The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal, Tahmina Aziz Ayub
Published by: Penguin Random House India
Non Fiction: Biography, 256 pages
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
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 in 1951 Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated, and the reasons for his murder are still shrouded in mystery. Ra’ana continued to be active in public life-and 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.
About the authors:
Deepa Agarwal (India) is a poet and translator and is the author of over fifty books in English and Hindi. Tahmina Aziz Ayub (Pakistan) has worked with several national and international NGOs in the struggle for human rights and women’s empowerment.
*Thank you Penguin India and Vivek Tejuja for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
‘The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady’ is a biography put together by two authors from India and Pakistan tracing the roots of a woman who was part of the shaping of Pakistan as a young nation. It comes in two parts: the first part traces the roots of Irene Margaret Pant in Almora while the second part follows her journey as the First Lady of Pakistan. I found it quite a revelation that Pakistan’s First Lady belonged to a family with a strong Hindu lineage and then going on to face social censure once they converted to Christianity and then history repeating itself with Irene having to cut off family ties after she converts to Islam to marry Liaquat Ali Khan. The anecdotes put into the first section of the book from family and acquaintances give a personal touch to the writing and the readers get to see the intellect of The Begum on her own steam: as someone who keenly follows the political developments around her and an equal partner to Liaquat Ali Khan towards the movement for establishing Pakistan.
I found that the second part of the book repeated quite a few areas covered in the first part but overall, it is a fitting tribute to the woman who became much revered and admired and was conferred the title ‘Madar –E-Pakistan’ or Mother of Pakistan. This section follows the Begum not only in her official role as the Prime Minister’s spouse but as a far sighted person who involved and inspired women to contribute to nation building. The book captures the essence and persona of a woman in traditional clothes but with a liberal approach and political voice and in the current context of divides over how women dress, it makes the subtle point that one’s dress is more than just one’s identity. It is a fascinating look at what history doesn’t tell us enough: the role of women in shaping political outlooks and narratives.
I would recommend this book for history buffs and for those of you who are keen to discover stories and lives of trailblazing women we don’t know much of.