the daughter of my mother’s cousin, Nisar Fatima. Her father was Shahid Husain Kidwai. She was named Attia by my daadi who was a great friend of Atia Faizi, the author, traveller, and one greatly fond of Western and Eastern classical music. Among a book I have autographed by her, Sangit of India (by Atiya Begum), is one of my prized possessions. It was given to me by my father's chacha (whose picture you will see at nearly the end of this article).

The third child, BJ was of a darkish complexion while her two older sisters (Zakia and Razia) were a lot fairer. A line that my father's cousin Mahjabeen (who used to tell all of us loads of family stories whenever she came to Karachi) told me that was repeated by Attia's older female relatives at the time of her birth: "Lo, ho chali Nisar kay lak∂ee jalee huee" (= "See, Nisar has given birth to a smothered piece of wood"). But dear old BJ grew up to be not only wonderful and elegant, she became a delightfully good looking woman.

I remember meeting BJ the first time when she came to Pakistan and visited my parents. She had published two books, Phoenix Fled (a collection of short stories) and Sunlight on a Broken Column (a novel). Sunlight had a character called Baba Jan that was partly adapted from my naana.

My father, who was extremely fond of BJ, kept asking her to write more short stories and have them published, but nothing ever came out. We did hear her speak on the BBC and listened to her ‘Urdu’ Shakespeare which was ably translated by my cousin, Siddiq Ahmad Siddiqui, who died so young.
Chhotay Bhaisahab is what I called Siddique Bhai. Always came to Karachi with wonderful gifts for me, including a cricket game that we played on the table everyday. I wish I could remember the name of the game: it had fielders and a bat that had to be pulled by a string. I lost it years ago when we shifted our house, along with all my comics! People heard his voice reciting pieces from the Qur'an when Jinnah Sahab's funeral was taking place and he was narrating the scene as it happened. Yes … he was a Hafizé Qur'an and a strong Atheist!
With BJ's centenary approaching, it was recently that author Aamer Husain and Attia’s daughter, Shama Habibullah, have added her new and selected fiction (Distant Traveller, published by women unlimited) in India. And what a lovely book it turned out to be. Reading Shama’s foreword brought back so many memories.

I had reached London for the first time and phoned BJ. She was extremely excited to hear I was there and called me over right away. I took her address and got on the Tube Train to get there. Sitting opposite me was a delightful girl, reading a rather large History book. I was stumped by her looks (well, at 18 you always are, anyway — but she was gorgeous!) and kept glancing at her every now and then over the copy of my newspaper. She looked at me just once and then went back to her book. Damn! I got off at a stop earlier than I had planned and wandered on the road, looking at beautiful cafés. In a little while I reached BJ’s door. Rang the bell. And … oops! It was opened by that wonderful girl. She asked me why I was there and I said, "I had come to see Attia Hosain … but maybe this is the wrong house”. She said, “Oh, really?” … and called her mother. BJ came out, hugged me and introduced me to her daughter.

Shama and I celebrating my birthday at the Chelsea house.

(Shama and I got along marvellously and are great friends now. This is the first time, though, that she’ll know how I first met her when she reads this blog.)

In 1965, when I was on the “m.v. Shams” as a Second Mate, Pakistan and India began a war and the ship was asked to get to Colombo and stay there. Enver Murad, was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Capt. Karim, the ship’s Master, phoned him and said he’d send me with the ship’s papers to visit him. 

Second Mate on "m.v. Shams"

When he mentioned my name, the High Commissioner said he knew me well because my cousin's husband, Usman Ansari, was a classmate of his and he had met me twice with him. Usman Bhai (or Bhaisahab, as I called him), was my favourite cousin-in-law. He was the Press Secretary to Quaid-e-Azam M. A. Jinnah at one point, and was disliked by many in the 'pro-Pakistan' part of the family because he once said at a family dinner: “Jinnah Sahab spoke brilliantly but wrote English badly.”

Usman Ansari

I got this book from Bhaisahab while discussing Jinnah Sahab and the Partition, when I visited him in London. He came to Karachi, soon, and passed away.

Jinnah Sahab deciding Pakistan Day?

I went to see Enver Bhai and as soon as I entered he said, “Have you had a word with your cousin, Reshad Husain?” (Reshad Bhai was the High Commissioner of India to Ceylon and was BJ’s younger brother.) He added, “He’s probably been told by India that Peshawar has been hit badly. Please call him once you get outside and tell him his younger brother, Fawad, is ok. Tell Attia, too. She's here. I’ve just got word. He must be worried. I can’t call him.”

Fawad Shahid Hussain

Fawad Bhai — the youngest of BJ’s siblings and one who also died young — was a brilliant senior pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Then there was was also the fact that Sonny Bhai’s older brother, BJ’s elder brother-in-law, Maj. Gen’l. Enayat Habibullah, was heading the Indian Forces in their attacks on Pakistan. What a strange partitioned family this was!

BJ answered my call at Reshad Bhai's house and came to meet me at the lovely Galle Face Hotel. We met there everyday for the next few days and walked everywhere, generally talking about the stupid war. We had to fix a time as I could not call Reshad Bhai’s house again because his wife, Asif, thought that a Pakistani calling at this time would be ‘suspect’. Asif Bhabi was the daughter of Miañ Fazlé Hussain, a classmate of Allama Mohammad Iqbal in their BA years. I once lectured, as a student, at a hall named Fazlé Hussain Theatre at the Government College, Lahore.

I saw Baaji Jania very often in London, meeting authors, actors, and many people from the BBC at her place. Re-meeting Waris was fun; we'd only met as kids once. We discussed his plays and I met some of his acting friends. I also visited BJ with my wife (also a cousin of BJ) when Sonny Bhai was in the Chelsea house, slowly dying with cancer. We chatted and talked about everything, from family to friends, while Sonny Bhai watched the horse races on their TV, smiling away as he always did. In fact we even went to visit 'Daddy' (my father's chacha, Sarwar Ali) at his house near Richmond Park one day and he gave me that utterly delicious book of Atiya Begum.

Sonny Bhai, Nuzhat, Daddy, Baaji Jania

Baaji Jania was full of wit — acerbic and otherwise — and had tons of wisdom in the smallest sentences that she spoke or wrote. She sent several letters to me and I sometimes still read a few of them. Her family life had become very troubled, even more after Sonny Bhai’s death, and her letters very often focussed on that. But I really miss her conversation and wish I could have spent much more time with her than I did.


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Blogger Zakintosh said...

A comment on 'The Chaatgaam Poets' blog copied here for those who read this post …

@Joychaser said...

hello, i came here via a tehelka blog on attia hosain, which i was looking up just to see what kinds of nonacademic biographical information was available online. i am SO glad to have found it! i'm trying to dissertate on muslim women's literary representations of the zenana and the ways in which they participated in anticolonial political activity while negotiating purdah in the 30s and the 40s. how did they imagine new decolonised states? so much has been written about partition narratives that it's become this self-sustaining cottage industry, but somehow i couldn't find too many sources on what 'elite' women from 'feudal' families were thinking, how these families were affected by the regime change. most of the partition historiography effectively overshadows the 30s and 40s and even 1947 is all about violence around border areas, riots, trains, mutilated bodies, women's abductions, and their eventual rehabilitation procedures. everything preceding all of this is a hunt for possible causes, which is a tiresome way of looking at history, i think.

i read sunlight on a broken column, mumtaz shahnawaz's the heart divided and khadija mastur's aangan (in english translation as inner courtyard, because i still can barely read urdu, but one day i WILL) one after the other trying to find other representations of that time, and especially, representations of the particular kind of homes and family structures of that period, and i have to say, i fell in love with each. and i was kid of surprised when i couldn't find much academic writing on these novels, especially when compared to, say, something like bapsi sidhwa's ice candy man.

and even most the academic writing i've found, perhaps with the exception of muneeza shamsie's pieces (perhaps because she is also related to attia hosain), pales in comparison with your stories of attia hosain. it's difficult to get people excited about a project like mine, sitting in a small provincial university town in north-eastern US, and even more difficult to have conversations with people about that time period, those remarkable women who'd broken with so much tradition, witnessed such upheaval, and faced it all with such grace in their lives.

so basically i just wanted to say thanks. =)

12 March, 2013 07:59

12 March, 2013 09:06

Blogger Joychaser said...

whoops! sorry for posting on the wrong blog!

12 March, 2013 10:17

Anonymous Haris said...

Adam, I am looking for Shama Habibullah's email id. Can you please help me ?

12 August, 2017 22:51


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