Nafisa and Hyderabad: The Social Activist and the City
By Mosarrap H. Khan
Twelve years is a long time in the life of a city, especially if it happens to be the second most important software hub in a developing country. Between the times I left Hyderabad in 2000 and 2011, when I returned for a conference and research work, the character of the city had changed so much that it was almost impossible to decipher if I was back to the good, old, laid-back Hyderabad.
I had heard a good deal about the new airport that had been built away from the city. I was not so much surprised as wonder-struck that an airport of such standard could be built in India. More mind-boggling was the manner in which transport conveniences were just a ramp walk away.
I took the luxury bus, which was reasonably priced and very comfortable. And the journey was comparable to any I have in the western countries. As I got off at the intersection of airport road and the Hyderabad-Mumbai highway at Gacchibowly, I could sense how much the city has changed. Back in 1999, when I was doing my Masters at the University of Hyderabad, there existed only a few single-story buildings and huts at the intersection. There were small shops that sold utility items.
And the highway was a two-lane road without even a divider. I particularly remember the road without a divider because I had almost a near-fatal accident on this road. That night as I was waiting for an auto to take me to the University of Hyderabad for a conference, I could hardly recognize the Gacchibowly junction. A huge flyover has been built over the junction that now had a glistening four-lane asphalt road with a divider in the middle. Along with the road, the entire landscape of the place had changed, as if I have been living in a seven sleepers’ den. That which was once considered the outlying part of Hyderabad is now the financial district of the city.
In the course of my stay at the university, a friend gave a tour of the whole place. Looking up at the glass-and-concrete sky-scrapers, and the well laid-out spatial structure, it was almost impossible to tell if I was still in New York City or I have traveled to Hyderabad, the once sleepy and laid-back city of the Nizams. In another outing, my friend and I headed to an up-market shopping mall in Hi-Tech city. The scale and size of the mall far surpassed anything that I have seen in New York City or in Vancouver.
As my friend, who had spent many years in Canada pursuing a doctorate degree, continued shopping in branded stores, for the first time, I felt poor in India. Most of the things in the mall were beyond my everyday affordability. I had never felt that in Canada or in the States. And in India, prior to this experience, I always counted myself among the privileged ones.
We had planned to eat out in Paradise, known for its quality biriyani, which previously had only a single branch. Now the Hi-Tech city has its own branch of Paradise, mainly to cater to the software professionals working there. Facing Paradise was a drive-through McDonald’s reminding me of the sheer imaginative power that the US holds over developing countries and their gastronomic habits. It was as if tradition and modernity could effortlessly coexist in the far corners of the globe.
Nizam’s Hyderabad metamorphosed into a shiny, new city with wide roads, modern steel-and-glass structures, swanky cars, and multinational eateries. Ten days into my stay, I was on my way to the Old City, originally founded by the Nizams. Once on the periphery of the Nizam’s city, the landscape was perceptible different.
The wide roads, tile-paved sidewalks, large cars, and shopping malls were all gone. Our public transport bus hurtled through narrow roads which were sometimes the size of by-lanes, often bumpy because of the periodic digging and indifferent patch-up work done for laying cables, telephone lines, and other such utilities.
The road on both sides was dotted with houses which were densely packed with the odd house still retaining its unique character in its minute architectural details and the colors used to paint it. Yet, the denseness revealed the layers and layers of add-ons to the existing houses. The gaps that seemed to have once existed between the houses have been filled with brick and mortar to turn them into usable space.
When I lobbed the first question to her, ‘What do you do in this organization?’ I obviously had the long black-robed women around Charminar in my mind. In the bustling bazaars around Charminar and Mecca Masjid – so named because it is believed to contain a brick that was brought from Mecca – one might suddenly think one were attending a mourning. Women in long black robes went about strolling in the bazaar, buying household stuff, and haggling with the road side stall owners. Sometimes, only the eyes were visible and, at other times, one could see part of the faces.
We were sitting across a table. Nafisa and I. I will call her Nafisa because I decided to write this without knowing if she would have approved of my writing. It’s not that I came to the office of the NGO, Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), to have a chat specifically with Nafisa.
I was on a research trip to Hyderabad. While I explore the depiction of everyday life in Muslim Anglophone fiction and a contingent Muslim subjectivity at the intersection of the sacral and the ordinary, I have been thinking of doing ethnography with Muslims in some of the Indian cities. My initial plan was to weave ethnography with the analysis of fictions. (However, I shelved that plan later as it would have become quite unmanageable.)
There we were, Nafisa and I, facing each other. I started my conversation in a tentative fashion as her black robe and shy demeanor made me uncertain about the interaction. However, once she started speaking, I noticed a very different persona – confident, courageous, and ready to take on the world.
Nafisa had been working with Koshish, a theater group of COVA, which performs plays on social issues with young actors, mostly recruited from the Old City of Hyderabad. Koshish performs both on the streets and in auditoriums. The group has performed plays on issues such as education, women’s rights, child labor, communal harmony etc. Communal harmony, in fact, is one of the core areas of the organization’s activities.
Nafisa had worked as a concept designer and script writer for the group. She wrote the script for ‘Hamein Jeene Do’ (Let Us Live) which advocated the cause of women’s education in a male-dominated society. She also developed the concept of and designed the play, ‘Taleem aur Jahalat’ (Education and Ignorance), which focused on the advantages of literacy.
I asked a clichéd question, ‘How did it all start?’ She narrated that the journey was not a particularly easy one. She lost her father very early in life. Her mother was somewhat educated. For the first sixteen years, she was hardly allowed outside the house. She had to follow very strict family rules and regulations about women being not allowed to work outside.
She came to know of Koshish from friends. That’s how an amazing journey with the theater group began. I was curious, ‘Did your family accept your work with the group?’ I could see pain clouding Nafisa’s eyes as she spoke of the difficulty in the initial days: ‘Mere bhaiyo ne bahut object kiya tha.’ Her own brothers vehemently objected to her work and even called her names. However, that hardly deterred this young, fiery woman. She traveled with the theater group to different parts of the country.
She told me, she enjoyed every bit of the experience working with some of the most underprivileged children drawn from different communities in the Old City. She was particularly interested in spreading the message of women’s empowerment. Koshish performed plays on eve-teasing, a persistent problem in the Charminar area. She feels that street theater could be a very handy tool for creating awareness on issues relating to our everyday life.
Listening to this brave heart, I couldn’t but help asking the most obvious question, ‘How do you reconcile your faith with all the restrictions imposed on you by your family and society in the name of Islam?’ As if she had thought through this question for a long time, Nafisa replied, ‘We must go back to the Koran…’ She spoke very eloquently about the gap between received knowledge in the Muslim societies, especially the knowledge that is handed down by the conservative clerics, and the message in the Koran. Any reform in the Muslim society, Nafisa felt, must start with the Koran, which advocates women’s rights, unlike the patriarchal structure that has completely managed to subvert women’s emancipation.
When asked, ‘What is more important – this world or the other world?’ Nafisa signed off with verve, ‘There must be a balance between deen (faith) and duniya (worldly concerns).’ She had no doubt that a reform in the Muslim society must start by rejecting an overemphasis on the other world. Muslims must as much focus on improving the quality of life in this world. Her work with Koshish was a demonstration of her commitment to the improvement of life in this world, especially for women.
This conversation took place in September, 2011.
When we planned this particular issue on Social Activism, Nafisa was one of the first few people I thought of interviewing. When I first met her in 2011, I did not interview her keeping in mind the issue of activism and what she thinks about it. Rather, my focus was more on how in everyday life Muslims negotiate with the worldly.
I wrote an email requesting her for an interview. The email bounced back. I requested one of my friends, Abu Saleh, who is based in Hyderabad, to get in touch with her. There have been significant changes since the time I saw her last. My friend informed me that she is now married and staying away from Hyderabad. However, when Abu got in touch with her through someone else, she was in Hyderabad for a few days.
She seemed very eager to do an interview with Café Dissensus. But she informed that she would not be able to do it without her husband’s permission.
Twelve years have drastically changed the city of Hyderabad. Twelve years of activism have hardly changed anything for Nafisa, who once scripted a play on women’s empowerment.
[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. Check out his Personal Website.]