Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Purdah To Piccadilly: The autobiography of an ordinary woman

What would Prince Charming have for occupation if he had not to awaken Sleeping Beauty?" Simone de Beauvoir stirs up quite a thought in her monumental The Second Sex. And what happens when the sleeping beauty is up? Virginia Woolf opines in A Room Of One’s Own: “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation."

Zarina Bhatty is one such example. An ordinary life led in an extraordinary way, the record of which is documented in her recently published memoir, Purdah To Piccadilly. The octogenarian, a former president of the Delhi-based Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), sums up the story for us in the Afterword: “I have tried to give a glimpse of the Oudh region of the province of Uttar Pradesh, India, as well as my experiences of the British society in the second half of the twentieth century, when I lived for nearly 10 years in London. The Indian Muslim society was highly feudal as well as caste and gender discriminative, yet it had a certain grace of its own." And yet, this only forms the backdrop.

Bhatty takes us back to Lucknow, the Oudh where Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Ameeran and Attia Hosain’s Laila grew up. But hers is not the story of any quotidian Muslim woman enslaved to her circumstances. Lady Luck did smile at unexpected times, but the recipe for success would have been incomplete without the right measurements of her grit, perseverance and determination. Yet, amid all this, she is, as De Beauvoir writes, “always under the guardianship of males…. She is only the intermediary of authority, not the one who holds it." The stamp of the two men she married drives her trajectory—from going to London (a ticket to higher studies and a profession) to losing her job as a lecturer at a Delhi University college for “becoming" non-Muslim when she married a Christian. She faced discrimination for being a Muslim as well as gender bias (her husband’s name was required even to buy a sewing machine), but, in spite of everything, she completed her PhD and became the family’s breadwinner, juggling motherhood, work and studies, even as her husband kept flitting between courses.

Hayat—her already married first husband—is the archetypal patriarchal male. as Bhatty recounts: “The moment I would enter, totally exhausted, Hayat would declare that he was hungry and that I should quickly cook a full Indian meal for him. In those days, before my exposure to feminism, I considered cooking to be a wife’s job." Her second marriage to the more educated and enlightened Idrak, too, had its share of problems, though this was more with her mother-in-law than Idrak.

“Attia apa" appears, more than just thematically, in this memoir—as the writer’s co-broadcaster at BBC in London. Like Hosain’s perceptive novel Sunlight On A Broken Column, Bhatty, too, writes about land reforms that reduced rich talukdars, including her father and uncle, to a state of penury. As a direct result of this, the education of girls, for instance, received a setback in these families. And yet, Bhatty’s style is different from that of Hosain. For the most part, she is matter-of-fact, at times wry, devoid of psychological realism. Her interior monologue would have added the much-needed personal touch to the accounts of the struggles she narrates.

Bhatty speaks of post-Partition, of Indian Muslims who refused to leave. Her praises for both the prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are excessive, but the political leaning of the Indian Muslim in newly independent India is apparent. And yet, anecdotes like Indira Gandhi’s love for Jamdani add the much needed humour to the gravitas of the subject. Sadly, those are few and far between. At a common friend’s wedding, Bhatty sees the Gandhis and writes: “Both Huma (her elder daughter) and I were showing off our Jamdanis. It so happened that Sonia Gandhi was also wearing a Jamdani exactly like Huma’s but Huma’s sari had a better color combination. We were so amused to notice that Mrs Gandhi kept staring at us, as if wondering ‘How come someone else managed to get better Jamdani than us?’."

This book, in 14 chapters, could well have been divided into three parts. First, where Bhatty gives the background, the Muslim way of life. Almost 70 pages into the book, the context-building seems trite, offering nothing new. The second part would be her journey into the world outside, from the confines of the purdah/zenana to married life, to London, from where she observes a conservative British society and the tragic reality of communism in “Iron Curtain" Soviet Union. From here the pace of the book picks up.

This is a coming-of-age story of successive generations of women—her mother, herself and her daughters—stepping out from the bounds of the zenana, out of ignorance, out of suffocating marriages, out of dependence on men. The “sleeping beauty" now awakened, she would make sweeping strides in feminist movements. And that is where the third part of the book begins. Bhatty, in De Beauvoir’s words, “is not born, but rather becomes, a woman".

In this becoming, Bhatty gives back by working for her lot through such agencies as the USAID, ACCORD, representing the country and raising women’s issues at conferences in the US and Mexico, to working with feminists like Veena Mazumdar in preparing a report on the conditions of women bidi workers, to formulating a course on gender sensitization, to spearheading IAWS.

The book could have been crisper, but the memoir—an honest account—is essential reading, especially for those who are fed fundamentally discordant ideas about the Muslim community. At the same time, Bhatty, from within the community, doesn’t shy away from pointing fingers at the ills practised in the name of religion.

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