Life teaches us a simple lesson which we insist on forgetting. The only time we can show our care and love is when a person is around. After death, there is nothing but a sense of loss and many regrets. It was with this feeling that I went to Aligarh last month to pay my last respects to Zahida Zaidi, a person I admired as a sister, a teacher and a writer.
She was my cousin who lost their father when they were very young. The elders of the family decided to bring their widowed daughter home to Panipat from Meerut which was her marital home. I was not born then so I don’t know whether my aunt wanted to be uprooted or not. All I know is that she had to raise her five girls by herself. A young widow with five daughters must have been very hard for her. She sent them to Aligarh which was a premier centre for education to ensure that the family tradition of educating girl children would be carried on. She is a poet and writer. She passed on to her children her love of literature. All her daughters came to excel in academics.
After her post graduation, Zahida was sent to Cambridge to study literature. There were no financial resources for foreign education in our modest family. It was her own academic excellence that saw her through the three years in England. She earned with honours a Tripos in English literature and returned to India to begin her teaching career.
She taught briefly at Aligarh Muslim University. She later joined Miranda House where I was studying. I was a first year student when I heard that we had a new English lecturer, Zahida Zaidi from Aligarh. I had known her as a cousin who was closer to my older sisters in age. Now, I saw her as my teacher and that too for the ‘paper’ on the Age of the Romantics in English Literature. Those hours in her class will stay with me and my classmates for all our lives. I say this with confidence because we still meet and speak of those moments after 50 years!
It was during the Aligarh period that her poetry became the centre of her life. She was one of the very few people I know (my father, her Mamu, was another) who could write in Urdu and English with equal felicity. Volumes of her Urdu poetry began to appear and make waves. She translated Urdu verse into perfect English. The flow of her translations often equaled the original.
Her collections of poetry, plays, essays and recitations during ‘mushairas’ are among of the list of her achievements. It will take a while before we begin to fathom the extent of her understanding and vastness of her vision. Her intellectual depth was never widely understood.
A woman of substance, she lived and died on her own terms. She lived by herself, with her books as faithful companions. Her beloved writers, the playwright Chekov, the novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and poets Ghalib and Iqbal lined her shelves filled with well used books. For one who decided to stay single, she had many family members, friends and students who came with tears to bid her farewell. She had a good life and a good death. It is something we all would like for ourselves.
She inscribed her last book to me in September 2010. I gave it to Khushwant Singh, knowing his love for Urdu. I was hoping that if he wrote about it in his column the word would go far and wide to give a boost to the cause of Urdu literature. While he could not write about it in time, he did return the book to me recently. It is equally valuable for lovers of Urdu the world over – a gift from a woman who loved words.