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Parivarnama: A story of love, challenges, sorrow of family 'devastated' by Partition

By Aditya Mukherjee* 

“Parivarnama” by Shehla Hashmi Grewal is a riveting account of a family of Delhi from the late 19th century to the present.
Through the story of this family, we are taken on a journey through the atrocities of British rule and the resistance against it by the Indian national movement and the left stream within it, the traumatic events leading to the virulent spread of religious communalism and the partition of the country and the destruction of lives and livelihoods, the challenges and travails of building a new life after the old was destroyed, trying to build a secular society in India after independence, the struggles for social and economic justice in independent India leading to the martyrdom of a very distinguished young member of the family and much more.
It is not only a very sensitively written history of a family, it is a social and political history of India through some of its most turbulent periods. “Parivarnama” combines what one gets from meaningful autobiographies, oral histories and what is now called ‘public history’, illuminating aspects of life which remain unseen in conventional academic history writing.
In this telling of the story, the individual, the life and flesh human being with all the striving, hope, pain, sorrow and jubilation is not lost in the larger political or social narrative. On the contrary it nuances and humanizes the larger narrative.
The family whose story “Parivarnama” recounts is a Muslim family. In these days of increasing insularity and the Hindu majoritarian stereotyping of ‘the other,’ it is a must read so as to get to share the life of such a family of fellow citizens of this country, discover the sameness, as well as, the pains of the ‘othering’.
The author Shehla Hashmi Grewal taught geography and her siblings are Sabiha Hashmi, the celebrated art teacher of Modern School for more than three decades, Sohail Hashmi, social activist and heritage expert, the late Safdar Hashmi, a talented cultural activist who was brutally murdered while performing in a street theatre and in whose name the reputed organisation SAHMAT was formed, and the well-known social activist Shabnam Hashmi.
The book starts with a brief introductory chapter about ‘Shahjahanabad’. The chapter, evidently drawing from Sohail Hashmi’s deep knowledge of history and heritage, gives a fascinating picture of the city as it was under the Mughals and how it was severely mutilated by the British during and after the great 1857 revolt. The story of the Hashmi family begins to unfold in the streets and lanes of Shahjahanabad, in Kashmiri Katra, Darya Ganj and Kashmiri Gate where they lived and worked for nearly a hundred years
The story begins with Khwaja Nawab Ali, a well known sufi of Delhi in the mid 19th century. His son Muhammad Mirza Tarkash, the great grandfather of the author was a ‘Hafiz’ (one who knows the Quran by heart), an Imam of a Masjid and a scholar who taught Persian and Arabic. ‘Tarkash’ was added to his name because of his occupation, the intricate art of inlaying metal wires into woodwork. He passed away in 1908.
His eldest son, Maulana Ahmad Saeed (1888-1959) was a scholar, poet, a well-known interpreter of the Quran, wrote about 20 books on theology and translated the Quran, and above all a major nationalist. He was the founding General Secretary of the Jamait Ulema-e-Hind, a major anti-British nationalist organisation which firmly opposed Muslim communalism and the idea of Pakistan.
He remained associated with the Jamait from 1919 till his death in 1959. He was closely associated with the Indian national movement and the Congress as, what was then termed, a ‘nationalist’ Muslim and spent about 15 years of his life in British jails.
During the mad holocaust-like days of communal violence and rioting in Delhi at the time of independence and partition, he worked relentlessly for communal harmony and tried to persuade the Muslims not to leave for Pakistan. He was closely associated with Gandhiji’s efforts in this direction and the book details some very revealing incidents related to this effort, including why his own brother Idris Hashmi, grandfather of the author, felt compelled to leave for Pakistan.
One such incident was very moving. It was wrongly rumoured that Maulana Saeed was himself planning to migrate to Pakistan. When Gandhiji heard of this, he went directly to Maulana’s Kucha Chelan house in old Delhi to meet him. While he was talking to him, Maulana’s 6 or 7 year old grandson interrupted and asked Gandhiji: “What should we do? Should we stay here or leave”. It was a poignant moment. Gandhiji apparently picked up the boy in his lap and sat down on the ground and started weeping. He said to the Maulana:
“What reply can I give to the child? If I say you stay here, can I take the guarantee of his protection? And if I say you go, then my whole life has been wasted. What I fought for my whole life will come to nothing, If I tell this boy that you are not safe here, then my whole life is wasted.”
After independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru came to know of the ailing Maulana’s very strained financial situation, he sent his Secretary John Mathai to the Maulana with a form to be filed up for a government pension and housing.
The Maulana had sent back Mathai with the message, “Give Panditji my Salaam and tell him that fighting for freedom was my duty, no price can be put on it”. When he passed away on 4 December 1959, Nehru came for the funeral, stood silently for long next to his coffin and then said, “The last Delhi-wala is also gone”.
The book gives us a very close glimpse of the social and political milieu in Delhi in the 1940s through the family of Idris Hashmi. He and his wife were deeply influenced by Maulana Saeed and came under nationalist influence. He, along with his colleague Mr Verma, gave up his government job as an art teacher in a school in Timarpur and started a furniture business and set up a shop in Chabiganj area of Kashmiri Gate named “Verma-Hashmi’, later called Hashmi Brothers.
His three sons Anees Hashmi (b 1920), Haneef Hashmi, the author’s father (b 1923 and Hameed Hashmi (b 1925) came under left influence in their college days (Hindu College, which was in Kashmiri Gate those days) and became well known activists of the All India Students’ Federation.
Between 1940 and 1942 the three brothers joined the communist party. Their mother, Amtul Muqeet (known as Begum Hashmi) who throughout her life wore only Khadi as part of nationalist assertion also got drawn into active politics and soon headed the women’s federation of the communist movement in Delhi. Their home in Kashmiri gate became a meeting place for the communists and party literature was printed there.
As part of the Communist Party of India’s strategy at that time, one of the brothers worked inside the Muslim League and another in the Congress in an attempt to radicalise them. During the Quit India Movement, along with uncle Maulana Saeed, Haneef Hashmi was also arrested. He too spent several years in jail and, like his uncle, refused after independence to accept any freedom fighter’s pension.
The rapid growth of communalism and communal tension close to independence was to rip apart the Hashmi family. The book describes graphically how people felt terrorized and sought to defend themselves and their neighborhoods/mohallas against rioters. The Hashmi family business began to suffer, their properties threatened and the last straw was a murderous attack on Anees Hashmi.
Idris Hashmi who like his brother Maulana Saeed was determined not to leave India was shaken and he along with his two sons decided to leave for Pakistan. They moved to Muslim refugee camps and eventually made their way to Pakistan. One son, Hanif Hashmi, father of the author, stayed behind.
In Pakistan, the Hashmis continued their strong commitment to progressive causes and remained closely linked with the Communist movement. They worked with well-known communists like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer and others. Begum Hashmi got associated with the democratic women’s association.
A story of a life lived with dignity, with leaking roofs, hungry children always short of clothes, yet creating beauty in that condition 
Anees and Hameed Hashmi became active journalists and struggled to survive as communists in an increasingly intolerant Pakistan. They were arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case along with Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer and had to suffer jail sentences because of their radical work in the media.
The book gives us insights into the evolving situation after independence and partition on the other side of the border. It humanizes the people who went to the other side too, an important contribution in today’s times of the demonization of the ‘other’.
The story then shifts to Haneef Hashmi, who stayed back in India (as he wanted to and also that was the Communist Party directive), and his family. This in many ways is the core of the book.
It is a story of love, challenges, sorrow and accomplishments of a family devastated by the Partition, reduced to virtual penury from an affluent past where they employed more than a hundred workers in their business, a family trying to put the broken pieces together in their own lives with dignity and yet make their contribution to the making of the new born nation. A story told simply and it touches you to the core.
A story from the times when the Jamuna still flowed and people would collect in boats to sing, read poetry or to race. A time when Maulana Azad Medical College was a district jail. A story which gives you a slice of urban history of Delhi and Aligarh, the two places where the family lived for extended periods. A time when there was no running water and a bhishti would bring water to each house.
A story of buildings, mohallas, customs and social practices which have now disappeared or are altered beyond recognition. A story which gives you a peep into what children used to consider ‘play’ in those days as well as a child’s perspective of struggles of their parents in the most difficult of times when even the daily bread was not guaranteed.
A story of a life lived with dignity, with leaking roofs (which destroyed a large part of the library created painstakingly), hungry children always short of clothes, and yet seeking and creating beauty in that condition and most important with no self-pity or sense of rancour. Music, poetry, art, political discussion and commitment could continue in a situation where the Hashmi family had to live at times with 13 people in one room. 
 There was a time Haneef Hashmi’s wife Qamar Jahan Azad was all alone in Delhi with her daughter, as his business had collapsed and he had to leave for Aligarh to make a living. The water and electricity connection had been cut off for non-payment of bills and the next meal was difficult to arrange.
The poignant story is narrated of how seeing this condition on a visit, Pyara Singh Sahrai (a poet and comrade from Punjab who was physically challenged and who had become the rakhi brother of Mrs Hashmi) requested to stay with the family for a while and would every day limp into the house with a shoulder bag full with the daily needs of the family and some little thing for the children. A bag the children would think of as the magic bag from which all their desires would be fulfilled.
This is also a story of the struggle of Haneef and Qamar cheerfully taking on the travails of life and yet making their contribution to society, of protecting their children from these travails and yet inculcating in them a spirit of joy, learning and commitment to social change.
All their children got associated with progressive social causes. One of their sons Safdar Hashmi, faced a murderous assault when he was performing in a nukkad natak or street theatre (a form of protest and mobilisation which he played a major role in popularizing) in the working class area of Sahibabad on 1 January 1989. He passed away the next day.
As a tribute to his leadership and commitment the Jan Natya Manch decided to carry on his work and the play called “Halla Bol” that was interrupted with the attack on Safdar was enacted again in the same place with his wife Molayshri performing a major role just two days after his death and thousands of creative artists, intellectuals and activists from Delhi joining in.
The other children, Sahiba, Shehla, Sohail and Shabnam all have continued to remain fighters for social causes, some of them playing a leading role in their fields. But the story is not about them.
“Parivarnama, bantware ke pehle aur baad ki ek dastan”, by Shehla Hashmi Grewal, published by Gulmohar Kitab, released at the Press Club of India on November 16 by Mukul Kesavan, Prof Aditya Mukherjee, Shehla Hashmi Grewal, Bhasha Singh, Mukul Saral and Sohail Hashmi. Language: Hindustani, Script: Devnagari, pages 220, paperback, Price 350, ISBN: 9- 788194-717737



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