Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part IV)

I glanced at the heavy line of sindoor on her forehead and the Shaaka-Pola, the sign of a married Bengali woman on her wrist and thought, "Maybe I've seen her in some newspaper or magazine. These society ladies are everywhere these days"

I sat through the remainder of the awards and the vote of thanks in a mild trance. Seeing and hearing all that was happening around me, but not really taking anything in. I was euphoric on receiving the award, sad because none of my family members were present, proud of my achievements and mildly surprised by the Bengali lady in the front row. I was missing Aftaab and I was missing Abbu. I really wanted them to be there with me. After al, it was not everyday that you got awarded for your books! And while I fidgeted about my chair, cradling the trophy in my arms, the ceremony rolled on, the chief guest rose to speak and his booming voice cut through my reverie and brought me right back to the proceedings. I caught something about encouraging the women writers, the fact that there aren't enough women writers of Indian origin was emphasized by today's winners list. Only two women writers. That was when my cell phone screen lit up, and reading Aftaab's name on the display, I moved out of the hall to take his call.

"I'm so sorry Saira, I tried to get free earlier, but things just kept moving on and on..."
I cut him off. This wasn't the time for explanations.
"Its ok. Listen, I've got to tell you..."
"I'm on my way home. I just talked to Abbu. I'll pick him and the kids up and meet you at the hall. Then we'll go out to lunch and celebrate."
"Celebrate what?" I was smiling. He already knew.
"Oh come on Saira. You think I wouldn't know? I can hear it in your voice. You've won"
My smile turned into a wide grin and I felt such a rush of love for my husband that I wanted to fly out to him and hug him right then. And at that moment, for the first time in twelve years, I wished I had wings, though for a different reason.
"Yes, I won. And I missed you and Abbu. But never mind that now. Come soon. I'm dying to meet all of you."
"Yeah, will be there in about an hour"

I moved back to the hall to find people drifting away to the left side wing. I crossed over and joined the throng when I heard the sonorous voice of Neel Survekar. Neel was Aftaab's friend, my editor and the one who planted the germ of writing a book in me. The only reason I'd refrained from mentioning him in my acceptance speech was that he'd absolutely forbidden me to do so.
"Think of my reputation Saira", he'd said with mock seriousness "Do you want people to think that I urge people to write, and then go on to edit their books, and thats how I get work?"
We'd laughed it off then, but this morning, when he called to say best of luck, he didn't forget to add a line about not mentioning him in my speech.

"Oh Dr Bashir, congratulations. Many many congratulations", he said, reaching my side. "So, when should I come home for a celebratory dinner? Mind you, I want Murg-dam-Birayni, fried fish and Gosht-a-la-Saira Bashir in the menu. So you decide the date or I'll drop in on my own accord one of these days"
I was laughing.

"Sure Neel, you are welcome anytime"
"You know, I'm glad you reached in time for collecting your award. I thought I'd have to collect it for you."
"But I thought you liked collecting awards."
"I do, but not for someone else"
"Why not?"
"Because I've to give them off to them afterwards"
"Ha ha. Neel, you are impossible"
"I know"

We had reached the second hall by this time. It was a small rectangular room where the refreshments were laid out. Contrary to the dull atmosphere of the hall where the award ceremony was held, this room was electric. The place was buzzing with the voices of about a hundred people talking at the same time, the waiters serving refreshments, friends and colleagues catching up with each other and debates and discussions from politics to films to world peace that took place when the collective IQ of the attendees was more than that of the Lok Sabha!

"Ah, there she is. Someone I thought you'd be interested in meeting."
"The winner of best fiction - Progati"

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part III)

I would've attended the function with my entourage, complete with my husband, two kids and Abbu, had Aftaab not gotten that urgent call. He had been called away an hour before we were due to leave for the function. He left assuring us all that his work would be over in half an hour. And all of us got ready and settled down to wait. After forty minutes of listening to "The subscriber you are trying to reach is currently not available", I had begun to get irritated at the recorded message. We should have left long ago, the function was due to start in fifteen minutes, and Aftaab's phone was still unreachable. That was when Abbu decided that I should leave.
"Go on, I'll wait with the children. Once Aftaab comes, we will all join you."

And so I endured the hour-long journey alone, in a stifling taxi, the hour seeming longer than it really was. My entire life passed before my eyes in that one hour. Two faces kept coming to my mind again and again. One was Ammi's and the second belonged to Rewa.

By the time I reached the venue, the function had already begun. I quietly slipped into the back rows and glanced about me. The function wasn't a grand one; it was stark simple affair, living up to the clich├ęd writer’s belief "Simple Living and High Thinking". The hall was small, seating about a 100 people. On a low dais in the front, sat the Organizing committee and the chief guest, an eminent fiction writer. I had read two of his books, and found him high on sleaze and sensation and low on intellect. But the truth was that his work sold and thus he was the guest of honor. In the melee of intellectual looking writers, stood out a plump woman who sat in the front row. Her shimmering dark green saree stood out in deep contrast admits the dull pastel fabrics of the remainder of audience. And the diamonds she wore on her fingers, ears and neck certainly qualified to be called rocks! In a glamorous page 3 event maybe, but here she looked absolutely out of place. She sat diagonally opposite me and every time I looked at her face, it seemed more and more familiar.

The nominations were called, and the awards given out. My heartbeat rose to a crescendo when my name was called out in the nominations. The guest of honor was handed the envelope and he opened it. An eternity seemed to pass as he adjusted his spectacles over his nose and read the name written on the card. Then he glanced at the audience and smiled. He said, "The second lady winner of the evening ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Saira Bashir..."

I walked up to the dais in a trance. The chief guest shook my hand, placed the trophy in my trembling fingers and invited me to speak.

"Well, I owe the success of my book to Allah and to all my readers, and I thank all those who have helped me become what I am today. My kids, my husband, my Abbu, my Ammi, and the girl who gave me the courage and inspiration to get started - Rewa, Rewa Shastri"

The customary polite applause followed my words as I descended from the dais. The lady in the green saree sat directly in front of me, and as my gaze fell on her, I saw a look of immense surprise on her face. And now, from such close quarters, she seemed all the more familiar.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part II)

Rewa, the master of words, wrote articles and stories that were published in various magazines. One such article was this. Abbu had just rejected my plea of continuing my education. I was to take my final year exams and get married to a well-settled boy from a good family. He was already on the lookout of such a candidate. And I knew, like always I would accept his wish, killing my dreams for my own future. Just as I'd done before. After all, I was a girl. I was to keep my family's honor by mutely accepting my elder's orders. One afternoon, I saw a classmate of mine waving a magazine in her hand.

"A fab article by Rewa. It's a must read. "

She passed the mag around. A few saw it and passed it on, a few read a couple of lines. I read the whole of it. And the words are etched on my mind forever.

"For how long will we be suppressed under the guise of culture? Which culture says you have one set of rules for some people and another set of rules for the others? Who gave men the right to decide what to do with our lives? And if we don't ourselves protest and fight for our rights, then who will? What are we women waiting for, that an angel will descend from the skies, wave a magic wand and all our problems will disappear? No, nothing of that kind will happen. Problems have to be worked upon, else they remain. If we have to improve our position, we have to act ourselves. You have every right to fulfill your wishes. And to do that, if you have to break the shackles of loading, then break them. Live your own life."

It seemed that she had written this for me. Rewa's face was staring out of the pages of the magazine, her voice saying,
"Live your own life Saira, follow your dream. You let go of one, don't make this a habit. Fulfill your dream, after all, its your life."
Her words inspired me so much that I decided to live my dream. It wasn't easy then, convincing Abbu to let me study further after my graduation. I used logic, tears, and pleas, all that I could, and finally Abbu relented. Maybe it was my broken heart, maybe it was the difficulty of finding a groom for an average looking, average educated girl from an average family. I was so happy the day he said yes. I wanted to meet Rewa and thank her. But, she had moved the day before.

Over the years, I went on to do my masters and become an asst lecturer in my college. And that is where I met Aftaab. He was studying in the same college where I taught. Final year CA student. A year later we were married and Abbu was glad the last of his responsibilities had been suitably fulfilled. Ammi was happy that I found such a well-educated husband. All these years she had been my support. Silently encouraging me to go on. Perhaps she had once felt the need to break her own shackles, but she never could utter a word in front of first her father and brothers and then her husband. Perhaps she saw a reflection of her own unfulfilled desires in my freedom. When I was getting out of their conservative world, she let me go with smiles on her lips, tears in her eyes and blessings in her heart.

Aftaab encouraged me to study further and I went on to do a Doctorate in economics. Years went by, he is now a successful finance consultant and I am the deputy HoD at my college. Three months back, I read about a book on the best seller list - Sudha by Progati. It was a story of a middle class girl and her progress. I heard a lot of acclaim for the author's views expressed in the book. Her philosophy on women's position in society and their progress were charted out in the book through her protagonist Sudha's life. And when I read it, I immediately though of Rewa. Progati's opinions were very similar to those of Rewa, and soon I read all of her four books. About the same time, my own book - The Common Man's Economy was released, and before I knew it, not just the academic circles but also the man on the street was reading it. My book was a bestseller! I still remember the day I showed Abbu the card - guilded letters on a rich cream background, announcing my nomination for the award in the best in non-fiction category. A nomination for the Indian Writer's Association Awards may not be a big thing for Dr Saira Bashir, but it was a big thing for Saira Sheikh, the timid girl who was dead scared of her Abbu. The very man who now read the invitation card with misty eyes. He read reread and re-reread it. He clutched the card the whole day like a little child clutches his favorite toy. Finally, I had proved that I was right – a daughter could bring as much honour and pride to her family as a son. Ammi would have been so happy today. And I saw her smiling photograph, her eyes seemed to be saying,
"Saira, I am proud of you"