Glimpses into a Past
GJV Prasad
DUST OF THE CARAVAN by Anis Kidwai. Translated from the original Urdu by Ayesha Kidwai Zubaan with New Text, 2021, 239 pp., 595.00
July 2022, volume 46, No 7

Ayesha Kidwai has already given us in English translation Anis Kidwai’s account of what happened immediately after Independence of India and the Partition—Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein (1974). Called In Freedom’s Shade (2011) in English translation, it not only marked Ayesha Kidwai’s debut as an impressive translator (she was already well-known as a brilliant scholar), it also ensured that her grandmother Anis Kidwai’s name and work would be known again to the world at large. This was work whose time had come; we needed to engage with this account by a woman activist, one who had lost her husband to the mindless violence that followed India’s Partition, one who actually threw herself into activism as a result of this tragedy.

Dust of the Caravan is its companion volume, one that will motivate a reader who hasn’t seen the earlier work to buy and read it as well (a strong recommendation from this reviewer!). The new work is a collection/selection of Anis Kidwai’s works—her unfinished autobiography (Ghubaar-e-Karwaan in Urdu), extracts from In Freedom’s Shade, and two essays by Anis Kidwai on Saifuddin Kitchlew and Mridula Sarabhai, and a short fantasy ‘The Search for a Wife’ modelled on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream. All this is framed by an Introduction that sets the stage and directs our reading, and Notes that fill in the gaps in our knowledge so that we engage with Anis Kidwai’s writings on a firmer footing.

Anis Kidwai’s autobiography is interesting first in a way that most grandmothers’ retelling of their lives is, giving us glimpses into a past we can only imagine (or perhaps not even imagine). We can also see how much the younger family must have enjoyed reading/listening to bygone events and insights into characters whom they knew or had heard of. So, even if the impulse is personal, the translator’s work allows us to think about the past, to flesh it with our family accounts even if we belong to a different region and community. While the Kidwais were certainly privileged, they were not so rich as to make us feel like commoners reading about the rich and the famous—well, famous perhaps, at least some of them! If it had been written by one of the men, it could have been a picture from above,  but since it is written by a woman who had to struggle for a place in the sun (out of the zenana), who observes closely all the people she comes in contact with and values the relationship with them, this is a nuanced picture, one that allows us to read it with a certain fellow-feeling, a certain admiration for her. She is intensely aware of the role of caste and class, of the changes sweeping through the world, of the inequity and inequality that rule their lives, and of how the patriarchal world governed and policed the life of the women, circumscribing their movements to the extent possible.

The autobiography begins with the arrival of a ‘Christian lady doctor’ in 1906 to oversee the birth of Anis. This cataclysmic event (the arrival of the doctor in Awadh, not the arrival of baby Anis) heralds the changes that were to sweep the Indian subcontinent in the twentieth century.

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