Please meet my mother

by Najma Sadeque

My mother

My mother – Dr. Syeda Fatima Sadeque

This was sent out as an e:mail to family and friends on Dr. Syedah Fatima Sadeque’s fourth death anniversary  on 31st April 2011 and was shared widely and showed up on several unknown blogs as well. Expanded, January 2013.  

Yesterday was my mother’s death anniversary – she passed away in 2007 – but the void she left has still not been filled and I know now it never will be. My greatest regret is that most of my friends never got to know my mother although she visited me every year for several months at a time; although she was a very sociable and hospitable sort and loved meeting new people, but I was always working, always too busy. It was thoughtless of me and now it’s too late.

Her name was Syedah Fatima Sadeque and I belatedly want to share a bit about my mother with you, whether you are friend or stranger. Call it assuaging a guilty conscience or whatever, but she deserves to have been known and appreciated by some of my circle, and this is the least I can do. I want everyone to know the sort of person she really was because there was one particular side of her that she never flaunted – from something I did not discover until my late teens. A bit of background is first called for.

Early in 1947, the same year the partition of India took place, my parents had gone to England for their respective doctorates from the London University. Most of our relatives lived in Calcutta and they migrated to East Pakistan. My parents’ house in Calcutta was exchanged for rural property in suburban Dhaka – there wasn’t much choice and one took what one could get – and besides they were abroad and there was not much else one could do. When they returned from England in 1949, they went straight to East Pakistan, not Calcutta which remained part of India.

Dr. Syeda Fatima Sadeque in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University

Dr. Syeda Fatima Sadeque in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University

In some ways my parents were an odd couple. She loved to travel; he hated to get out of the house except to go to office which he loved as much. But he didn’t mind my mother going off globe-trotting alone as long as it wasn’t expected of him.

It was not until years later that my older brother and I took the trouble to go and have a look at the property my parents got in the swap. We were dismayed when we first did. In the first place it was difficult to see as it had turned into one vast jungle – foliage grew fast and thick in monsoon country — because there was no one there to look after and maintain it. Urban children were not interested in rural countryside then as now, thanks to a degree of lopsidedness in colonially-inherited education. It lay on the outskirts of Dhaka city, all village. The entire area was without electricity or running water. There was no real estate mafia, perhaps because without utilities, it was not worth grabbing.

Only my father was delighted. Being an economist who loved his culture, he saw way beyond the material benefits. Although it could only be approached via an unmetalled road through the village, rutted by bullock cartwheels, the property opened up to a breathtaking view on the other side. The floodwaters had risen to the edge of the land, and country boats moved slowly past, rowed painstakingly by hand, sails billowing in the wind. It was magical, like a tourist resort, and my mother agreed it had great prospects.

My father tried to explain to us youngsters that it just had to lie for a decade or so until development reached it, which was bound to happen since it lay just on the edge of the city. We didn’t understand all that and didn’t even try, and my father was not destined to see his dream realized. He died in 1960, barely 55 years old.

Some years after his death, when the property became part of Dhaka city and electricity was extended, my mother decided to build our home there. It was not an easy task getting rid of the jungle. It took a gang of men and many days to cut it down. But the end result was wonderful. About half the three acres was flat, while the other half sloped gently down to floodwater level at a wide landing place where the locals loaded and unloaded goods onto country boats.

My mother built a large tiled-roof house which fit in perfectly with the landscape and friends would pour in frequently, bringing new friends with them. My mother, who was a fantastic cook, also loved company. The enormous ‘lawn’ took up almost an acre and they especially enjoyed sitting out in the evenings watching the boats sail by. If it was too hot or sunny, they sat in the wide covered patio that went all round the house. Watching the sun set on a watery horizon, it was then that I decided: here is where I want to live for the rest of my life. It was not to be.

At the housewarming party, a German couple, close friends of my mother, brought her a pup, offspring of their Alsatians. They said she ought to have a guard dog since she was living in a big house cut off from the rest of the city. Outside the walls were only the sturdy but traditional, bamboo-and earth, tiled roof homes of the potter community.

My mother and the rest of the household knew nothing about dogs but got information from friends and followed instructions as best as possible. It romped all over the little ‘farm’ all day in the company of the gardener and the children of the household staff, playfully chased crows and chickens, and behaved more like an engaging human than a dog. It grew up to be big, good-looking and friendly but was otherwise pretty useless because it never chased or barked at any stranger, probably because it never occurred to anyone to teach it to do so.

During its first winter my mother made it a couple of flannel coatees because she was feeling cold and thought the pup would be too. Later she made a fancy brick kennel complete with a tiled roof, facing the distant main gate. But it refused to stay there, preferring the paved path or the least conspicuous corner of the patio, so that the gardener eventually turned it into a tool shed.

The locality was actually a potter’s village, the centre of pottery-making in East Pakistan, which stretched a long way parallel to the river, and the boats would carry goods to other parts of the country.

When the house was finally built and the grounds took on a semblance of order, my mother began to grow every possible vegetable — of which there is an enormous variety in Bengal — on the sloping side of the property. Not that she knew much about vegetable gardening except for herbs and lemons and chillies which every self-respecting Bengali grew in her kitchen garden. But it was tended by her peasant-turned-gardener and she experimented with great success. The entire property was already dotted with mango, plum, jackfruit, guava, tamarind, neem, sajna (Moringa) and banana trees, and a solitary, ancient, enormous banyan harbouring bats and reputedly, the ghost of a dead witch, so that I steered clear of it.

The soil was naturally rich and bountiful and one could have opened a thriving shop to sell the produce, which many of her friends urged her to, but my mother was not commercially-oriented. She grew things for the joy of it and because she drew great pleasure from sharing. The gardener, bearer, and cook (then a young woman who today still works part-time for my younger brother’s family) all lived on the premises with their families. They were free to pick and use as much as they wanted but even they couldn’t consume so much. She shared with all our friends and relatives and the poor of the locality. But she didn’t wait until things began to grow to start sharing. She began to share their fruits of the already mature, fruiting trees.

On her first visit with workers to direct the clearing of the property, a bent, old woman, all of four feet high, who looked at least a hundred years (but we were assured she was only sixty) hobbled up to her. My mother stared at her dumbstruck as the woman explained that she was poor and had nothing and no one in the world, that she lived in a little room on the property because it was empty for many years, and no one bothered her, and she begged to be allowed to stay on for the remaining years of her life which could not be many.

How did she survive? my mother asked. By begging, she replied. What happened to her relatives? All died, one by one. She had no family of her own as her betrothed died when they were still children and she was married off to a tree that represented him – they were Hindus. She was constantly shunted from one family to another that was willing to keep her, and she tried to win their support doing any kind of household chore. And one day, there was no one left, and she found herself on the street. But the villagers were kind although most were themselves poor. She almost always got a free meal; and the neighbourhood children would readily knock down some fruits for her.

Tears came into my mother’s eyes and she asked the old woman to show her where she was staying. It was a small room attached to the outer wall, so it was probably a guard room of some sort. The door and windows were long gone, and the tiled roof leaked and needed repair. There was no furniture; just a mat, some sparse bedding, a tiny bundle containing a change of clothing, a crude earthen cooking stand, a clay water pot, and a couple of clay pots to cook in. My mother took her aside in private to give her some money, and assured her that she would live there for the rest of her live, and asked her to visit every week, and any time for any need.

Before she started building the house, my mother fixed her room so that the roof no longer leaked, and installed new windows and a door, then put in a comfortable cot, new bedding and mosquito net, new plain white saris as required of widows of her religion, utensils, and a whole lot of other things for normal living. To the old woman, it was luxury, and her blessings alone would have been enough for a lifetime.

Wouldn’t it be easier for us to look after her, I asked, if she lived within our walls and she would be safer too? No, explained my mother patiently. It would take away her privacy and her sense of independence. It would be far away from the main gate and it would be too much for this frail old woman to have to walk a much longer, roundabout way to visit her friends. We couldn’t take that away from her. What if a robber came? I insisted. People who share don’t generally steal from one another, she explained; I don’t think there are any thieves in this village; and besides, what has she got to steal? But she still has to cook, I argued. She needs that little bit of exercise and some routine, my mother replied. And she will be able to receive a visitor and share a meal. I couldn’t imagine that, but I call that real sensitivity.

But my mother turned out to be right. On many occasions we found her with an equally elderly visitor or two, happily chatting away and enjoying some fruits or snacks.

There was only one condition my mother placed on her – she made her promise she would never beg again. She could have anything and as much she wanted from the vast vegetable garden. She was too old to pluck them herself but she could choose and the gardener or one of the family would carry them back for her. Every week, my mother would send dry groceries to her. She would get a regular allowance for all her other needs.

But my mother wasn’t finished. Soon after, she passed a whole lot of people around the village well, the women struggling to get their turn, while the men kept pushing them aside until they were done. The very next day she called in a contractor to sink a tubewell at an inconspicuous corner, as close as possible to the main gate. A wide concrete platform was constructed around the handpump, which in turn was sheltered by potted plants for privacy until bushes planted around it grew to the necessary height.

The community’s women, girls, and boys under twelve, were then invited to use it during the day. They could hardly believe their ears. There they could bathe themselves in privacy, wash their clothes and bathe their children in peace, and collect water quickly without being thwarted by the men. My mother had only one requirement: that they keep the main gate closed at all times to prevent stray animals – cows, goats or dogs — from wandering in. The gardener would unlock the gate at dawn, then lock up again at sunset.

It completely changed their lives. All day long, there were women and children coming and going. They never took advantage of the situation and even the children never forgot to close the gate. Most of the blessings were Hindu and my mother gave them equal ranking. I began to see my mother — a pious, five-times-a-day-praying Muslim woman — who never imposed her beliefs on others including her children which some considered risky, in a new and far more respectful and appreciative light. But as she explained, parroting the articles of faith without any conviction was meaningless if not hypocrisy.

When my daughter was born, finding the parents to be quite clueless about traditional observances, my mother decided to throw a huge party for her ‘aqiqa’ or naming ceremony when she was a few months old. It was a widespread custom among most Muslims – to sacrifice two goats for a boy and one for a girl. When this was pointed out to her, she bristled and gave every ignoramus an earful – that it was just a custom and it wasn’t even Islamic but pre-Islamic, and simply a reflection of male chauvinism. Then she proceeded to purchase two goats AND a bull to demonstrate what she thought of “badly brought up Muslims”. The additional animal was also necessary because there were so many guests, as well as the poor, to be fed.

Her incensed feelings were rapidly conveyed to the guests by our relatives and the household help. They couldn’t help but be impressed. A recognized Muslim scholar had elevated the status of her grand-daughter in no uncertain terms. This was true women’s activism, applying beliefs to one’s personal life. Some guests even vowed when a daughter or grand-daughter was next born in their families, she would have the same two goats as any boy would.

Nor could she tolerate anyone making nonsense of religion. A memorable example was a run-in with the neighbourhood maulvi. Soon after everyone had settled in, the Imam of a small mosque situated walking distance from the property, came to visit my mother. Since it was a poor locality, the mosque could not depend on charity alone for its upkeep, he explained. It was crumbling, had no electricity, and he couldn’t hold Quran classes for boys after sunset because lantern light was too weak. He sought a benefactor and begged my mother to help.

I don’t remember whether it was a local government-supported or community-supported mosque, but my mother undertook all the repairs and re-painted the place, had electricity installed, and even had his living quarters on the premises spruced up. I had my doubts about his abilities, but out of kindness, my mother employed him in his spare time, to come daily except weekends for an hour to teach my younger brother to read the Quran. He was then about 9 or10 years old.

A few months later, we noticed that my kid brother had stopped watching television completely. When we’d call him to watch a show we were sure he would enjoy, he would come in for a few minutes, then slip out while we were engrossed. One day my mother ordered him to stay put. He, for his part, looked away from the TV screen for the entire duration of the programme. Then we knew there was something seriously wrong.

My mother sat him down and demanded to know why he avoided television. At first he kept quiet, but when my mother informed him that unless she got an answer, he would remain confined to that spot day and night, for continuous weeks if need be, he spilled the beans. Briefly, the mosque maulvi had told him that watching television was a sin, and he was to stop watching it if he didn’t want to burn in hell.

My mother almost hit the roof. But then asked very coolly: “So you think your sister and I and your older brother (who was abroad then), and the cook and the bearer and others in the house, are committing sin?”

My poor brother was speechless. He never thought in such terms. He was just a scared kid and impressionable. After ascertaining all that the maulvi had said to him, she said no more. She simply sent the bearer to call the maulvi over immediately; not later, not the next day, but at once. Then she told us both to sit in the adjoining room with the curtains drawn, so that we could hear their conversation without being seen.

The maulvi turned up shortly thereafter and my mother lit into him. I’d never seen her so furious. “How dare you teach my son such outrageous rubbish about Islam!” she shouted, “And then implying that we are all sinners. Tell me, exactly where in the Quran or any Hadith, does it say that TV is sinful?

He had no answer obviously. When she repeated her question several times with a rising voice, he finally mumbled he didn’t know. He just heard of it through others. “Yet you found nothing wrong about accepting money and other help from a sinner, did you?”


“Do you think there was any such thing as television almost 1400 years ago?” she continued, “Or do you think someone predicted TV’s coming?”

Silence. The man had definitely lost his voice.

Then she demanded to know where he received his religious education. It turned out he hadn’t even attended a madrasah. What little he knew came from another maulvi with twisted ideas. This was one of them.

After that, she launched into a long lecture, enumerating all the myths and outright lies that fakes like him, as she pointedly put, kept manufacturing and spreading for no earthly reason except to give the false impression they were the ultimate authorities on the subject. While my kid brother stood petrified, I doubled up struggling not to laugh out loud. After what seemed like forever, my mother warned him that if she ever heard anyone report that he was still indulging in the same mischief, she would withdraw all her support from the mosque at once, including paying of the monthly electricity bill. She also terminated his services teaching my brother, with immediate effect. Literally shaking, the man fled.

Later when I asked her why she took as long as half an hour to lecture him, she replied, “Because I wanted to drive home each and every falsehood so that he’d never repeat them, and also the correct facts with which to replace them. I didn’t want to see his face again, and this was my only opportunity.”  My mother never heard any complaints after that.

Since I had never heard most of the fictions she had listed, I asked her how she learnt of them. “Mostly from those students of mine who had graduated from madrasahs,” she replied, “Every now and then they bring up some story or the other to verify the authenticity, or to ask why such a prohibition or whatever came up. You know, I do also teach them to voice their doubts and question.” 

The sum total of the religious instruction I received directly from her was when she pointed to a few shelves of books on Islam and Quranic interpretation, and said: “Please read all of these – take your time, but read them all.” I tried, but for a teenager unfamiliar with the terminology and the abstractions, it was pretty daunting. Even a dictionary on Islam did not help. She had noticed how I had always been absorbed by my maternal grandfather, also an Arabic scholar and an educationist, who talked philosophy to me in a language I could understand – he later left me his library of books on philosophy and religion — and probably assumed I understood more than I really did. I started reading them all, ended up skimming, and never completed any of them. It would be many, many years before I would understand.

Dr. Syeda Fatima SadequeIn later years, when I became deeply involved in the Women’s Action Forum which one co-founded in 1981 as a response and resistance to the military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq, his twisted version of Islam and draconian anti-women laws, and one needed to understand Islam better to write about it in the context of the country’s politics (I was a journalist then), she was an immense help with her personal interpretation as well as that of others, and she suggest which books or pamphlets needed reading. Even as I learned more about Islam rather belatedly, I became increasingly confused with so many interpretations of the Quran which often seemed to contradict one another. Some had a clearly anti-women bias, while others were liberal or silent on women. If they were all good men and great scholars who wouldn’t have ever dreamt of telling an untruth, who was correct? They all could not all be right, I reasoned. Someone had to be wrong. Who was to be followed? 

“No one”, she replied, “Just follow your head and heart, and use some common-sense.” And that was when she handed me her greatest guideline of all, which has held me in good stead whenever a problematic decision had to be made. It was to remain the determining factor in my life.

“All these are all points of view to help you to think,” she explained, “They were written at different times in history in response to the conditions of those times. You have to similarly apply the universal and basic ideas of right and wrong to contemporary times. And even then it may vary from country to country. That’s also why religion should be kept out of politics and constitutions; it should be treated as a purely personal matter and everyone should respect every other faith, or lack of it.”

“It means you use both your conscience and your common-sense. Often you’ll find it’s one and the same.” She then proceeded to explain how she came to her own conclusions or decisions. “This is how I see it. It’s really very simple. If my God is a good and just God, and everyone is equal in His eyes, He can do no wrong whatsoever. I instinctively know what is right and what is wrong — that’s my conscience telling me. We all know it within ourselves. Even when some authority insists a certain thing is right, but my conscience says it is wrong, I will go along with my conscience, no matter what the rest of the world says. Would my God approve of this? I ask myself. I know instantly one way or the other. It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or Christian or Hindu or whatever. — You have to make up your own mind up about it.”

Suddenly, religion became so simple and unambiguous, and it became easy to prioritize on matters entailing ethics. She had gone beyond Islam to something universal. It also meant that the more I read, the easier it was to dismiss when I found the logic and high moral ground used by some writers, to be hollow. It also meant I began to read somewhat less on the subject.

“Why is God a ‘He’ ?” I couldn’t help that parting shot.

“That’s the fault of the English language,” she replied, “You’d think they’d have invented an appropriate term by now.”

That was the only time we discussed the nitty-gritty of religion. But it was a lesson that did not have to be repeated; and it was never forgotten. Sometimes we disagreed on certain religious principles or practices. But she did not try to impose her will on me. “You’re free to think or practice what you feel is right. But so am I,” she spelt it out, “So don’t even dream of trying to change my mind. I will take offence.” I knew when not to push my luck.

An elder recently told me that it was a fact that generosity always begat more from the source of the person’s generosity. I believe it was my mother’s generosity that caused the soil of her mini-farm to become more and more bountiful. I was unaware at the time as I was seeing without seeing, but my initial lessons in organic gardening unconsciously began there. What was once alive – plant or animal — simply had to be mingled with the soil to be recycled into new life. I remembered it only decades later.

The municipality did not serve that area but there were no garbage dumps anywhere, neither on the property nor in the village. Everything was recycled or sold. There were no plastic bags in those days, and my mother would neatly stack paper bags – then mostly made of newspaper — on a shelf. All kitchen waste had to be put in these paper bags and twisted closed tight to keep off flies before being discarded so that both paper and the waste would get composted, a practice I continue to this day. The only thing missing is the ground to bury and compost the discards in as she used to do. – I live in an apartment building.

Today the knowledge that was handed down by simply doing is ignored and forgotten. Now, one has to write project proposals for donor funding to enable us to teach what was once common sense, a given. What should be in school textbooks is completely absent in them. And there have to be global campaigns for the reintroduction of natural, organic farming to restore soils degraded and poisoned by chemicals, and to be able to eat healthy, chemical-free food. She would be surprised if she knew what I was trying to do now. She used to feel sorry for us for the tasteless vegetables we had to eat here, and on every visit she would bring an extra suitcase of fresh vegetables and organically-produced foods from Dhaka. Now she’s no longer around to do that.

There’s a lot more about my mother I’d love to share that she’s put in her own words. She was seventy when the computer came round, and having done her own typing and for my father all her life, she quickly learned to use it. The first thing she did was to type her autobiography and even she marveled at the speed with which she was able to proceed. She revised and updated it several times and it was finally complete a couple of years before she died. But I wanted a concluding chapter from her. By then she was too ill, too frail, and unable to sit for long. I asked her to dictate, but even that she found difficult and kept postponing the effort.

She kept requesting me to write the concluding chapter from my point of view, but I didn’t want to do that, as it would depart from her style. She kept begging me to publish it while she was alive, and I believed she could not go away without doing that last chapter. But she did. The films are still lying with me.

I am remorsefully writing that final chapter – just filling in gaps about her that she didn’t mention, along with a bunch of disconnected cameos which was all she could manage before she gave up. When her autobiography is published later this year or early next year, I hope to send a copy to all my friends who I think might be interested. I hope you get to read it.

Her encounters with ex-madrassah mullahs who constituted half her students, and to whom she introduced unfamiliar concepts such as annual picnics and sandwiches, would certainly make you smile. Finding at least half her students to be dour and unsmiling and very different from the rest of the general student body, my mother thought she’d put some laughter into their lives. She had once remarked, “I wonder who put this idea into madrassah teachers that people should have no fun or enjoy life. I really feel sorry for them. They think they must be dead serious all the time, otherwise it would be a sin.”

My mother set about to demolish all that by introducing the departmental picnic. She didn’t ask them if they wanted to go. She just told them they had to come. They must have thought it was part of the curriculum because no one argued. She had a meeting with them, explained that they’d have to carry their own food, since it was a picnic. The idea of a picnic was perhaps not clear to all because they started suggesting things like hiring a cook and some help for the day, or ordering everything from the university cafeteria. She vetoed both. She itemized all they would need, and divided it among them so that everyone would be involved in bringing something. Three important items were sandwich loaves, butter which initially no one volunteered, and hard-boiled eggs, which caused quite a few raised eyebrows.

“No rice, no daal, no curry?” they questioned. Some hesitantly stated that they never ate bread. They had rice at all times, even for breakfast. She said no, not suitable for picnics. There were enough dry or fried snacks also, that were filling and they were familiar with.

At the picnic spot, she spread out all the groceries, and told everyone to watch carefully as she demonstrated the making of sandwiches. This included finely slicing cucumbers and mixing mashed eggs with salt and butter and plenty of pepper as she knew that otherwise they would find the sandwiches bland. After making enough for each person to get a sandwich each, she announced that everyone would have to make their own sandwiches. They looked uncertain, but by then they were enthusiastic enough – or hungry enough. She had to help of course. They were extremely clumsy in slicing and very messy with the eggs, so she ended up preparing all the filling. All they had to do was butter the bread slices.

The entire exercise turned out to be a lot of fun as they grabbed butter knives from each other or spooned off some spread, and very soon, very spontaneously, all the suppressed laughter and cheerful talk came out. Picnics became an annual – sometimes bi-annual — event that her students looked forward to and planned every year thereafter, even introducing new variations of their own on the sandwich. Once, when she told them they could use any leftover curry after draining the oil, they were completely sold.

She would take along a portable gramophone and records of Bengali folk and popular songs. Even though there was only the wind-up variety in those days, it never stopped playing all day. There was always someone ready to crank it up. That incongruous thought – my mother picnicking with mullahs – still makes us laugh.

As a journalist, I have met so many people including women. And I have to say that I have never met another woman quite as strong and resilient as my mother. Her gentle looks belied nerves of steel that has got her through the most difficult situations and experiences, and she has had more than her fair share of bad luck including the jealousies or prejudices of petty minds, both when there was still East Pakistan as well as when she spent four years in the Ministry of Education in Islamabad in charge of Learned Bodies, the institutions of higher learning and research.

My mother on one of her visits to Karachi while she was still able.

My mother on one of her visits to Karachi while she was still able.

The cost to her health, already frail, was great. I know I couldn’t have done it. When friends asked her how she coped with so much loss, she would simply reply that her faith and her worry about her children (although my older brother and I were grown up) that kept her going. As some have remarked, she was stronger than the three of us put together. It was true. Without our realizing it, she held not only the immediate family but the extended family together. It was the force of her personality. The vacuum hit us only when she was gone.

Yes, I am unabashedly proud of my mother with her Ph.D. in classical Arabic of the Quran (so she knew what she was talking about, and knew when someone else was fabricating), and Islamic History, although I understood little of it myself. Which daughter wouldn’t be? When she returned from the School of Oriental and African Studies, still in her early thirties, she became the first Muslim Ph.D from East Pakistan. Her professor and supervisor was Dr. Bernard Lewis, the internationally acclaimed Orientalist, and a Jew, said to be anti-Muslim. But that’s not what my mother thought. She and other students found him to be a very fair man who treated all his students the same, irrespective of their faith, and he treated her with great respect, not least because she scored an A-class Ph.D with a thesis publishable as presented. Today that might have gone against her, and her degree accused of being tainted.

Several decades later, she lost her enthusiasm for Dr. Lewis. One day at a bookstore, I happened to come across a reprint of one of his earliest books about the Arabs, one of thousands of books that were lost along with her farm-resort. She had aroused my curiosity considerably, so I bought it. I thought my mother would be pleased with my interest. Instead, I was surprised by her sudden indifference. But you’re the one who kept saying what a great scholar he is, I protested. “He is, but he’s not the same person any more,” she replied, “I don’t recognize him any more.” Then she showed me a couple of press clippings about him, one in which he vented anti-Muslim feelings, and another in which he had been criticized for turning into a rabid Zionist.

“Isn’t a Zionist the same as a Jew?” I asked ignorantly. No, she said, and proceeded to explain. “How could such a great scholar and open-minded man regress into extremism?” she exclaimed, “That shouldn’t happen.” She took it very personally, and I felt sad for her. All her life she had held him in such great esteem, only to be so badly disillusioned. I shoved Dr. Lewis’s book into an inconspicuous corner in a bookshelf.

But it gives me no end of satisfaction, that with the mullahs at least, she always got the last word with respect to Muslim women. We were unfamiliar with the term ‘feminist’ at the time. But she was a feminist in her own right, fitting to the times. “What do you think I am?” she would thunder as loudly as her small voice would allow. She could out-quote them with accuracy and logic any time. And they would have to shut up.

 Some of the replies from friends and family who read my story:

Zubeida Mustafa: Thank you Najma. You have done your mother justice. I had heard a lot about her from my circle of “East Pakistanis” because of her academic career in Dhaka University. But after reading your piece I can just say I wish I had met her in real life. At least your writing tells me something about her — and also from where you have got what you have. If you have a photo please send one I would like to see what she looked like. And of course I am waiting for the book.

Farida Shaheed: “Dearest Najma, Thanks for sharing this vingnette about your mother, as you know I continue to collect stories on ‘great ancestors’ and she certainly qualifies. And I had the pleasure of meeting your mother – though never getting to know her well.  For the record and everyone’s information – so it’s placed on the record, I would like to tell everyone that in 1981, when the Fehmida Allah Bux case first came to light in Shirkat Gah, and as the idea of what was to become the Women’s Action Forum started to take shape – we approached lawyers to understand what the law said but turned to your mother for help to ask her, as a scholar well-versed in Arabic and Islam what the Quranic verses actually said and what there was about rape. She did teach us to look and read and understand for ourselves – although she gave us the pointers of what to look for where – something we should all remember.”

Shifa Naeem: “Thank you, Najma for sharing this. I remember meeting your mother briefly once……she was on a wheelchair at the Aga Khan Hospital (remember her sweet smile). Yes, I do wish I could have had the opportunity to get to talk to her & know her….would love to read her autobiography….May Allah continue to shower Blessings on her.

My mother and my daughter shared a special bond.

P.S. One can see the manifestation of her genes in her daughter & grand-daughter, Mashallah!

Samina Rahman: Dear Najma, Thank you for sharing memories of your amazing mother with us. I look forward eagerly to the book.
She had every reason to be proud of you and Deneb. You have been true to her spirit and her beliefs. Much love, Meena

Sheher Bano: Dear Najma, Very moving and without any doubt so inspiring. It reminds me of the characters of the stories I read in my childhood, the likes of “kind fairy”, “kindhearted princess” or others. Although I never met your mother, but I had the privilege of sharing so many things about her, when you were with us in The News. Maybe you never believe, but let me tell you today that I learnt so many common things from your full-of-wisdom conversation.

You also told me about her book, her autobiography, which she was writing at that time. Then she fell ill and her work got stuck. Without seeing her, I developed an affiliation with her. Now after reading your text I can well understand that it was your mother who inculcated all these things in you. Without seeing her I can see that you were a true reflection of your mother in the same manner as we see your reflection in Deneb. But honestly speaking, Najma, you have done a lot for your mother, although children cannot pay back what their parent gave them. Yet I would only pray that whatever good you have done with your mother, may Allah accept it and bless you with His immense bounties.

I am looking forward to reading your mother’s book, really this brief introduction has increased my curiosity about knowing more about her. May Allah rest your mother’s soul in peace. Thank you for sharing all this with me. Sheher Bano

A.M. Malik: “Dear Najma, thanks for sharing glimpses of Khala-amma’s life. Was very thoughtful of you and I enjoyed reading it, specially as I have the childhood experience of the village life and the poverty it included.”

Syed Hilal uddin: Dear Najma,
Your tribute to your mother was very moving.
I do remember her from Dacca of 1953 and the Bailey Road flats. She had a fine reputation as an educationist and I often saw her leaving home early to work, dressed in sarees.
For us students, professors and teachers lived in another plane. So she appeared strict to us boys and seemed to be distant.

Afia Salam: Thank you so much for sharing this about a wonderful woman who live through her wonderful daughter and granddaughter 🙂  I definitely want to be on the list of people who will get to read her autobiography.

A. Nageen Hyat: “My dear Najma, what a lovely, touching story about a marvellous woman you were lucky enough to have as your mother:) Thank you so much for sharing with us, your friends always, who love you unconditionally! We forget to tell each other how much we care for them so I’m laying it bare! Take great care of yourself and remember to share a copy of the book….look forward to reading it.”

Dr Pervez Tahir: Thank you Najma for the memento on your mother. I had the pleasure of interacting with Dr. Sadeque in early seventies in Islamabad when she worked at Education Ministry. She was very knowledgeable and fun to talk to.  That is where I also first met an angry young woman called Najma Sadeque.

Mehmud Ahmed  (Canada): “Great descriptive narrative and most deserving tribute a daughter can pay to a saintly mother. What has happened to our society and where have all such flowers gone and why? It is the Mulla, his self-centred arrogance, his exploitative lectures that have made us narrow minded and selfish.”

Munawar Razi: Dear Najma, Assalam Alikum! I always admired you and tried to cater to your intellectual requests.  Now that I read about your mother, I fell in love with her. She must have been a wonderful person, knowing YOU. I deeply admired her attitude and your wonderful write up. It was a pleasure meeting her.May Allah rest her soul in peace.

Connie Nash: ” Dear Najma Sahiba, I am thoroughly enthralled! There was other work I was supposed to be doing today but I couldn’t stop. Your mother will forever be a role-model for me and I hope for my daughter and many others world-wide. Thanx so much for your generosity to share this with us. IF at all possible, I’d LOVE to have a copy of this book and be glad to pay the complete cost and more. And depending on number and cost would love a copy for my daughter as well. What a woman and how beautifully you have written this piece here which seems it may well be a perfect concluding chapter? So many universal connections to the love many of us feel and know toward our mothers and also with the particular sparkling differences which enrich all our lives to discover in another account of a life lived far away – yet not at all unrecognizable from our own. Beyond your acquaintances & family – I hope many others world-wide read this book as in a most natural way – this looks destined to be a bonding book for the reader (both women yet also men as well) who will thereby grow richer and deeper in their own lives, families and callings and also grow in understanding and appreciation of her (your) culture, religious background, history and the people of Pakistan and India Who knows, perhaps this book will be found as a treasure (beyond magical) in many a library, bookstore and archive ? (Iqbal Academy) and even eventually be made (by you?) into a children’s book? With Deep Joy and Gratitude”

Farida Akhter: “Dear Najma apa, Your mother is wonderful. you are her proud daughter. All the best.”

Hameeda Hossain:  My dear Najma, Did I write to thank you for sending me this recollection? We all seem to suffer from guilt, that is the penance of children. I didn’t see my mother for ages, and the last time I was there, I cut short my visit because I had a meeting somewhere, she died a couple of weeks later, and I felt very bad. Khursheed and I thought we should also try to remember what she meant to each of us. but I think we would want to mix the good with the bad. let me know when u r next in dhaka luv Hameeda

Zohra Yusuf : Dear Najma:
Wanted to read it in peace, so waited. Thanks for sharing this. I have so many memories of her, as well – gentle, generous in cooking for your friends, and always a keen mind. I also remember my sister going to her house in Dhaka with an easel to paint watercolour landscapes and always being served lunch, tea, etc. Wish I had some of those landscapes. Love.

Ayesha Alam: Najma, I really hope one day I read a big fat novel written by you. Honestly it was like actually being on your mini farm. Your mom was a very gentle lady and am glad that I had spent some time with her in Gulshan e Iqbal.

Birgit Mewes: Najma,
I would like to thank you, that you thought I should share this article, among surely so many others, also with me. If you remember, your mother came to visit with you while you were staying with us, so I have met her and admired her for knowledge (being an Orientalist, in those days a very rare fact). Also, she was very outgoing in meeting new people and chatting very easily as if one had known each other since ages. May be this was 1975 or 1976? Anyway Najma, I loved reading reminiscing about your Mum, your language is so, should I say picturesque, that I could imagine your house and home and garden, etc.   I’d love to read the book. I cross my fingers that all goes well with the publishing. I think it is very important for the women of the Indian subcontinent to read about her and take some strength thru the book.
P.S. I remember your mother had an extremely neat middle parting and a beautiful “jura”, she looked so subtle and elegant!

Samina Khan: Dear Najma, Thank you for sharing with me this beautiful write up introducing your mother. I usually do not read long emails on my phone but this one I could not stop myself from continuing at the expense of the strain on my eyes. I felt I was there as you explain the development of the land and her life there. Also made me feel like wanting to visit the place next time, whenever I am in Dhaka.

(Justice) Majida Razvi:   Your mother was great.

(Justice) Nasira Iqbal:  Thanks for the Great article on your mother. One lives and learns. Nasira

Sara Ahmed :Dear Najma, Many thanks for sharing this poignant piece.

SalamiAS:نجمہ صاحبہ

آپ نے احسان کیا کہ اپنی والدہ کی یادوں میں دوسرون کے ساتھ مجھے بھی شریک کیا۔
یہ دل چھو لینے والی تحریر ہے، اور صاف دل اور سچے لوگوں کی باتیں ایسی ہی ہوتی ہیں۔
مہرے لیے اعزاز ہو گا ، اگر چھپنے کے بعد آپ اپنی والدہ کی خود نوشت کی ایک کاپی ارسال فرمائیں۔.

Can I share this piece of yours with my relatives and friends


Souraya Frick : Dear Najma,
Thank you so much for this beautiful, feeling and loving memory of your mother. I remember writing something much shorter in our local paper when my mother died and it allowed me to voice my feelings at the time. So I really appreciate what you have written.
Bless you.

Nasreen Azhar: Dearest Najma,
Thank you for telling us about your mother. What a touching tribute to her, and so beautifully written! She must have visited you in Karachi when we were there. I wish I had met her! She must have been a remarkable woman, a genuinely good person. I am so looking forward to reading her book.
Of course it made me think of my mother too, who died in 2005 at the age of 99. She too was something special, but I could never write about her as beautifully as you have done. You are right, we cannot ever forget our mothers… Lots of love.

Rukhsana Mashhadi: Dear Najma, thank you so much for sharing this with me. I really wish I could have got to know her as it would have enriched my life as knowing her daughter and grand daughter has. I can understand how you must be so proud of her and I’m sure she must have been proud of you. Love you, my dear friend.

Zeenat Hisam: Dear Najma,
I am touched by your article. Your mother was indeed wonderful. I wish I would have known her.

Khalid: Lovely, just lovely Najma!
I would love to read your mother’s autobiography as soon as it is in print. Do me the honor and send me a copy asap:-)

I also loved your own fluent writing in this instance. You know I have always respected your sincerity and like your crisp copy. But this is not copy. This is prose. Fluent. Gripping. Real. And moving!

You ought to consider writing longer form. I am positive whatever you wish to share with your readers would be delightful with detailed insights and closely observed drama in human life.
Write me a novel  🙂

Taheerah Haq: Dear Najma Apa,
How beautiful and haunting and so well written. I cannot wait to read her autobiography. She was certainly an amazing woman. I was too young too have noticed it during her lifetime and besides I went away to the US.
I am going to pass this on to the other “young” people in our class who remember you oh so well!!! So are you seriously considering moving back to BD. We need you here. You will have a great support system here as well. Have no fear we are here. Much love.

Uzma Tahir: Dear Najma,
I am so thankful to you for allowing me to meet your mother;
After loosing my mother I have gone through the same grief, loss and guilt. I have only pitied myself but after reading through your piece I have realized their is so much that we can do celebrate the unsung heroes of our lives…I was crying like a baby by the time I finished it and wish I could write the last chapter for my mother as well…. Thank you so much.

Maryam Bibi: Thank you very much dear Najma for letting me meet your wonderful mother. I can fully relate to how feel about her now that she is no more with you. One thing is very clear to me from what you say about her that she had no regrets when she passed away and I think she fully understood the crux of Islam and lived by it.
Now I know why you are so passionate about organic farming! Do you still visit your lovely house in the suburbs of Dhaka? I would love to read your mother’s autobiography. Please don’t feel guilty as to me your mother wanted you do what you do and that she herself has had complete self fulfilling life that comes from selflessly helping others to stand on own feet. Thanks again; it is very touching.

Zaheda Hina: My very dear Najma,
I met your mother & it was a enriching meeting.You are a wonderful daughter of an exceptionally gorgeous mother.I am really amazed by her tall personality. I would love to read her autobiography. My SALAM to her departed soul.

Fatimah Ihsan: Dear Najma:
I really enjoyed reading this and meeting your mother through it. Quite an interesting woman, the kind one would love to sit down and have long, animated discussions with. I hope that when her book is published that you share it with me. I would like to get to know her more as this piece about her has only whetted by appetite.

Rifaat Jafari: Dear Najma,
Thank you for sharing your write up on your dear Mother. I remember her well and as per one of those things regret not having spent more time with her. I know she was very fond of me. Your write up has reminded me of what a great person she was. I shall remember her in my prayers. May Allah bless her with the choicest place in heaven!

Resham Souffay: Dear Najma,
I was one of the lucky ones who did get to meet your Mom when we lived in Rimpa …..quite a lady she was….really regret not to have spent more time with her perhaps, just to share our memories of Dacca …. but, like you we were both working and then the two kids needed our attention when we got home….life is like that and we just have to carry on….Thanks for sharing.

Fareeha Zafar: Dear Najma,
Absolutely beautiful, I wish I could write about my mother. I see so many similarities and common traits. Perhaps it was that generation which has certainly left us with so many memories that often when I am by myself I never get bored as my mother and my father left so much to think about.

Karamat Ali: Dear Najma, Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece. I came back very tired after attending four different May Day related events. But could not stop without completing reading your piece. Great to know your mother. I am sure she would be proud of you.

Dr. Parveen Rehman: Can’t thank you more for sharing this piece. Please allow me to put this on Face book page.

Durriya Kazi: Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful mother with me! Its very moving. I realize how much more we understand about the people we know, when we know about their parents.. not just as names but as people who defined us. Look forward to her autobiography.

Humaira Shaikh: My dear Najma,
I was delighted to meet your mother and look forward to reading her autobiography when it is published. I am copying my daughter in this e-mail, so that I am able to introduce her to you and you to her. She is a teacher and a writer and I know will enjoy this e-mail.

Thank you for remembering to add me to your list. All I can say is that you are lucky to be her daughter and I am sure you do her proud as does my daughter whom I am very proud of.

Masuma Hasan: Dear Najma
I was touched by your tribute to your mother. She was very special. I know how you feel. The pain never goes away.

Seema Wali Khan: Thank you Najma. I did meet her many times with Wali when she visited. She is remembered well.

Naushaba Burney: Amazing writeup Najma, and what a fascinating lady your mum was. Pak women, or even Muslim women anywhere, are largely frivolous and flippant these days, and you are one lucky person to have been brought up by such a great mother. I’d love to read her book.

Simi Kamal: Najma, I really enjoyed reading about your mother and your family’s history.  My own mother was born and raised in Calcutta and she talks much about those days. Her aunts and uncles and many cousins still live in Calcutta and in Bangladesh.

Sheema Kermani: Dear Najma what a lovely write up- really enjoyed reading it, truly moving. Your mother must have been an amazing person- would love to read more. Would love to get the book.

Mahnaz Rahman: Thanks for sharing. I am proud to have you as my friend and I am proud of my aunt(your mother) after reading all this. Now I am waiting to read the book.

Naz Ikramullah: Dear Najma, you have a great gift from your mother- this is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing.

Naeem Sadiq: Wonderful to meet Najma’s Mama. What a lovely person. Warm regards

Saman Yazdani Khan: Najma, Thank you for sharing this. I am feeling so honoured that you did.
I still marvel at their generation who never suffered a sense of being lesser than anyone else in the world. Maybe because the false lines between developed and developing countries had not been drawn. And the so called developed countries of today were called by their real names- the looters and plunderers of other nation’s wealth. The wealth was historical and cultural as well as economic.

It is also amazing how people of that generation went to the best educational institutions in the west and yet it only enriched their deep religious and indigenous roots, rather than taking them away from it. My maternal grandfather was one such man. Despite his M. Sc. from Edinburgh University and PhD. from Oxford in agriculture (his PhD was also published as a book), he never thought of settling abroad for better economic prospects as all he was and needed was here. He taught at Faisalabad Agriculture College (now University) all his life and also became its principle before retiring from the agriculture dept.
I hope you remember to send me a copy of your mother’s autobiography.
And I hope our nations poor adaptation/flirtation with alien cultures would stop so that it can regain its self identity and sense of self worth. Being a half breed dissipates our focus and energies, at least so I believe. Once again thanks.

Mrs. Nasrene Shah: Dear Najma
Thank you for sending me your lovely piece which I have just read and plan to share with the students. I am looking forward to the publication or your mother’s autobiography. Affectionately

Angelika Pathak: Dear Najma,
How very remarkable, you are lucky to have had such a mother. I would dearly love to have a copy of the book once it’s published but perhaps you want to place the book on the net to save yourself the trouble and cost to post it?

A.Nageen Hyat: My dear Najma,
What a lovely, touching story about a marvellous woman you were lucky enough to have as your mother:) Thank you so much for sharing with us, your friends always, who love you unconditionally! we forget to tell each other how much we care for them so i’m laying it bare! Take great care of yourself and remember to share a copy of the book….look forward to reading it.

Marge Berer : Najma,
What a nice thing to do in her memory. All the best.

Marya Sultan: Dear Najma, Lovely reading about your mother, she sounds like a truly good Muslim and humanist. You are fortunate to have such a good memories of her. With kind regards.

Nadira Sheralam: Dear Najma,
It is an enormous pleasure to meet your mother, may she rest in eternal peace, Ameen.
I am so glad you shared this and I hope her autobiography will be published soon. I would love to learn more about her life and experiences.

Shagufta Alizai: That was very illuminating. I am glad to have met your mother. Hope you finish the concluding chapter of her biography.

Nausheen Ahmed: Dear Najma,
I got back from Dhaka yesterday. What a great place. Thank u for this. I get very upset with my mother but you remind me again of how lucky I am.

Christa Majid: Dear Najma,
What a wonderful piece of writing about a very extraordinary Lady.

Maria Rashid: Najma, She sounds like a very special woman. You are lucky! Thank you for sharing this!

Rukmini Vemraju: What an amazing story and you have told it so beautifully. do let me know when the book is published, I sure would love to read it.

Seema Sharif: Beautifully written Najma befitting the remarkable woman that she was… thank you for letting us know her a little.

Asim Ghani: Excellent, Najma! Too bad I didn’t get to meet her.
Ever thought of writing your own autobiography?

Kamran Noorani: Dear Najma
Loved reading such a beautifully written article. Look forward to reading the book.

Abdullah Jan: A true momina. May Allah take good care of your mother and reunite your family on Youm Alakhira in peace Ameen.


About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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3 Responses to Please meet my mother

  1. Suraiya says:

    Thank you for taking this step to introduce your lovable mom to the world! I look forward to buying her books and the her biography written by you! Kindly give details so I can grab this treasure and relish reading it again and again! I lived in Dacca those days understand her story … There was a similar lady way back in 1952…. Who ran a brick factory and was extremely bold … Lived in a similar area as your mom…. Moved around their land riding a horse and strong to shoot guns. One day thieves came to steal at her place and while she grabbed her gun they shot her and her brother! Her daughter who was our school friend was called Nargis.

    This lady too,set a grand example of beimg bold and strong! If I remember right they belonged to the Bonri community. Their factory was,the only one to produce and supply bricks for Dacca roads. We spent a great deal of time with them and met regularly at Dacca Club!

    Your mom displayed similar boldness and concern for people in general. She left this world leaving such precious examples. an admiral personality indeed. I am so impressed and in awe of your mom/ grandma responsibility to help others survive in this world boldly and with the love others deserved. Grand example to follow…. You have done a great job in sharing your grandma’s story with the world! Thank you … Love to you and all in your grand and caring family! Keep up you super values of life! Loads of prayers and blessings for your Grandma’s soul, inshallah to rest in peace!

    Suraiya Syed

  2. smhasan says:

    Dear Najma, your writeup about your great mother, was so absorbing that I never felt it ran several pages………Dr. Syedah Fatima Sadeque was a great lady…….Najma, .your writeup is a breeze in the suffocating Pakistan that unfortunately it has become now. If she was alive, I would kiss her feet.
    Keep the breeze blowing, we need it.

  3. Nasreen L. Siddiqui says:

    Thank you Najma for sharing. It is as if I am reading about a generation lost and about my own parents. My father was a scholar of four languages, interested in comparative religious studies. Despite being a tahajjud guzar who diligently kept rozas for the long, hot days of toronto, his ideas on religion were exactly like your mum’s and he never forced religion on us. My mother’s life, in those post independence years, as a career woman and raising us four was beyond tough but so woven was her life in community service, it seems like un-ending sadqa jaria for want of a better term. Their religion was wholesome and all inclusive, not something one would strive for ‘outside’ of normal daily lives.
    A rich heritage that for Deneb and you; one that your family continues to strive to spread.

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