A conversation between the Indian and Pakistani authors of The Begum, Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub
Dear Tahmina, writing this book has been an amazing process of discovery for me and I’m sure for you too. I had heard a lot about Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan while growing up in the small town of Almora in Kumaon. Her name was mentioned in awestruck tones—the fact that this local girl, Irene Pant, had married Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan and after his death, served as ambassador to different countries and been the governor of a province was the stuff of legends. My father was close to her younger brother Norman Pant so there was a connection with her family, which created a personal interest in me. However, since she never visited her home town after marrying Liaquat Ali Khan in 1933 and left for Pakistan in 1947 my image of her was hazy and distant. When the idea of her biography came up, I felt it would be a fascinating to find out how she had travelled so far from her birthplace. The events of her life convinced me that she was a woman whose story needed to be told. What was the source of your interest in Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Tahmina, this woman who played an significant role in sub-continental history, but is unknown in India and almost forgotten in Pakistan today?
Deepa dear, first of all I must share with you my delight at the choice of the words for describing this joint blog of ours, “Rediscovering Shared History”. Yes, and this is precisely the reason for my spontaneous response in accepting this writing cum research project when it was offered to me by Namita Gokhale in August 2016 during our meeting in Thimpu at the Mountain Echoes, Bhutan’s Lit Fest.
We here in Pakistan had heard about the achievements of this great lady in so many fields and yet we knew so little about her roots and her early life in India. So for the first time this biography would manage to bring to light so many of those facets of her life which helped to shape her personality and prepare her for the tests of time she was to face in her later years.
The other aspect that made me wake up to the need for this biography was the fact, as you rightly pointed out, that many people of the present generation had mostly forgotten about the unusual and amazing story of this great lady and more so the trials and tribulations she had to face and soon after their arrival here, especially when she was to lose her husband to an assassin’s bullet.
The freedom movement was a long drawn out struggle, which ended in the Partition of India and Pakistan. While researching the life of Begum Ra’ana I uncovered many facts that I had only been superficially acquainted with. For example, the history of the Muslim League and Liaquat Ali Khan and Ra’ana’s contribution to its revival and growth and their relationship with Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Also, the undercurrents among the political parties that led to the formation of separate countries and the role World War II played in bringing freedom from colonial rule. Your research must have led you through the growing pains of a new nation and the movement for women’s emancipation to which Ra’ana made a huge contribution. You also discovered the extraordinary personality of a woman who was determined to soldier on against all odds. What have you taken away from the experience of writing this book?
Yes, my primary take away from this experience of charting her life’s journey that it was no easy task that she fulfilled all that she had decided to undertake. It was obvious that she was no ordinary woman but one who had always a goal ahead that she was to focus on which took her far beyond the confines of her own personal existence. She left no stone unturned and allowed nothing to stand in her way in order to fulfil the mission she had started, along with her husband right from the early years of her marriage to him. She was indeed a unique personality and stands tall even today among the pantheon of leaders of Pakistan’s history.
For me one of the most fascinating experiences in writing this book was that it led me through the journey of the development of education for women in India. Ra’ana’s life is an outstanding example of how education transformed the career course of one particular woman. She was the product of missionary institutions like Wellesley School in Nainital, Lal Bagh and Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. Her closest lifelong friend and companion, the British lady Kay Miles, was the principal of Karamat Husain College set up for the education of Muslim girls in the same city. Irene/Ra’ana later taught in Gokhale Memorial School in Kolkata and Indraprastha College, the first women’s college in Delhi. Sifting through my sources, it was a revelation to learn how difficult it was for the pioneers in this field to find qualified women for teaching jobs, as Leonora G’meiner, the Australian principal of Indraprastha College bemoans in her correspondence. Then the hostility from the patriarchal system which early educators had to counter—from Isabella Thoburn’s need to hire guards against irate opponents when Lal Bagh School began, to Ra’ana’s own experiences of harassment during the course of her MA in Economics at Lucknow University. Do you think these early battles honed Ra’ana’s fighting mettle and prepared her for the greater challenges that she had to face in Pakistan?
The first part of her story which you so painstakingly researched and penned Deepa tells us about her steely determination to secure a firm educational base for herself and later a career too as lecturer in her chosen subject of Economics. In this respect she was far ahead of her times as this was a subject that did not interest females in general at the time. Interestingly many years later my own M Phil thesis would be on the subject of Women’s Labour in Agriculture as was hers in her M.A. thesis. Her firm belief in the role of formal education in the substantive lives of women led her to adopting this as her primary mission for helping women adopt a meaningful role in the fledgling state of Pakistan. She was an instrumental figure in setting up many centers of learning both formal and non- formal all over the country for the benefit of women, in the very early years of the development of new state of Pakistan.
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was the wife of Pakistan’s first prime minister. Three religions-Hinduism, Christianity and Islam-had an immense impact on her life, and she participated actively in all the major movements of her time-the freedom struggle, the Pakistani movement and the fight for women’s empowerment. She occasionally met with opposition, but she never gave up. It is this spirit that The Begum captures.