Translator’s note: Sumbul Shahid, the renowned actress, singer and daughter of the courageous writer and journalist Ahmad Bashir, the proverbial ‘second moon’ of the four Bashir sisters (Neelum Ahmad Bashir, Bushra Ansari and Asma Abbas being the other three) passed away from COVID – 19 last month on May 6. The original ‘golden girl’ of Pakistan Television, she was also an anchor of TV programs but unlike her more illustrious sister Bushra Ansari, she joined the industry a long time after fulfilling the demands of domestic life. She played secondary characters in many TV dramas and was last seen in the 2020 drama Nand alongside Minal Khan and Shahroz Sabzwari. Her husband Mian Shahid is a retired army officer. She had two sons, one of whom had passed away in the prime of his youth last summer while paragliding. I last met her at Neelum Aapa’s home for an intimate tete-a-tete in April this year and found her bubbly, lively and full of life. Here I am translating a warm and intimate sketch of Sumbul Shahid written by her sister Neelum Ahmad Bashir, extracted from her sketch titled ‘Chaar Chand’ included in her eponymous book (Four Moons, Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2011) with the hope that it will familiarize readers with a different side to an actress who passed away very young and was insufficiently celebrated in her short life, and inadequately remembered even after her sudden death. (RN)
Sumbul is the second moon descending in the courtyard of Ahmad Bashir and Mehmooda; everyone affectionately calls her Pappo. Though she was never Pappo-like. She was a beautiful, delicate-bodied, careless, playful and restless girl. A sense of humour overflowed within her, because of which the whole family kept laughing at her talk and actions and thus an air of contentedness and colour remained. Though the stays of unemployment which stood firm in the house of father were permanent as well, the daughters carried on with each other, laughed and played cheerfully, so the continuum of days and nights would remain active. Often when these pretty girls would ride a bus or rickshaw after getting ready to go out somewhere, Pappo would say, ‘We are going in a rickshaw though our faces are like those who sit in cars.’ A huge burst of laughter would ensue upon this and everyone would laugh.
Very much since childhood, Pappo and Neelum being elder sisters carried an important position in the home. A deep commonality remained in all the work of the two: for example, sleeping, waking, eating and drinking, remaining hungry in school until afternoon, wearing clothes by sharing them together, being scared of domestic worries. There used to be a three-legged black table in a corner of the kitchen at home. After returning from school or college following the evening tea, a grand musical gathering would be inaugurated. Pappo would tap the table with her delicate fingers and all the girls including the mother – whose throats possessed a beautiful voice like the cuckoo of ringdoves – would begin to sing. All were melodious, so a great assembly would flourish. They would rise from this amusement and entertainment, fulfilled; and this program would also continue the next day regularly in the same manner.
Mumtaz Mufti would come from Islamabad saying, ‘Chalo girls sing Daadha Bhedaa Ishqe Da Rog (Very Bad is the Disease of Love)’. These sisters besotted with the love for music would sing in tunes quavering and swaying, he would get happy. Bano Qudsia would call them flutes. At that moment it seemed that their entire life would be spent like this, fulfilling the spirit upon the tunes of music but time kept changing sides. The waves of music do very much have to stop somewhere or the other, some time or the other. So they stopped and life stepped out on other routes.
There used to be a three-legged black table in a corner of the kitchen at home. After returning from school or college following the evening tea, a grand musical gathering would be inaugurated
Pappo did not have much enthusiasm for going to school or studying. She would start crying while going to school, then mother and father would pick her up from school to pamper her. Due to this, she very much studied at leisure but did pass – never showed a failing grade. The domestic responsibilities at home had been so distributed that Neelum would cook food and Sumbul would clean. But Sumbul’s cleaning was superficial. She would often hide the trash beneath the bed while cleaning, which a teacher-like principled sister like Neelum would always discover and began to question her on it. Pappo also had an intense dislike of washing clothes. Everyone very much got a share of their own clothes and of those who were younger, but she would often be seen shedding tears near the tap. She would say, ‘I feel I am held in a washroom and outside the world is laughing, playing and enjoying itself.’
She and Neelum would also often fight. Pappo was a bit strong-hearted. She would pass the days after the fight with great patience and carefreeness but Neelum would set about weeping after conversation would cease between them. Pappo would agree to reconcile with great difficulty while Neelum’s heart would keep tempted to talk to her. Once upon seeing Neelum follow closely behind her, she said, irritated, ‘She has very much gotten after me like a bat.’ So Neelum’s heart was punched and she wept a lot. She never forgot this line but Neelum was no less, she used to very much take her revenge from her.
At night, both got the same narrow charpoy to sleep. Pappo would soon drop into deep sleep unawares, while Neelum would remain awake. Pappo would curl up her knees to turn them towards her stomach, so they would become a misery for Neelum by pricking her in the stomach. Neelum would repeatedly keep pulling her legs down forcibly and Pappo would not even know that what retaliatory action is being done with her.
Pappo was very fair, pretty, delicate-bodied. Whoever saw her would praise her heavenly beauty and then say, ‘She has taken purely after her mother but the poor one is very weak.’ Neelum’s ears would become sore repeatedly hearing these lines and she would be reduced to a bad condition with jealousy. Because Neelum herself was of full and rounded body, so nobody paid attention to her nor her beauty would ever be praised. She wished to become thin like Pappo. In the matter of beauty, for how many years she had an inferiority complex in relation to Pappo. She would shed tears while hiding away but would not say anything from her mouth. Mother and father would bring a lot of coloured, tasty vitamin syrups, cod liver oil and who knows what not for Pappo to give her to drink in that her health is not good. Her bones are weak. Neelum would not be given anything out of it, so she would regard her healthiness and proportionate body as hateful. Mostly new and beautiful clothes were put very much on Pappo. Neelum would sometimes think perhaps she was not her parents’ own offspring, but coming from childhood to youth, many matters began to become clear and transparent. Both became friends. Then Neelum got married and went abroad, so both sisters became strangers for many years. The impasse ended so both became sisters again and today there is great connection, friendship and affinity between both. Both have a great support from each other.
At night, both got the same narrow charpoy to sleep. Pappo would soon drop into deep sleep, while Neelum would remain awake. Pappo would curl up her knees to turn them towards her stomach, so they would become a misery for Neelum by pricking her in the stomach
Pappo too like her other family members is very kind-hearted and good-natured. Since the time of school, often she would bring home deserving, classmate girls clinging onto her. After feeding them and giving them clothes, to procure jobs for their family members by recommendation, solving the issues of their other domestic matters was included among her routines and still is. In her childhood she used to fondly fan the aged domestic maidservant while she made rotis. Mother would scold her as well but even then she did not desist from having the dirty and ill-clad relatives of the servants coming from the village sit on sofas with dirty feet and serving them drinks. Once she saw an old shepherd grazing goats in an empty field before the house, she became sad. She beckoned him to come near. Baba came. She began to say, ‘Baba you are grazing goats in the sunlight since morning. You must be hungry. Should I give you food?’ Baba had a look at that girl. Then replied irritably, ‘Why should I eat your food, am I a fakir.’ Sumbul was ashamed and was taunted on this incident for years.
Ahmad Bashir had started many projects of piety and kind-heartedness at home. These projects would very much run fine – even without any NGO of the modern era. He had ordered that should a servant be bitten by a dog, Neelum would have the responsibility of having the servant’s stomach injected for 14 days. Neelum certainly fulfilled this duty for three or four servants while cursing them silently. As soon as morning came, she would go to the hospital by riding a bus with the servant and returned after performing this good deed. Father had also ordered for servants of the house to be necessarily taught.
Sumbul was responsible for teaching a blind boy Muhammad Hussain, who arrived with his mother in the sweltering afternoon right at the time when Sumbul had to sleep but praise be to that young teenage girl in that she sacrificed her beloved sleep to perform this task with liveliness and passion. Sometimes Bushra (Ansari) and Neelum too would jump into the field to help, but this virtuous deed was mostly performed by Pappo. She herself never had a desire for education but she would sit with Muhammad Hussain to have him memorize lessons regularly. Eventually her labour paid off and Muhammad Hussain did his Masters. His mother brought sweets and then he also got the job of a professor in college. Who knows Muhammad Hussain ever remembered that crazy house where girls of youthful, careless and wanton age used to teach him daily with such seriousness.
In childhood Neelum and Pappo would remain close together. Pappo slept more and Neelum less. Pappo would sleep so Neelum would vex alone in that she did not enjoy without her sister. Neelum would think of mischief. She would suddenly wake up her sister sleeping unawares with a shock and create an uproar, ‘Get up, there is an earthquake.’ Poor Pappo would sit up bewildered and begin to run as fast as her legs could carry her, at which Neelum would laugh aloud. Greedy for sleep, Neelum would burn with envy upon seeing her sleep. At 4 or 5 in the evening, she would shake her up from sleep, saying, ‘Get up, it’s morning. It is time for school.’ Innocent, simple Pappo would get up from bed with civility, believing what her elder, reliable, respected sister had said to be true; go towards the bathroom with sleepy eyes, wash her face and hands, clean her teeth with toothpaste slowly in slow motion and then obediently came to sit on the kitchen stool. She would say with a yawn, ‘Baji, give me breakfast.’ At this, Neelum would have fits of laughter and she would tease her saying, ‘Breakfast and at this time? It’s still very much 4 pm in the evening.’ Pappo would get angry and babbling and raving, she would rush into bed to try to sleep again. Their childhood passed among these very sweet and innocent mischiefs and they became older.
Note: All translations are by the writer. All photographs courtesy Neelum Ahmad Bashir
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com