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The unassuming young woman made a lasting impact on the publishing world of Lahore a century ago | Photos from the book
The unassuming young woman made a lasting impact on the publishing world of Lahore a century ago | Photos from the book

Hers is almost a forgotten name now. It is hardly likely that general readers of today would recall her name or those of any of her publications, but Syeda Muhammadi Begum was the stuff legends are made of and she made a lasting impact on the burgeoning publishing world of Lahore around a century ago.

Muhammadi Begum was born in 1878 in Shahpur, a suburb of Delhi, and died six months after her 30th birthday in 1908. Yet in this brief span she managed to accomplish what many people are not able to do in much longer lifetimes. In her father’s home she was taught Urdu and memorised the Holy Quran. At 19 years of age she was married to Syed Mumtaz Ali, founder and owner of the Darul Ishaat publishing house in Lahore, who was nearly twice her age and had lost his first wife. Impressed with his young wife’s enthusiasm and talent, the gentleman taught her Arabic and Persian and engaged tutors to educate her in English, Hindi and mathematics.

Over the next decade, Muhammadi Begum went on to author 30 books for women and children, including Sharif Beti — about a woman who starts a school at home — and Safiya Begum, which is a cautionary tale about childhood engagements and marrying off daughters without their consent. In addition to her own writing, she worked closely with her husband to establish the popular weekly magazine Tehzeeb-i-Niswaan for women, one of the first of its kind, which did much to educate and inform women in their seclusion and published for 50 years. Naeem Tahir, the compiler of Syeda Muhammadi Begum Aur Un Ka Khandaan includes an extract from Gail Minault’s book Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India in which the American scholar and historian writes that “before her untimely death, Muhammadi Begum helped make Urdu journalism for women not only acceptable, but successful. She wrote voluminously: journal articles, novels, books of etiquette, housekeeping manuals and cookbooks.” No mean achievement, managing to fit all this in a short but eventful life.

Syeda Muhammadi Begum died at just 30 years of age, but managed to author more than 30 books for women and children in her short but eventful life

Details of Muhammadi Begum’s family background form the bulk of Tahir’s book. The family tree and photographs of family members add to the documentary value. The most interesting part is the biographical note penned by the late author’s sister, Syeda Ahmadi Begum. For reasons which have not been made clear, this is the first time this note has been published — even though it was written soon after the death of its subject. There are no skeletons in the cupboard or family disputes being aired. Perhaps the manuscript was not considered to have a high literary quality. In spite of this, there is a wealth of personal information.

There is some indication of sibling rivalry, but it is dealt with in a simple and natural manner and one can see genuine affection in the way this note has been written. However, while one can understand the style of the original being maintained and preserved, even old-fashioned spellings have been retained, such as the approach of joining some words such as ‘un ki’; this could have easily been avoided by tighter editing.

Syed Mumtaz Ali encouraged his young wife to learn English and Hindi and appointed her the editor of Tehzeeb-i-Niswaan, one of the first women’s magazines to be published in the subcontinent
Syed Mumtaz Ali encouraged his young wife to learn English and Hindi and appointed her the editor of Tehzeeb-i-Niswaan, one of the first women’s magazines to be published in the subcontinent

One gets a valuable glimpse of life and family relationships in the exchange of letters between Muhammadi Begum and her father. A gentleman of the old school, he writes a careful and highly practical letter to his daughter offering her advice as to how to adjust in the new household after her marriage. The daughter writes back respectfully and obediently. In the next section, there is useful information on her husband, Syed Mumtaz Ali, whose publishing house, Darul Ishaat, soon became a household name for the Urdu reading public of the day.

The couple had one son, writer Imtiaz Ali Taj, who was to gain early fame as the author of the 1922 play Anarkali which described the history-based but fictitious romance between a beautiful slave girl and the glorious Mughal emperor Akbar’s crown prince Jehangir. The play would go on to form the basis of the highly acclaimed Hindi film, Mughal-i-Azam, released in 1960. Taj married Hijab Ismail, a writer of delicate romances who also happened to be one of the first women in the subcontinent to get a licence for piloting an airplane. No shortage of accomplishments all around in this distinguished family, but this leaves us hankering for a fuller account through a family portrait. Surely this is a story worth knowing in more detail.

Tahir, who is directly related to Muhammadi Begum through his marriage to her granddaughter, has contributed an introduction which is given twice in the book, once in English and then in Urdu. This seems redundant, although Tahir says it is to help engage the interest of readers who can’t read Urdu. Notes from Haziqul Khairi, Tehseen Firaqi and Munnoo Bhai add to our understanding of Muhammadi Begum. Professor Firaqi mentions that he is in possession of some of her handwritten daily diaries and these certainly need to see the light of day before they are lost to oblivion. An article by a research scholar provides valuable insight into her life, and is followed by other extracts from already published material. Photographs and family memorabilia make up the remaining pages of the slim book.

What seems missing is the flavour of Muhammadi Begum’s own writing. It would have been useful if extracts from her works or selected portions from the wide range of her writings had been added, especially as most of her books are now out of print and have disappeared from the scene. Perhaps such a selection can be made in the future as this should not be the end of researched work on this amazing woman; it deserves to be followed by further research.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer who teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Syeda Muhammadi Begum
Aur Un Ka Khandaan
By Naeem Tahir
Sange-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693531411

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 16th, 2018