This book's subtitle, Sketches from my Life gestures helpfully at the book's content for it is about the full and colorful life lived by its author, Perveen Ahmad. She passed away in 2016 but several people, including Waqar A. Khan, Sadia Arman, and Mahsima Afreen Kamal, were instrumental in shaping Ahmad's manuscript into Under the Same Sky. Ahmad is introduced in the book's jacket as an activist and a pioneer in the movement to draw attention to Bangladeshi crafts nationally and internationally. She played a key role in the creation of the first artisan's organization of the country, KARIKA, in 1974, as well as in making Bangladesh a member of the World Crafts Council in 1986. But there is much more to know about her than her activism- as Under the Same Sky indicates.
The relevance of the title of the book is made clear in its very first chapter (“Witnessing History”): “As a sub-continental, traversing the vast fabric of a great region which I know and recognized, I was 'under the same sky'. I had crisscrossed borders, but in my heart and mind I 'belonged' wherever I chose to stay.” There is ample evidence throughout the book to indicate that she was quite cosmopolitan in sensibility, but that her heart clearly lay in the sub-continent. She was a votary of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy: “It was from Mahatma Gandhi that a large number of the people of the subcontinent learnt to look at themselves in a new light and seek the path of goodness to achieve their ends.” Hope always sprang eternal in her heart about the people of South Asia: “The history of the sub-continent in the past had shown: leaders had emerged in its darkest moments who rejuvenated a collective belief in goodness.”
Besides her philosophy of life, what other thread in it identify Perveen Ahmad as a liberal sub-continental? The answer to this question is in her life itself—she was born in Allahabad, U.P. in British India, moved to Pakistan with her parents at ten to settle in Lahore, Punjab, in 1947, married the well-known Banladeshi playwright and bureaucrat Sayeed Ahmad, and settled in Bangladesh, where she breathed her last not too long ago. Her mother was from Uttar Pradesh, her father from the Punjab, and the two were from two diverse cultural backgrounds. Her mother had graduated with a B.A. from Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, which, besides her formal education, taught her to imitate “the graces of courteous English society… (and imbibe) Victorian values in speech and thought.” Her father could not finish college but got a job in the British Indian Railway; he was able to develop his English language skills and retired as divisional personnel officer of Pakistan's North Western Railway.
Ahmad attended elite English-medium schools for females in British India and Pakistan and got a B.A. (Honours) in History from Lahore's Kinnaird College). She then received a Master's degree in Journalism from Lahore's coeducational Punjab University. She had thus lived the life of a privileged upper middle-class woman. A self-professed sub-continental made to move by history, she sang “God save the King” at Loreto Convent in Calcutta (now spelt Kolkata) , “Paksaar Zameen Shad Baad” at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore in 1948, and “the lyrical and lilting strains” of "Amar Sonar Bangla" in 1972 (having made her way with her husband from Pakistan to the newly independent country via Afghanistan and India that was destined to be her last stop). The reader will thus find in the book key episodes of sub-continental history that some of them are familiar with but that have been embellished here with her observations.
The opening chapter contains some particularly astute observations. For instance, “The ebb and flow of geo-political shifts that developed after the Second World War had taken their toll in so many ways on the lives of so many millions worldwide. I myself had become an alloy of several cultures not only because my parents belonged to two different provinces of undivided India, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, but because the realization of national identity became the sine qua non of the new generation in Pakistan's nascent milieu, be it East or West Pakistan.” Continuing on the themes of nationalism and a troubling phenomenon that persists in South Asia to this day she notes: “The movement for Indian national identity by the 1930s was sadly darkened by the forces of communalism. Power hungry and corrupt men with myopic vision, both Hindu and Muslim, brought untold suffering to the people… and the common man in India strained under the yoke of deprivation and injustices.” And consider her telling observation: “The British Raj, with all its pros and cons, had brought about, for Indians, a sense of awareness of their unique identity as a nation. Indian nationalism took birth, but not Indian unity.”
Ahmad is ambivalent about some aspects of what she had witnessed during her passage across cultures but is also appreciative of the lives that have emerged from the synthesis of several cultures. She finds satisfaction in that she had turned out to be “an adjustable and open-minded person” who “did not suffer from parochial complexes” and “enjoyed the “strangeness” of other communities with an open heart.” Still, she suffered occasionally from self-doubts. After acknowledging that, “The Partition of India became a time of collective metamorphosis”, she poses this question and an observation on one's consequential mental state: “How much does it take to detach one's patriotism from one's known roots and swear patriotism to the newly chosen boundary of one's new country? Dilemmas were galore.” She lauds her family and upbringing for the liberal outlook she had acquired: “In our family the preservation of, and belief in, inter-community relationships was stronger, perhaps because we were “taught” to shun the centrifugal forces of parochialism and religious fanaticism.”
Ahmad alludes to another matter that does not do any credit to South Asia. While she notes the racism being practiced by the Punjabis (“It has long been a psychological block in the minds of most Punjabis that they are a handsome, fair-skinned race, and do not marry the darker-skinned people of India's other provinces”), she also notes in passing that it is not that uncommon a mindset among other South Asians as well, including Bangladeshis. Her own mother, a new bride, was subjected to a disparaging “Hai hai, Saied (Perveen Ahmad's father) ney Hindustani sey shadi karli” (“Oh dear, Saied has married an Indian!”) by her mother-in-law. The author, however, heaps praises on her father for being a self-made man with a strong sense of dignity and broad-mindedness. Although he was strict with his young children, he “was a Punjabi of a different sort, who had been tempered with the mellowness of Indian humility.” His daughter showers high praise on him thus: “He was an avant garde man.”
Ahmad mentions nostalgically the days when doctors “listened and did not brush off their clients as they now tend to do, with vague references to “viruses”. The physician's ability to diagnose his patient was of utmost importance.” There are other shrewd comments that highlight times that are changing and generational differences that are sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. But that, for her, is the way of the world! All throughout her life she seemed to have hobnobbed with national and international celebrities, whether major or minor ones. For sure, she seems to have had no regret about her overall life experience.
In spite of these sterling qualities, Under the Same Sky contains some irritants, many of which could have been avoided with careful editing. There are several editorial oversights and proofreading problems that mar the book; Chapter 24 does not even have an end and runs on to Chapter 25! Some of the later chapters seem to have a helter-skelter appearance about them, while good chunks of the contents of one appear verbatim in another! Despite these not so negligible errors of book production, Under the Same Sky is truly an enjoyable account, interspersed with shrewd and profound observations, and the account of a person who lived, on the whole, a fulfilling and distinctive life as a sub-continental woman.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Media and Communication Department, IUB.