Ever since I was a child growing up in Karachi I have been aware that the usage of words is a matter of paramount importance. My father, Isha’at Habibullah, an executive in a British multinational, had been educated in England from the age of eight. He read the Illiad in Greek, threw in Latin phrases to reinforce his arguments, and was immensely conscious of good English, the dominant language in our home and our social milieu. My mother, Jahanara Habibullah, however, spoke beautiful Urdu, her first language. She received a private education in Urdu, Arabic and Persian and also learnt English. After Partition, she exchanged copious letters with her two sisters in Rampur, which had become a part of India.

Her family included great poets and patrons of art and literature. One, Fakhra Masuduzzafar Khan, was a gifted artist. She illustrated the verses of the celebrated poet Ghalib with fluid pencil drawings of women with large slanting eyes, wavy tresses and swirling attire. My mother treasured these as she did a letter by their eldest sister, Rafat Zamani Begum of Rampur: it was entitled ‘Pakistani Behen Key Naam’ (in the name of my Pakistani sister) and presented by a Rampur scribe in formal black calligraphy. When I acquired my first copy of The Arabian Nights I was told that Rafat was a ‘true-life Sheherezade’. Once upon a time, she created extraordinary tales – positive cliff-hangers – in the tradition of the Urdu dastaan to entertain her kinsman and husband, the ruler of Rampur. To the best of my knowledge these tales were never recorded; they now belong to that lost genre of sub-continental women: the oral tale. My mother also composed wedding poems (sehras) for her brothers and her children. After Partition she contributed autobiographical articles to Urdu-language Indian journals, describing the sumptuous, almost forgotten customs and rituals she had witnessed. She incorporated extracts from these artices in her memoir, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State During The Raj (2001).

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