Somewhere towards the end of the first decade of this century, I came upon a review, in the pages of Dawn, of a book I knew I must read. It was called Nasheb-o-Faraz [Highs and Lows].
It took me several months to find it in a distant suburban library; in the middle of other tasks, I spent days of utter and occasional nail-biting delight immersed in this story — part family saga and part thriller with a romantic heroine, three funny detectives adept at disguising themselves, a villainous vamp and scenes shifting from Bombay’s [Mumbai’s] high life during colonial times to a far more traditional Agra.
I had never read anything quite like it before in any language, and if it occasionally reminded me of Agatha Christie, I soon realised that all such echoes were entirely coincidental, as Ms Christie wasn’t writing at the time that Bint-i-Fatima Naqviyya — the pseudonym the author of this beguiling novel had used — wrote her book.
A brief, personal essay included in the book revealed that the author — a young woman from a highly cultured Badayun family — had written several other works; they had all remained unpublished. She also mentioned that she and her sisters had edited a handwritten journal of poems, stories, anecdotes and literary titbits, which was passed on from hand to hand and posted from city to city in early 20th century India.
Tantalisingly, we didn’t learn what became of that author in later life. Since Nasheb-o-Faraz was included in a series called Gumshuda Tehreeren [Lost Manuscripts] curated by Ushba Books, I could only hope that more lost works by her were forthcoming.
But it wasn’t until 2017 when, in the best fictional manner, a manuscript of another novel by BFN was delivered to the doorway of my cousin’s Karachi residence, the night before I left for London, along with a handsome volume composed of sections of the journal Gulzar-i-Chaman [The Flowering Garden] that BFN had written with her cousins.
I read all night and was halfway through it on the plane home. Phoolon Ka Haar [The Flower Garland] was another mystery story, with the same comic elements and delight in skulduggery and disguises as Nasheb, but it was a tauter work, darker, tighter and quite a bit shorter.
A week before, I had met the novel’s publisher, Shahbano Alvi, by happenstance at a book fair in Islamabad. We were going to share a platform to discuss a book by Zahida Hina. Somehow, I brought up the subject of Nasheb, and she admitted, with shy pride, that she had published not only that, but two companion volumes, including excerpts of the journal, and promised to send me that as well as the unpublished novel before I left for England.
But when I came back to London, I somehow lost the manuscript, and Shahbano’s copy mysteriously disappeared from her computer. It was to be a couple of years before she resumed work on it, after having it retyped. By then, she’d published one of my books; we’d had several conversations about the very talented family of women whose works she was still rediscovering.
I was also fascinated to learn that BFN had spent the last three decades of her life in Karachi. Hadn’t she ever written anything about this life? I asked. Shahbano remembered that she had, but it wasn’t long enough to publish on its own. I suggested we read the manuscript carefully and see whether the detective story — which was actually novella-length — could be published along with the memoir, if it had any literary or historical merit, in one volume.
The memoir, Harf-i-Aakhir [The Last Word], was a revelation. In merely 60 pages, the author had chronicled not only her own life and her narrow, winding path as a writer, but the circumstances of her sisters and her brothers, the cultures and traditions of a Syed family in Badayun and the Usmani and Siddiqi families into which they married, and the peripatetic lifestyle of government officials, which took them from city to city in Northern India.
Much of the memoir unfolds in and around Gwalior, a town where I often visited my aunt and cousins as a child and adolescent. Shahbano was delighted to hear how well I knew the names of small places — Morena and Shivpuri — and the topography of a region (Madhya Pradesh) that seems totally alien to many Pakistanis.
I recognised the places with a sense of near nostalgia, and could identify also the names of Maratha families connected with the Gwalior court, as I had played with their children during my holidays there. A connection to Pakistan also emerged in BFN’s story, as we learned how two of her sisters had married intellectuals with roots in Punjab, and inevitably chose to move to their husbands’ new homeland after Partition, to put down fresh and abiding roots in Pakistan.
Poignantly, BFN doesn’t begin with the past, but with her arrival in Karachi at the age of 65, and her gratitude for having reached her new homeland, where she spent the rest of her life — until 1980 — as one of the matriarchs of two generations of a highly educated family. The memoir winds down on a note of death and grief; we are reminded how short the lives of people could be just a century ago. BFN’s husband died in 1932 and, even 20 years later when she wrote the memoir, we can sense the sorrow that underlines her quiet pride in the achievements of her sons and daughter.
Now, 70 years later, we are reminded, with the juxtaposition of a picaresque novel and a nuanced memoir in one volume, how many treasures are concealed in this city of ours. As we celebrate the work of younger writers, we can look back with pride at the literary gifts the many incomers to this city of ours — Atiya Fyzee, Zaibunnisa Hamidullah, Ada Jafri, Ghulam Abbas, Shafi Aqeel to name just a few — brought to us from distant corners of the Subcontinent. We can add the enthralling storyteller Bint-i-Fatima Naqviyya’s name to this illustrious list.
The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 14th, 2021