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COLUMN: THE WOMEN OF BLOCK 2

August 05, 2018

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When Shahbano Alvi, my friend and the publisher of my forthcoming book, asked me to give the first of a series of talks she planned to hold at her new bookshop, The Silent Reed, I suggested that instead of a routine discussion of my life and works, we bring together a group of artists (in the wider sense) and journalists to discuss the influence of Karachi, the city we had in common, on our work and practice.

About a dozen of us gathered that July evening. But our conversation spun off in an entirely unexpected direction: our audience was keen to discuss its present fears and future hopes. Looking back at how the city had affected our imagination and our aesthetic remained in the shadowlands of our dynamic, sometimes diffuse conversation.

But a recurrent motif was evident in some our interventions: the continuous presence, over at least three generations, of women in all walks of Karachi’s arts and letters. Asif Farrukhi mentioned the multi-talented Amina Nazli, best known as the editor of the literary journal Ismat and also renowned for her very popular compilations of recipes, whose long career spanned the years from the Raj to the Zia era. Her underrated stories and plays have just been reissued in two volumes that include hitherto uncollected material. Shahbano herself — when her company, Ushba, began to publish a series of gumshuda tehreeren [lost writings] — came upon a family legacy of hidden gems written in the early years of the 20th century by the women of her grandmother’s family: poetry, essays and notably some delightfully wacky mysteries written by Binte Fatima Naqviya, the most prolific among these young women. Most of those talented sisters and cousins migrated to Pakistan, bringing with them their writings to be rediscovered and shared with the public by their descendants.

Such continuities of past and present are a constant part of my frequent visits to Karachi. When I first approached Shahbano’s office, for example, the street — in PECHS’s Block 2 — was familiar to me. Not only was it close to Block 6, where I grew up until the age of almost 13, but an aunt and a close family friend had lived there.

Sitting in the office, hunched over the proofs of my stories and mugs of tea, I was increasingly aware of a feeling of déjà vu, especially when I looked at the wall to my right and the branches that grew over it. Was there once a mango tree there? A tamarind? A patio? Shahbano patiently replied to my questions. But it was when I entered the house that I saw that the spaces around me — after half a century and several modifications — were rooms in which I had spent many childhood days.

I recalled how, in the late 1950s when I was a toddler, my father’s sister Mujeebunnissa Akram had, in a house not far away — accompanied by a small band of like-minded women (including the late Naushaba Burney) — started a glossy and heavily illustrated women’s magazine. Called Woman’s World, it covered culture and the arts, social activity and change, and, to a lesser extent, household and culinary matters. The magazine’s motive, I now realise, was to orient us within a culture that was at once eclectic and recognisably our own.

In the late 1950s a small band of women started a glossy and heavily illustrated women’s magazine. Called Woman’s World, it covered culture and the arts, social activity and change.

My aunt became a member of parliament in the early ’60s and her involvement in the magazine was passionate but often notional. The multi-talented Nurjehan Mirza, who painted, illustrated and wrote articles too, was the magazine’s guiding light. She was my mother’s closest friend; her children and we grew up together. We often watched her, in this house where she then lived, design and put together the dummy of the magazine, cutting and pasting manually in those pre-computer days of the mid-’60s and anonymously or pseudonymously contributing. We’d occasionally cut up our own film magazines to provide pictures for a film review. (She also baked us wonderful cakes.) One of her most interesting articles was an in-depth interview with the iconic singer-actress Madame Noorjehan, who announced that she was giving up acting after her second marriage. (I was amused by the coincidence of names, but more than that I became aware that, right here in Pakistan, we had our own stars to whom we should pay more attention.)

Nurjehan Mirza later also worked for the newly-founded She and its sister publications but, until she left Karachi in 1967 handing over its management to my teenaged sister Yasmine and my mother, she kept an eye on Woman’s World, training several young women in the craft of editing and magazine production in the near-decade she spent there.

As I watched Shahbano at work on the text of my book at her computer (in a place which I call her laboratory, as she writes, designs and paints too), I was reminded of a continuity across the years, of the multi-tasking and multi-talented women who worked on without thought of recognition, fame or posterity, while bringing up families at the same time. Luckily we are able to recover some of their work from family archives, but the prolific and pioneering output of others is lost in old trunks in old garages. Nurjehan Mirza died in 1980; I often think how fascinating it would be to trace the path of a crucial decade through the lens of her illustrations, articles and the paintings that she kept to herself, if we found and collected them.

A final anecdote brings me back to my theme of Karachi past and present and its impact on my imagination. I rang up Nurjehan Mirza’s younger daughter Mehreen Madani, whose family keeps up artistic traditions, to meet me at the office. At first she found it unfamiliar, and then, as we entered the living room, memories and images of her childhood home returned, to transport us to another, shared, time.

And in the house of one woman artist we became deeply aware of the abiding presence of another. She seemed, across the years, to be sending us her greetings and her benedictions.

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 5th, 2018