Meri Maan Ke Haath

A theatre performance by Nadira Zaheer Babbar of Ekjute [Mumbai], depicting the life of her late mother, the legendary Razia Sajjad Zaheer

The 11th International Urdu Conference was held at Arts Council of Pakistan last month which hosted a number of different cultural and literary sessions like mushaira, sufi dance performances and recitation of kalams of legendary poets like Faiz, Iqbal and Meeraji. Post conference, one notable performance was a solo act by the famous Nadira Zaheer Babbar, who came to Karachi to be a part of the session organised in remembrance of her late mother, a prolific Urdu writer, Razia Sajjad Zaheer. Through her act, Meri Maan Ke Haath, Nadira Babbar, paid tribute to her mother, a focused, motivational and strong personality. Nadira did it with aplomb, garnering thunderous rounds of standing ovation from the audience. I particularly felt very proud of how Karachiites showered her with so much love, respect and appreciation.

Despite the post-work hours, the theatre was filled to capacity bringing together Karachi’s theatre and literature lovers. The stage was set with minimalistic props featuring a few chairs, a make-shift desk and a platform which I was a little taken aback by, used to seeing performances with well-executed backgrounds, but soon I learnt, Babbar didn’t need props.

She plays the role of her mother and in the end, herself, telling the tale of the great and strong-headed woman that her mother was, never focusing on her own character for more than a joke or two. Starting from the beginning, this play was executed brilliantly by a daughter who is an impeccable storyteller, narrating and acting out her mother’s story and what a life she lived!

The play features a young Razia and her childlike awe when she found her calling was words and her pen started to ink stories, under a disguised name. A very strict father shouldered her passion and introduced her to legends like Ghalib. In a time lapse, Razia is an adolescent, harbouring affection for Sajjad Zaheer, who happened to have sent a proposal and is soon married to him. Babbar also focuses on societal norms that are pushed down on girls, especially as brides, all in a light, humorous tone. She enacts her young, newly wedded mother in a new home, also enacting her grandparents and her father; all in a brilliantly flowing execution.

We see Razia as her life changes when she becomes a mother, when her husband is jailed and when her life is completely fallen apart. We see Razia writing to her dear husband who was jailed in Pakistan post-Partition and she disguises her true fears and her adversaries that lay ahead behind the reassuring words. We see as she breaks down in a time when there must have been no ray of hope, a performance that gave me goose bumps. And we see how she wakes up the next morning, with a straight head and the will to make a good life for herself and her daughters.

Babbar narrated a story with a fervour that was hypnotising, the hard-luck of her mother that she must have seen at the tender time of toddlerhood. Her emotions that she enacted so exceptionally were spine-chilling and yet, she managed to make her audience laugh despite the story of struggle and hardships. Babbar ended with a poignant poem, one she had composed herself given her genetic inheritance from a poetess, titled Meri Maan Ke Haath, taking us once again, on a journey of a mother who didn’t know how to love less and a wife who wouldn’t give up. But above all, climaxing on a woman’s resolution and strength to do whatever it takes to keep a family together.

Such a brilliant performance deserved nothing less a standing ovation and Karachiites never disappoint, exclaiming commendations as they applauded. It was a well-put together event, but I wish the attendees could adhere to basic rules of a theatre, like switching mobile phones to silent and not bringing kids along. •