Saturday, October 20, 2012

Babur Ki Aulad in London

I had always wanted to watch Babur Ki Aulad. So, when a mail arrived from The Nehru Centre, London informing that Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan will play host (Oct 10, 2012) I marked it on my calendar. As the name suggests it provides a glimpse into the lives of Mughal emperors. 

The narrative revolves around the imprisoned last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar and his interaction with a history scholar from the current time who gets transported back to Zafar's cell in Rangoon. The sad, lonely and forlorn emperor gets candid talking about his ancestors, correcting the youngster's Urdu in between.

In a moment of heat, Zafar reminds his 'friend' that while a father's blood can be disputed there can be no ambiguity regarding the mother's identity. This was in response to questions about the Indianness of the Mughals. Bahadur Shah Zafar's mother was a Hindu. Without doubt, Tom Alter excelled in his role as the weak and ailing Zafar. His voice had the depth and pain of an exiled king who was only too eager to share slice of Mughal history.

It starts from Babur and reflects upon the emotional struggle he faced between choosing to live in India or returning to Afghanistan. The king who loved a good glass, established the Mughal kingdom, but longed for Kabul. Babur's dialogues reminded me of Baburnama that I read couple of years ago. The frailties and courage of a king really strikes you. Sayeed Alam the director of the play played the role of Babur with finesse. "It was after defeating Ibrahim Lodhi and not Rana Sanga that the Mughal found their foot in India," informs Zafar to his wide eyed friend.

The play brings out the power struggle for the Mughal throne between heirs down the generation. Most of the emperors witnessed ugly power struggles with the accompanying palace intrigue and battles between brothers. Akbar's confrontation with Bairam Khan, Nur Jahan's wish to see Prince Shahryar on the throne instead of Prince Khurram (Shahjahan) who himself saw enough misery in his last days were well captured.

When Aurangzeb appeared on stage the youngster remarked that he doesn't look like even Aurangzeb's servant. The king who imposed jaziya and expanded Mughal rule lived on earnings made by copying the Quran and stitching caps. Right from Babur, Humayun to the 'benovelent' Akbar, the 'womaniser' Jehangir, the 'magnificent' Shah Jahan, the 'mighty' Aurangzeb to Bahadur Shah Zafar - none of them went for Haj - despite their wealth and power and capability.

The last Nizam, touted as the richest man of his time, did not go to Haj even though he made arrangements for pilgrims in Mecca at his expense Faith aside, being in constant command was perhaps a prerequisite to safeguard the kingdom and maintain ones hold. A trip to Mecca meant being away from the throne for few months, at a time when a few days would turn the tide. However, they never shied away from sending unwanted and troublesome relatives, generals to Haj to have their paths clear.

The title Babur Ki Aulad is apt as the play is indeed about the sons of Babur. It does touch upon the attempt to use Babur Ki Aulad to label a community as alien to India. As the narrative flows it reveals why the Mughals acted the way they did. Some of the more popular Mughals were born of Hindu mother - Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan Bahadur Shah Zafar.

It is an irony that the principal language used in Babur's time disappeared from the Mughal court quite soon. Chaghatay, the language in which Babur wrote his Baburnama, which was his first language gave way to Persian. While Akbar could converse in it, his son Jehangir could only understand it. Babur's alienation had started much earlier.

The play originally written by Salman Khurshid in English was translated in Urdu by Ather Farouqui. "We thought it fit that the play be in Urdu in London and for the English version you have to come down to India," Khurshid said. Also present was the Indian High Commissioner to UK Dr Jaimini Bhagwati with his wife.

When the play ended it was a relief to see Tom Alter stand erect. During the whole play all he had was a bed, one-fourth his size, which made me sitting in the audience constantly uncomfortable. Tom was not very happy with the cameras flashing all along during the performance and spelled out his displeasure. 

"Hindustan mein inse zyaada gora aur inse achhi Urdu bolne waala koi nahin hain," said Sayeed Alam at the end.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fathema Ismail: Mumbai's millionaire polio activist

In 2011, India declared itself polio-free. It had taken decades of government and civil society intervention to achieve this result in a country where an attack of polio, and the physical disability it caused, was traditionally regarded as punishment for past sins.

One of the early pioneers of polio activism in India was Fathema Ismail, who was born in 1903. Ismail was the sister of the flamboyant mill owner, Umar Sobhani, an ardent Congress party activist who was very close to M.K. Gandhi and who, in fact, supported the party financially in a major way. Given her brother’s proximity to nationalist leaders, Ismail was naturally also drawn to issues of social emancipation.

In 1936, she had served as the Secretary of the Simla branch of the All India Women’s Conference. Her Nepean Sea Road residence in Bombay (now Mumbai), where she lived after marriage, was a meeting ground for members of the party. She was known to have hidden Jayaprakash Narayan, then a young freedom fighter, under her bed to escape getting arrested by the police! She was also actively involved in women’s education and was a founder member of All India Village Industries Association.

Her life, however, took a different turn when in the 1940s her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was diagnosed with poliomyelitis. The shocked mother realised there was very little that could be done, but driven by her personal anguish, she travelled the length and breath of the country to ensure that her daughter got the best medical attention available at that time. More than her daughter’s condition, it was the attitude of the medical community and lack of proper treatment for polio patients that disturbed her.

Finally, Ismail was referred to Dr M.G. Kini, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon based in Madras (now Chennai). For around eight months, her daughter underwent treatment at Stanley Medical Hospital under the supervision of Dr Kini and all the while she herself made sure to imbibe the basic principles that underlay the rehabilitation of the polio stricken.

From Madras, she went to Pune next, since it offered her daughter more salubrious weather conditions than those that prevailed in Bombay. Here Ismail regularly visited the Army Rehabilitation Centre, which took care of injured soldiers and officers, to observe for herself the methods employed there.

After around three years of such work, she decided to put her experience to good use by assisting parents struggling to get their disabled children treated. She single-handedly networked with the medical community to achieve this and her first step was to collaborate with Bombay’s leading doctors to start a rehabilitation centre.

By May 1947, even as the country was on the threshold of independence, the Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre for Infantile Paralysis had taken shape. But it did not have premises from which to operate. The space crunch was eventually resolved after Dr A.V. Baliga, a surgeon and educationist, offered his clinic to Ismail since he himself was going to the US on a six-month tour. Thanks to Dr Baliga's generosity the Centre could start functioning and patients began to trickle in as word spread. By July 1948, the Centre had a waiting list of more than a hundred patients with around 80 children under treatment.

Once the Centre was up and running, Ismail began to work towards the creation of supportive organisations like the Society for the Education of the Crippled (SEC), the Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped, and the Children's Orthopaedic Hospital, all of which continue to be around today.

Ismail was a true visionary who understood how difficult it was for differently-abled children to get access to educational and recreational facilities and she worked hard to address this concern.

Veteran journalist, M.V. Kamath, who was then a reporter with ‘The Free Press Journal’, did a story on her, naming her India’s Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Kenny, incidentally, was a remarkable Australian nurse who had evolved rehabilitation techniques for polio patients. Such media coverage made Ismail’s work better known among those who really needed such support and with this the number of patients who sought medical assistance increased dramatically. People began to realise that children with disabilities had as much right to a future as any other child.

With the phenomenal increase in the number of patients, Ismail decided to expand the movement. Since the rich and educated could seek assistance from economically prosperous countries, she decided to focus on the less privileged. They clearly needed help and information.

In September 1947, just after the country had gained independence, Ismail - ably supported and guided by the socially conscious doctors and surgeons – established the ‘Society for the Rehabilitation of Disabled and Crippled Children’. As Ismail put it herself, it was to “organise diagnostic and treatment facilities and to educate the public on the problem as well as to collect statistics”. The government could now no longer overlook her pioneering efforts in the area, and released a grant to ensure that the good work being done could continue.

In 1951, she represented India at the Second International Polio Poliomyelitis Congress. She also visited several countries to gain first-hand experience on the different ways to support and help polio survivors. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958 and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1978. The pioneering activist passed away on February 4, 1987.

Piecing together the shards of Fathema Ismail’s remarkable life is not easy given the sparse information available. For instance, the question arises as to what happened to her daughter whose treatment had led to the determined mother emerging as a disability activist. Again Kamath provides some clues. In the 1970s, he was introduced to a certain Miss Ismail at a party in New York. As he notes in his book, ‘Reporter at Large’, she turned out to be the daughter of Fathema Ismail and bore no visible trace of any disability. She was married and had children.

But it was not just her own daughter to whom Ismail had reached out - she had helped innumerable children stand on their own feet and enjoy lives on their own terms. Today, she continues to do this through the institutions she built and nurtured.

—(Women's Feature Service, Published in Kashmir Times)