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Home > 2023 > Obituary: Zarina Bhatty (1933 – 2023) | Sagari Chhabra

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 20, May 13, 2023

Obituary: Zarina Bhatty (1933 – 2023) | Sagari Chhabra

Saturday 13 May 2023, by Sagari Chhabra


Warm-hearted, witty, a pioneer sociologist, feminist and one of the founders and key persons of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies, Zarina Bhatty passed away on 28 April 2023.

Born an underweight baby in Lucknow on 9 August 1933 to Muslim parents, Fariul Haq and Mohammadi Begum of Barabanki she was not expected to live but she not only survived and rebelled but thrived till the age of 89. It was unusual for a girl to want to go abroad for studies at that time and her mother – who had eleven pregnancies and nine surviving children - rued the fact that she had no inclination for domestic chores rebuking her that her doli (palquin) would be sent back. Zarina recounts how at her time, Muslim girls were not expected to eat a third roti, remain within the four walls of the house, cover their heads in front of the elder menfolk and even not wear brassieres but to cover themselves with a dupatta in a crisscross manner!

I often met Zarina at the meetings of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies at Baroda, Mysore and elsewhere where she would with amazing candour and frankness share details of her personal life as it ‘would be of use to the younger generation’. She said that she never got anything quite right and rightly so! She convinced her parents to let her act in ‘Dhani Bankein (Green Bangles) written by Ismat Chugtai, but the lines had to be specially amended as an unmarried girl could not utter a dialogue that she was pregnant. She was, however, forbidden to act in front of a larger audience of men in a public space which was how women were made both good and invisible. From these origins, England was quite a jump as she recounts in a riveting account of cultural history in her memoirs, ‘From Purdah to Picadilly’. Her account of how she was tricked into marrying a much older, already-married man, Hayat is useful in that it shows how women are often manipulated into marriage. She did not love him but was pushed into saying yes to his proposal. At 18 she was married and on a 17-day voyage to England.

In search of work, both her husband Hayat went to the British Broadcasting Corporation for an audition. Zarina passes but her husband fails to qualify. She becomes the breadwinner of the family for 12 years something he does not mind but he also wants her to do all the housework and cook three capacious Indian meals a day! Since her high school diplomas had no value in England, she had to start from scratch but managed to get into the London School of Economics where she studied Anthropology and Sociology. Hayat after failing his own courses, somehow ends up becoming her classmate at LSE but he fails and she passes only revealing how tough it is to be an intelligent woman and deal with patriarchy! In desperation to support the family, Zarina takes up manual jobs: dishwashing and sewing at tailoring factories at a pittance. Pregnant she takes up a job at a Chinese news agency but is sacked to uphold the ‘standards of morality’, her nikah was verbal and she had no registration of it. Her husband wants her to not take the exams but she went ahead and wrote them for six hours on 10 consecutive days. She also gives birth to a daughter. The couple returns to India but after 12 years the marriage breaks up and Zarina is explicit about the domestic violence.

Zarina was both personable and charming and her personal account of her meeting the wonderful poet and scholar, Idrakul Zaman Bhatty was told to me over a flight from Baroda when we were seated next to each other. After she had separated from her husband and was living alone with her child they met through a common friend. It turned out they were neighbours. One day when she was compelled to attend a meeting by the principal, she requested Idrak to send his servant to pick up her child from the bus stop. Idrak not only did so himself, he also treated the child to lunch at a restaurant and bought her a Ludo. She went on, ‘Sometimes my child’s towel would fall on a ledge. Idrak who would drop by to meet us in the evening, would jump across and fetch it. One day, I saw my child deliberately throwing the towel across. Then she said, ‘when uncle drops by we will ask him to get it.’ I realized my child liked him and it made my decision to marry him, easier’, she shared. These personal confidences were quite common in the women’s movement in the earlier days.

Zarina Bhatty taught Sociology and travelled across the world giving lectures. I had just landed at Washington State University where I was teaching as a predoctoral teaching associate while studying, when I learnt she was coming to give a talk. I ran across to listen. This was followed by a riveting talk by Professor Romila Thapar who was her lifelong friend and whom she had met in England. Till the end, Zarina remained vibrant and even brought out a book, ‘A Portrait of Aging’ with contributions from Romila Thapar, Mohini Giri and several trailblazers.

She stood for secular values to the last. She was born a Muslim, embraced Christianity and when she died, according to her daughter Nikhat, was cremated like a Hindu, at a mountain village. She had asked her ashes be immersed down a mountain river. Zarina belonged to an era and a small group of women, along with Vina Mazumdar, Lotika Sarkar and others who believed not only in their own personal and professional growth but in making things better for all women.

She has left behind an unforgettable fragrance. Rest in peace, Zarina appa!

(Author: Sagari Chhabra Is an award-winning author & film-maker. She is the director of the Hamaara Itihaas archives)

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