When we think of the Tyabji family, there are only few names that would strike most of us. It would primarily be Badruddin Tyabji and for those more informed perhaps Abbas Tyabji and other members of the extended family like writer Atiya Fyzee, ornithologist Salim Ali and jurist A A A Fyzee. Badruddin and his elder brother Camruddin's career in the legal field shifted the focus from the family's involvement in commerce and trade to professional service and scholarship. Within a period of a century and more after the death of Badruddin’s father and family patriarch Bhoymeaah Tyabji, there were some remarkable men and women who emerged from the Tyabji clan.
Salima Tyabji's book ‘The Changing World of a Bombay Muslim Community’ introduces some of the lesser known Tyabjis. Drawn largely on the family papers, journals and correspondence the book 'initially arose from my (author's) curiosity about how I, brought up as a Muslim, could have the freedom, intellectual and otherwise, that was popularly supposed to be denied to Muslims, women in particular.' I read for the first time about Rahat and Safia, wife and daughter of Badruddin Tyabji. As the Tyabjis married among themselves, no matter how many books or articles you read it is not difficult to get confused.
Salima Tyabji's book provides a glimpse to the unique persona of the Tyabji family. Belonging to the Sulaimani Bohra sect, the Tyabjis in the late nineteenth century had the prestige and popularity largely due to the achievements and standing of Badruddin and Camruddin to provide leadership to the Muslims of Bombay. Unlike the other wealthy and powerful families belonging to the trading and merchant communities, the Tyabjis had a good mix of members who were professionals as well as involved in business. The first Muslim Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer who did exceptionally well in the examination was Mohsin, son of Badruddin Tyabji.
The most remarkable story that comes out from the book is that of the couple Safia and Jabir. Safia was married to Jabir Ali the eldest brother of Salim Ali. The author has translated the diary entries of Safia from Urdu to English and in doing so has brought to light a very emotional and, uncharacteristically candid saga of intimacy, struggle and love. It is just wonderful to go through those pages that detail how the Cambridge graduate grappled with looking after his family while spending time in jail due to his affiliation with Congress. Jabir was a close friend of Jal Naoroji the grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji and settled in Chembur which was far from the city.
In what ways were the Tyabjis different from a North Indian Muslim family of similar standing? Except few, most of the Tyabjis married among themselves and stayed away from the wealthy, landholding families of North India or of similar character in Deccan and Western India. Rahat Tyabji as the book notes "had strong views about not having her children marrying into Nawabi families, but wanted people of good solid bourgeois stock". This had a bearing on how the different branches of the Tyabjis responded to subsequent events in the country. The Fyzee sisters had fashioned themselves closely with the Urdu-speaking North Indian elites though it is equally interesting to know that the Fyzee sisters had learnt Marathi. Atiya Fyzee who later established a school in Bombay would constantly find faults in the teaching of Urdu in Bombay’s municipal schools.
This led to a cold relationship with Khadija Shuffi Tyabji who perhaps was the most active woman politician among the Tyabjis, which Atiya aspired but never managed to emulate. I wish the book had more information about Khadija Tyabji for she was a long running member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Assembly and was very active on the city’s social and political front. It seems Atiya collaborated closely with Maulana Shaukat Ali though in all fairness I must say that Nazli did collect funds for the Congress as well and was influenced by Gandhi.
Khadija was widowed at an early age and her son had settled in Hyderabad where he managed few mills while she remained in Bombay. Khadija was also associated with the Haj Committee in the 1930s and did much for the education of women. Just like Khadija, Dilshad Begum the daughter of Camruddin Tyabji remains forgotten. Dilshad was married into the Murshidabad royal family. She was active on the restricted and exclusive social scene and her early death in 1925 shocked her friends in Bombay and Bangalore where her daughter shifted with her husband. The Sandhurst-educated Iskander Mirza who went on to become President of Pakistan was her son.
The Tyabjis are one of the few and earliest families who gave their daughters a sense of independence and access to education. This explains the confidence and the multifaceted lives of the women discussed above. The Tyabjis, Hydaris, Fyzees, Futehallys, Habibs, Latifis are all related and the large number of outstanding men and women that they have given has few parallels. Polymath and brilliant ICS officer Sir Alma Latifi (father of Danial Latifi), scholar and keen sportsman A A A Fyzee (India’s ambassador to Egypt), ornithologists Salim Ali, Humayun Ali, Zafar Futehally, historian Irfan Habib, social activist Kamila Tyabji and other distinguished personalities all belong to the same clan. As the family expanded rapidly and different branches settled in various parts of India and world, a comprehensive biography of the Tyabjis is still to see the light of the day.
There was no uniformity of opinion amongst them neither did they consciously work towards it. But what was common was the drive to excel and make a difference to the society in whichever field they choose. As Moin Shakir and Theodore Wright have rightly observed: “It was perhaps the impact of Bombay and the compulsions of the trade that led Tyabjis to reject the increasingly dysfunctional feudal values of the North Indian and the Deccan nobilities but exemplified the commercial skills and adaptability of the Weberian prototype. In short they were the early members of the new Indian Middle class.”