When her husband, the journalist and lifelong activist Mazhar Ali Khan, died in January 1993, there was a deluge of glowing obits, both here and abroad. In life as in death, Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan is no less cherished, and for me as for many others, she was a beacon of inspiration, a pillar of strength and a bastion of hope.
She, along with my aunt, the late and much-missed Kishwar Abid Hussain, stirred me to political activism, encouraged me to decide my own fate, and supported me through an early and amply rewarded struggle. They were my partisans in my battle to marry a man of my own choice in the face of family disapproval. I was 23, the man was Najam Sethi and this was more than 30 years ago.
Born in 1925 to Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, later premier of Punjab and leading Unionist politician, Tahira grew up to be a stunning young woman, schooled at Queen Mary’s College in Lahore and drawn to revolt while still in her teens. She eloped with her charismatic, student leader cousin Mazhar when she was 17. Their marriage went on to become a fabled partnership.
Tahira spoke to me of this legendary union, when Mazhar Ali Khan died. This is her story once again:
“Mazhar was born with the Revolution in 1917. His father, Nawab Muzaffar Khan, was my father’s cousin. Our family lived in Wah, the elders thought the tribe came to India from Ghazni with Sultan Mahmud. They also believed that Jehangir stopped by the springs on their land en route to Kashmir and exclaimed, ‘Wah!’ We were brought up in Lahore, we were a large brood, ten children off three mothers. Abaji (Sir Sikander) was very keen that we be constructively employed in after-school hours. He encouraged an interest in the arts and culture. I went to Queen Mary’s College with my sisters and had a passion for sport. We spent the weekends at our family home in Lahore where the other cousins also gathered. Mazhar was 8 years older than me. I must have been 14 or 15 when I first noticed him. He was tall and quiet. He was already a well-known debater and student leader. I remember I tried several antics to attract his attention. He ignored me. I think he began to notice me a year or so later.
“We married when I was a little over 17 and he 25. Abaji would’ve been happier had I married Mumtaz Daultana. It was an unspoken understanding between his father Chacha Ahmedyar and Abaji. Don’t forget, Mazhar was unemployed. But I made my preference known to Abaji and he agreed. We went to live in Wah after we married. Mazhar was a Communist sympathizer although he never joined the party. In Wah, he worked with the peasants and workers at Khaur. Of course the family was distinctly uncomfortable with this line of activity but they didn’t object openly. Those were happy days. We lived on virtually nothing. I remember the time Ghaffar Khan was externed from the Frontier. He came to live with us in Wah for two months. Shortly after that, Mazhar left for the Middle East on military service. I was very pregnant by then. We didn’t see each other for two years. Our son Tariq was born while Mazhar was away.
“By the time he returned, I had joined the Communist Party. I had given away my entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Party. We were penniless but content. One day Mian Iftikharuddin came to Wah to see Mazhar. He said he wanted to launch a daily newspaper, The Pakistan Times. He and Mazhar discussed it for days and eventually agreed to put an organization together. It was called Progressive Papers Ltd (PPL). This was the year before the Partition.
“Mazhar became editor of PT and then went to the news desk when Faiz took over the editorship. We moved to Lahore; we had another child, a daughter, Tausif. I worked with women and trade unionists. I used to cycle all over Lahore. Our children were raised by Mazhar’s wetnurse, Jan Amma. I don’t think I could have managed without her. The children called their father Majo and me Maa.
“In 1959, General Ayub Khan nationalized PPL and Mazhar resigned immediately. We were lucky to have had our own house but the going got tougher and tougher, so we rented our house and moved to an apartment on Nicholson Road. Ayub sent messages through General Sheikh who was his interior minister and Mazhar’s brother-in-law for him to return to PT. But Mazhar declined, saying he couldn’t collaborate with a martial law regime. By then I was expecting our third child, Mahir.
“Mazhar remained unemployed for years together. He kept his sanity by observing a strict regime of exercise. We swam regularly in the summer and played tennis in the winter. He also read voraciously.
“It wasn’t possible to write anywhere in those days. It was much later that Mazhar began to write for the Bengali weekly Forum. His great pride and joy was Tariq, our elder son, who at 12 had led a demonstration of schoolboys to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba. He was also a keen debater, another thing he had in common with his father.
“Our apartment on Nicholson Road overflowed with life. The Progressives were constantly in and out of our home – Sajjad Zaheer, Sibte Hassan, Mirza Ibrahim. The 60s closed on an optimistic note. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won a landslide victory. Sometime in the early 70s, Dawn’s management asked Mazhar to fill in for their editor Altaf Gauhar, who had been imprisoned by Bhutto. When he came back to Lahore, he launched a weekly called Viewpoint.
“We sold our house, retaining the patch with the annexe, to get Viewpoint going. It was a labour of love for Mazhar. The children were growing up; Tariq had been to Oxford and won his own recognition. I was busy with the Democratic Women’s Association. Viewpoint was a bottomless though; we ended up selling almost everything we had to keep it going. I did protest that we couldn’t carry on like that but I just couldn’t say no to Mazhar in the end. It was his life.
“The pressures were enormous, especially with General Zia came to power. Mazhar was arrested and imprisoned in 1978 and then again in 1981, following the hijacking of the PIA plane. He developed a heart problem and had to have bypass surgery the following year.
“We kept Viewpoint going for as long as we could. Eventually, it became such a strain that we had to close it down in 1992. Mazhar went back to writing a weekly column for Dawn. On the afternoon of January 28, 1993, he complained of a feeling of ‘heaviness’. I took him to hospital. He asked me to call his editor at Dawn and tell him that he wouldn’t be able to send in his column on time. He died the same night.
“I wouldn’t say he was broken by the closure of Viewpoint. No, he’d come to terms with it. He had watched the Cold War thawing with great interest. Although he’d been a member of the Pakistan-Soviet Friendship Society for years, along with Faiz, he was not uncritical of what passed for Communism in the USSR. He was enormously heartened by Gorbachev’s appearance. When the Soviet Union broke up, he said it was the dialectic at work. Communism had had an enormously salutary effect on capitalism. The welfare state and ‘caring capitalism’ were the West’s response to the threat of Communism. No, we did not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union.”
Tahira carried on in her steadfast way after her husband and partner died. She remained a champion of workers’ rights, a concerned citizen, always the activist. Her health began to decline a few years ago, and she passed away on Pakistan Day, March 23, 2015.
What she meant to me
By Neelam Hussain
Tahira Mazhar Ali passed away on the 23rd of March, not “in the dead of winter” when the “mercury sinks in the mouth of the dying day” but on a golden afternoon with her garden in full bloom with the roses – the kind of day when Lahore takes on a fragile, heartbreaking beauty to give a lie to the world and time. So it should be for Tahira, who loved life and laughter and kept faith with life’s causes; who fought for what she believed in and kept hope alive at a time when little seems left to hope for. More than any enumeration of her causes and commitments, the gathering of people who had come to take their last leave of her, bore witness to the richness and variety of her life.
Her children were there of course, Tauseef and Kamal and Kamila, as were nieces and nephews; there were life-long friends like Sohnu Rahman and Zakia Hamid Jalal, and comrades from the left – among them Fahmida Butt and Naseem Shamim Ashraf Malik with whom, as one of the founders of the Democratic Women’s Association in Pakistan, she had worked with women of the Railway Worker’s Union.
Tahira consistently upheld the worker’s cause to take a stand against her own class including personal friends and she had been among the handful of people who had come out on Lahore’s Mall in 1971 to protest army action in East Pakistan and been spat upon for traitors by passersby. And there was WAF – women from her daughter’s generation – whom she had disagreed with, criticised, and stood with in common cause against military rule, Islamisation and unjust laws.
I cannot remember a time when Tahira Mazhar Ali and Mazhar Ali Khan were not a part of our lives. My father, Amir Hussain Shah, and Mazhar Ali Khan were friends and colleagues at The Pakistan Times. I don’t know what came first – the friendship or the work association, but the friendship certainly outlasted the newspaper which was taken over by General Ayub Khan’s government in 1958. Tahira chachi and Mazhar chacha, as my brothers and I called them, were the constants in our lives and our relationship evolved through the various stages of our lives till it reached a plane where we could reach out to each other and share our lives as adults.
My earliest memories are of Tauseef’s and Tariq’s birthday parties at the Nicholson Road flat, where poetry recitation was part of the evening’s entertainment, and we – Nina, Kauchi, Chhammi, Shelly, Cheemi, Mizu and others quite literally had to ‘sing for our supper’ even as the seeds of future friendships were sown. Then there were the adversarial years of adolescence when Tariq and I, preferring a somewhat philosophical approach to education and hard work had ended up with second divisions in the Senior Cambridge exam to be dismissed with a summary ‘Dowain ikko jinnay na laiq niklay.’ Great ‘walkers’ – long before walking became trendy and branded attire a mandatory given – Tahira chachi in khadar suit and ‘fleet’ shoes and Mazhar chacha in baggy blue shorts and tee shirt were familiar figures of the canal and Jail Road landscape. They would often stop by at our house during these walks and we had come home once to find them quite comfortable on a charpai near the gate. Judging them on sartorial merit, the cook, a new man, had not let them into the house.
Tahira believed in young people’s right to decide their lives but without in any way conceding her own authority. Following this logic she wrote to me in England about my brother Hassan’s engagement. She had expressed approval in her own inimitable style: ‘I like Rukhsana – she’s not at all the marrying kind!’ Sitting here today, when her absence fills the garden that she loved, different aspects of her life pass before my eyes. It comes to me that perhaps her greatest gift to me and the women whose lives she touched, was the realisation, that a woman’s domain extended far beyond the narrow circumference of motherhood and household management. That the world that lies before us like a land of dreams, is ours to claim.