top of page
  • Writer's pictureDeepa Agarwal

Fast away the old year passes...

As 2018 speeds to an end I'm already looking forward to 2019. New books, new ideas, new events and new projects.

The Begum is one. A biography in the making for some years now, it's been an extraordinary journey of discovery--about historical events and the lives of people who were just names to me earlier.

Each book has a journey of its own and many people help it along the way. This biography of a remarkable woman whose story somehow got lost in the clamour of sub-continental debate, had its birth in a serendipitous conversation with celebrated author and Director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Namita Gokhale, at a LitFest in Kumaon. Kumaon happens to be the region where Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan aka Irene Pant was born.

The truth is, the Begum was a person mentioned with awe in Almora, the small town which is also my birthplace. Her family and mine had been close for two generations and I practically grew up on anecdotes about her achievements. So you can imagine my excitement, when Namita, who is actually related to Ra'ana/Irene, suggested the biography. It became a joint effort with Tehmina Aziz Ayub, who has written the second part, which covers Ra'ana's life in Pakistan. We were extremely fortunate to find a wonderful publisher Penguin Random House India and an editor who was as enthusiastic about this story as we were - Ranjana Sen Gupta.

But what is so remarkable about the life of Pakistan's first First Lady?

Plenty. To quote from the blurb, "Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan was the wife of Pakistan's first prime minister. She was born Irene Margaret Pant in Kumaon in the early twentieth century. A generation earlier, her family had converted to Christianity, and Irene grew up in the shadow of the Brahmin community's still active outrage. Always intelligent, outgoing and independent, she was teaching economics in a Delhi college when she met the dashing Nawazada Liaquat Ali Khan, a rising politician in the Muslim League and an ardent champion of the cause for Pakistan. She was immediately inspired by both the man and the idea; they married in 1933 and Irene Pant became Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan. In August 1947 they left for Pakistan-led by Liaquat's mentor and friend, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Ra'ana threw herself into the work of nation building, but tragically, in 1951 Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated. The reasons for his murder are still shrouded in mystery. Ra'ana bore his loss with great courage and continued to be active in public life. Her contribution to women's empowerment in Pakistan is felt to this day. Ra'ana's life story embodies all the major tropes of the Indian subcontinent's recent history. Three religions-Hinduism, Christianity and Islam-had an immense impact on her life, and she participated actively in all the major movements of her time-the freedom struggle, the Pakistani movement and the fight for women's empowerment. She could see clearly what went wrong after 1947 and wasn't afraid to say so. She spoke out openly against the rise of religious conservatism in Pakistan and the growing role of corruption. She occasionally met with opposition, but she never gave up. It is this spirit that The Begum captures."

26 views1 comment
bottom of page