Noor Zaheer: Author, activist, actor, journalist who once wanted to be a dancer

Story by  ATV | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 24-12-2023
Author, poet, activist Noor Zaheer
Author, poet, activist Noor Zaheer


Sameer Shaikh

Lucknow-born Noor Zaheer wears many a hat; she is a writer, activist, playwright, and actor. In his mid-sixties, Noor inherited it all; her parents Razia and Sajjad Zaheer were famous Urdu writers. her father was one of the founders of the Progressive Writers Association. Noor Zaheer began her career as a journalist. She reported the Shah Bano case which changed India’s politics. It left a deep impression in her mind; the young reporter in her had a lot of questions. She studied religion and the Constitution for answers and developed a new perspective on women especially Muslim women's issues. She soon realized that she would have to fight on many fronts simultaneously for their rights.

Her first novel My God is Woman summed up her experiences during the Shah Bano case.

Proficient in Hindi, Urdu,and English, Noor Zaheer has written. My share of light, A drop of ink, Blood on the sand, Silent mountains, Smoldering forests, Bad Uraiyye, Companions of the red caravan, At Home in Enemy Land, Stone Soldiers, The Dancing Lama, Buddhism, Tribal and Oral Traditions in the North-Western Himalayas, Denied by Allah, Today's Names, Early Women's writing in Urdu are some of her major literary works.

Her blunt and feminist stance has troubled the traditionalists and yet Noor Zaheer remains unmoved. While writing, she learned drama. She realized that drama can be an effective medium for social awareness.

On stage, she started a new tradition of discussing with the audience at the end of the play. She also used street theater to reach more people.

Amidst this, the activist in her was alive and she realized she needed to work among Muslims. Her experiences with the community were well reflected in her books.

Noor Zehra has also done research papers on Tribal and Buddhist Oral Traditions of the North-Western Himalayas, Early Women's Writing in Urdu: A Four Volume Collection of Short Stories, Poems, Plays and Essays, Buddhist and Sufi Elements in Baul Mysticism.

Your father and mother were famous Urdu litterateurs. Your father was one of the founders of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. How was your childhood?

I can’t recall any day of my childhood that wasn’t special. Big writers, politicians, etc came to our house. Kaifi Azmi taught me how to tie shoelaces; I was three-and-a-half-year old. I could wear shoes but did not know how to tie laces. So he told me which side to hold and which side to turn and insert. This was the kind of life. However, as a child, I realized that literature and politics are not two different things.

If you are a literary person, you do not have to stay away from politics. This kind of chatter used to happen all the time at home. Be it with Khwaja Ahmed Abbas or Venthol coming from Kerala or Damodar ji coming from Tamil Nadu.

There was no language barrier in my house. If someone did not know Hindi or Urdu, he used to converse with them in English. Or someone used to translate the conversation into that language. Then it was understood that there is a lot of diversity in our society.

Be it religion, caste, language, or culture. Because everyone has to work together, they have to sit together and talk. This is a very memorable thing for me. Our house in Lucknow was close to the railway station. Whenever any scholar came to Lucknow, his first stop was our house. It often happened that the children were put to sleep at night. The house was empty at that time. When we woke up in the morning, we saw that four people were sleeping in the big room. Some people are sleeping in the verandah. And we used to jump over them to go to school.

Mulkraj Anand slept in our house, and so did Ali Sardar Jafri. I have tried to replicate that environment in my house too. If anyone doesn't have a place to stay at night, the doors of my house are always open for others. In my childhood I felt love and affection for literature; never faced discrimination based on religion, caste, age, or region. I benefited a lot from this.

Your family has made important contributions to progressive literature and social work. What kind of India and what kind of society did he visualize?

The most important thing is that none of them wanted the partition of India. Although I was born in 1958, even I heard everyone saying partition should not have happened, it is good now that it has happened so sooner or later these cracks will be filled. Partition caused a huge damage. We dreamt that one day poverty and communalism would be eradicated. Women will get equal rights.

All this will lift India to great heights. There will be a lot of love. At that time religion was considered a very small and personal thing. That's not why it seemed that religion would not be mixed into politics, nor would it create social distances.

Noor Zaheer

We dream of love everywhere. I never saw fights in my childhood in the name of Hindu-Muslim.

Growing up, were you more interested in literature?

It is a sure thing that since childhood I have been very fond of dancing. However, its entry took place in a very strange manner. My mother's brother was Amritlal Nagar was my mother’s brother. He was a great Hindi litterateur. My mother complained to him that my youngest daughter has a lot of energy and that she does a lot of mischief all day. So, he said enroll here in the dance class. I started learning dance at the age of seven and by the time I was 10, I was convinced that I would become a dancer.

Entry into literature happened in such a way that many things of literature were taught and memorized since childhood. When I started performing Kathak at the age of 17-18, I absorbed literature along with dance.

I used to go to my guru to learn music. I would often hand over a ghazal or poem to him and ask for him to compose music on it. He would be shocked and ask me where I got it from. So, would often not remember the source. That way literature came to me along with other forms of self-expression. However, I was always more inclined toward dance.

Then came a period when I realized dance was also being used for politics. People said this is Muslim Kathak and that is Hindu Kathak. You cannot say that this raga is Muslim because it was composed by Mian Tansen and the other one is Hindu. These are useless logic. Some Muslims must have made Mian Ki Todi, and today a Hindu or a Christian is singing it. When I realized all this, I felt it was important to write about it. One of my father’s friends Akshay Kumar Jayant was the editor of Times of India. So after I did my Mass Communication, I joined the TOI as a trainee.

I did reporting, especially Culture. My journalism career lasted 10 years. I also worked in Aruna Asaf Ali's Patriot (newspaper). One day I felt that whatever I wrote in the newspaper was used for wrapping samosas the next day. That means the newspaper has no age. Then it felt that something should be written that would have a long life.

How did you become an actor and activist along with being a writer?

One day a drama director called me and said that I was doing a Greek play. There is a chorus of 12-13 people in it. And I have to make a composition of that. And choreography has to be done.

He said since you are a good dancer, will you do it? Then I joined theater as a choreographer and felt that this medium could be used to convey my message to the people. Then I took drama training for one and a half years and started doing drama. At that time it was very clear in my mind that I would not just perform the play, after its completion, I would talk to the audience about the problems raised in the play.

The era of acting and activism started from here. Then I felt that the play should be short, 20-25 minutes. And started doing street play so that the play ends in 15-20 minutes and there is direct communication with the people. I was fortunate that at that time the German director Ricks Benedict was visiting here. I attended his workshop. Later I requested him to give me a chance to work in his play. So I worked and learned a lot about how acting and activism go together. And how important that is. Drama cannot happen just for entertainment.

How was the journey of journalism? When and why did you decide to leave that and become a litterateur?

In 1985, I left Times of India and joined Patriot. The owner and editor-in-chief of this newspaper was Aruna Asaf Ali. She was an inspiration for all of us. One day he called me and said, 'Shah Bano's case is going on in the Supreme Court. I want you to cover it. And write it for the Patriot in very common people's language. So that he can understand it. I did not know the background of this case. So I went to Shah Bano's lawyer Daniel Latifi. Coincidentally he also turned out to be Abba's comrade friend. He said that he cannot explain it in words. You do one thing, look at the journey from the Sessions Court till now. Only then will you understand something. So I used to go to his office and study. I also read other similar cases. Then I realized that I had not fully understood the Quran that I had read in my childhood because of my grandmother.

Also, I should re-read Islamic Law and the Constitution. Then it seemed that there was a greater need to work among Muslims.

Your first novel 'My God is Woman' came after that. Tell us about this journey?

After this experience, I wrote this book. During this period, I was into heavy research and made notes. All this resulted in this novel. There were riots against Sikhs in 1984 when I was in Patriot. Aruna ji was not only a journalist but also an activist. So she gave each of us a bag of biscuits and a kettle of tea and told us to distribute it among the victims.

Most of the Sikhs gathered in Shishganj Gurudwara and Harkishan Singh Public School. So we ran there with the tea kettle. There I saw that Hindus were being instigated against Sikhs. Slogans are being raised. And efforts are being made to create separatism. This was my first experience of this kind.

Like your other books, 'Mere Hake Ki Roshnai', 'Syahi Ki Ek Boond' (memoir), these two memoirs are also important. What will you say about these?

The environment is deteriorating, distances are being created. I don't believe that's distance. I understand that this distance is natural; it's being created artificially. Therefore, it is important to mention that at one time, not so long ago, such distances did not exist. And the atmosphere was very good. Love was alive in all the communities. And we not only shared our joys and sorrows but also made fun of each other.

That period is mentioned in these two books. There is mention of friendship, there is mention of love, there are jokes, there are also attacks on each other. The generation of parents and the generations after that were deeply concerned about how to make this country, which is so beautiful and so good, even better. I put forward the idea that there is no limit to improvement.

And the same is mentioned in these two books. In 'Mere Hake Ki Roshnai' I have written about my father i.e. Sajjad Zaheer. And in 'Syahi Ki Ek Boond' I remembered my mother i.e. Razia Sajjad Zaheer. In these two memoirs, I have tried to look back as well as look forward.

What was the reaction of readers to your books?

'Denied by Allah' is available in eight languages. 'My God is Woman' has been translated into nine languages ​​of India and now its French version is going to become famous. In all this, I attempted to change the law. Muslim women, Islamic law, and the Constitution are all involved in this process, so I have to keep an eye on them. Triple talaq ended because of Shah Bano and other petitioners. I am happy that Denied by Allah was also quoted in one place in this petition. But our request is not limited to this. We also want a law against polygamy. So the effort continues.  Obviously, these efforts often face opposition. I had gone to some mosque. Someone there said this woman is against Islam. Then I talked to Maulvi Sahib and explained to him that I do not write against Islam. However, I asked him what does a society gain by keeping women behind the men. I asked him to prove it and I promised to stop writing such things. However, if the other side is not able to prove

He became angry and said I don't argue especially with women. He wanted to avoid the matter. Then after half an hour he came and told me that dear, you have not covered your dupatta properly. He wanted to embarrass me. However, I was prepared with my reply and told him to keep his eyes down too. "There is a command in the Quran that one should not look at a stranger's woman. How are you looking at my face?" I asked him.

Why are we thinking that the one who has a long beard and is wearing a Jubba and kurta will talk about Islam? The community will also understand only that. We are more trapped in superficiality like this type of pajamas, that kind of cap, etc. Apart from that, we will ignore whatever dishonesty he is doing.

We can see its example in Gujarat. Where a Muslim woman gave statements against Muslims, lied, and went to jail. There was no talk of expelling him from the community. But if you say that there should not be Halala, there should not be triple talaq, then there will be the talk of immediately throwing you out of the community.

This thing can be changed only when the dynamics between Mullahs and Muslims change. He won't tell me how to live my life, what my attitude should be, how much I should teach my children. If my daughter wants to go out without hijab or with hijab, then I have to stand with her. In this way, there should be no interference of Maulvi in ​​the life of my caste. He should offer namaz and perform nikah.

However, there is no need for a Maulvi to read Nikah or offer funeral prayers. The Quran says that I have given you a religion and you should understand and live the religion in your way. You are associated with the society through different roles. You have looked at him seriously. What do you think about the Indian psyche? And about the Muslim psyche?

Due to some reasons, there is a lot of insecurity in all the communities. Their reasons are different, but the result is the same; Insecurity. And because of this, people are more dependent on superstition. There is a great need to fight this.

Read the stories of the first Urdu writer Rashid Jahan. She was a doctor. Therefore he had access to people's homes. He has written how women, due to their insecurities, used to fall prey to amulets and babas. We need to fight this inner fear. Dr. Narendra Dabholkar also used to say that you see with your eyes open, prove it, and if you cannot do it then talk to me. I will reveal to you the other side of this superstition. It is important to keep having conversations like this.

What is the social condition of Muslims? Did they get the same fruits of freedom as other communities? Who is responsible for their backwardness?

I think in 75 years of India’s independence, Muslims did not have a leader like Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. On the one hand, he wrote the Constitution, and on the other hand, he

worked for the Dalit society. Such leaders were not among Muslims. However, I see one such person. Dr. Zakir Hussain. He left the Aligarh Muslim University saying that only the children of landlords study there. I am concerned about the poor class. And then he established Jamia Millia Islamia which is just outside Delhi. A place where there is a colony of completely illiterate and poor Muslims. People used to ask him who would come to such an area to study. But today it is one of the best universities of India. There was a need for more universities that did not cater to the upper class. It is this poor class that opposed Pakistan. He did not go to Pakistan. He stayed here because he was tied to the land here. For them, work has not been done properly in the last 75 years. The Sachar Committee also points out that the poverty and illiteracy among Muslims is much higher than that of other societies.

As a literary person, how do you look at the future of our society?

I have always believed that only two people will bring change in the society. One is Women and the other the writers. We may include film and drama people in the list; they have the highest responsibility, whether he is a Muslim or a Hindu. In the present era, education is necessary for changes. You will see that the conservatives are trying to stop education. Why are universities like JNU and Jamia Milia being attacked? Because they offer a liberal education. The second thing is activism. Everyone needs to do activism. We have assumed that this is one group that will do activism and the other group will make policies. It’s high time for everyone to divide work. Everyone has to be fearless, everyone has to keep talking so that change can come.

It is a matter of great danger that the generosity that existed among Hindus is coming to an end. Our house was on the banks of the river Gomti. People used to go there to take baths and greet Papa with Jai Siyaram. My father used to say that look how much progress is there in their religion that they take the woman's name first. Today it has changed to Jai Shri Rame; the Patriarchy is progressing. We have to fight Jai Shri Ram and ask him where did our Siya go.

What is the importance of pluralism and harmony in a multicultural and multi-religious country like India? 

There is an incident in my play: After a lot of hard work and struggle, Kabir comes down from the sky to see Banaras. He descends and sees it Varanasi written all over – in front of the University, the post office, everywhere. So he says he has landed at the wrong place. This is not my Banaras. So he asks a person selling Chola Bhatura, “Brother, which place is this?’ He replies, “Banaras!” Kabir says come on, I have come to the right place!

Some people will be angry with me that I connect everything with Pakistan. Even the names of ragas were changed in Pakistan. And he was Islamized. Bade Ghulam Ali returned from Pakistan when his first concert was being held in Lahore. While singing, a khayal, he paid an ode to Kanhaiya. Someone from the audiences got up and said “Don't sing these Hindu songs here.” He stood up and announced, “I going back because use if I can't sing this then I don't want to be here.”

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He returned to India; that's also the reason Kurtulain Haider came back. She said,  “intellectualism is mixed in my blood, Hinduism is also mixed in my blood, there is a mixture of all the things in me.” When she said so, people started raising questions. She wrote Aag Ka Dariya, and left Pakistan.