Lady from Lahore
By Mowahid Hussain Shah
Lahore sometimes can be a dour place, with even joyful occasions clouded by a makeup of seriousness, showy piety, and phony patriotism.
Amidst an ambience of self-imposed gloom and gravity, it was refreshing, therefore, to encounter a grand old dame with pizzazz and a zest for living. Many exist. But it is the fortunate few who truly live. Fortunate was I to unexpectedly meet a remarkable lady.
Of Rajput lineage, she was born on June 3, 1932 – a landmark day in that, 14 years later, on this day the Partition of India plan was unveiled – and her political consciousness was forged as a school-going girl witnessing the stirrings of the Pakistan Movement. Undeterred by hurdles to female education, Akhtar Sultana’s quest for learning was unquenchable.
Her searching curiosity enabled her to widen her world. Enriched with a well-rounded perspective, she was a prolific writer and a lifelong avid reader of Nawa-i-Waqt.
One evening, she read out an essay appreciating the selfless devotion of her attendant, Shamo – unusual in the cultural setting of Subcontinental sociology where praise is prone to be directed at the powerful, while those who do the grunt work remain under-represented and under-appreciated.
A devotee of the 17th century Sufi saint, Mian Mir – who laid the foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar – she would commit considerable time volunteering to teach the Holy Qur’an to neighborhood kids.
In a culture of toxic jealousy, she was devoid of the burdensome anxieties that retard growth. Secure in her own self and sharply observant, she was generous in her appreciation of others, and had the uncanny knack to pierce through a false mask. It was beneath her to dissemble. Whether in public and in private, she had one face. Her openheartedness was infectious, and led to easy informality.
Unusual, too, for a mother-in-law, she wrote a laudatory essay on her graceful daughter-in-law, Shezra, who ventured to Scotland to study English literature.
Spontaneity was her hallmark. At the spur of the moment, she would call and invite for a dinner where, over the partaking of classic Punjab peasant food, like hand-churned desi yoghurt and misi roti, she would spark conversation on music, songs, literature, faith, and different dimensions of the human condition.
Wheelchair-bound and neatly attired, she radiated an aura of genuine simplicity, her spirit unbowed. She had this ability to draw the attention of young people who came into contact with her and to captivate them.
An evening with her was an evening of sumptuous cuisine, conversation, connectedness, music, poetry, and laughter.
She, and the house she inhabited, was the hub of affection, warmth, and togetherness. She made me feel good about Pakistan.
In a society roiled by dividers, Akhtar Sultana was a healer and a unifier, appealing to nobler aspirations and taking the high ground. She did so by transcending the bloated barriers of tribalism and materialistic paraphernalia.
On Friday afternoon, August 25, her valiant heart stopped beating and her fine innings ended. Another light extinguished.
Now, to cite an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, the lady vanishes. And Lahore seems a little empty.
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