Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life for which the first was made
These lines by Robert Browning have been my favorite since I was in college.Perhaps therein lay my karma.At an age when my friends and peers were retiring or preparing to retire, I started my career!
Many people ask why and how I work so hard at 60, and my answer is always, “I have a lot of lost time to make up for. You started at 25 and I at 55.”
Throughout my college days I was an excellent student and a topper in university.I was also very active in extra curricular activities, becoming the President of the Women’s College student union, and the Senior Hall Monitor of my Residential Hall in AMU and yet I was never ambitious. Studies came easily to me as I was blessed with a great memory and reasonable intelligence. I took my marks for granted.
I was very young and extremely immature so while the rest of my batch was busy sitting for competitive exams or joining PhD programs, I was content to give it all up to get married and have a family life.
Yes, I did teach in Jamshedpur for a few years and after a long gap, I took up teaching again while my husband was working in Saudi Arabia.That was hardly a career, but it was the start of one, for me.
One day, while waiting for parents to come for a Parent-Teacher meeting, I was overcome with memories of my own mother whom I had recently lost. I wrote a tribute to her and creating a blog, posted it there. I received an overwhelming response from my family. This was something that had come from my heart and touched many other hearts too. My friends and relatives told me to write more but I guess the time wasn’t right and I kept postponing it.
It was soon after this that I discovered Twitter and opened an account. Through trial and error I started posting and one day I discussed with a few friends the possibility of starting a hashtag through which we could post Urdu poetry. Thus #Shair was born in 2010. This became a turning stone in my life.
I must confess that my Urdu skills and understanding of shayri was very limited in those days. But I was always greedy to learn. On the recommendation of a friend I downloaded NCERT books for Urdu and re-taught myself a language I had forgotten. I started reading about poets and symbolism and began posting the same on Twitter.
Soon I got an offer to write a piece for Tehelka and in 2011 my writing career began. After that, there was no looking back.
I wrote many articles for Tehelka, then DNA, Pragati and Hindustan Times.
Some of my tweets on Dussehra resulted in Aniket Alam of EPW asking me to write an article for his magazine.I was now taken seriously!
Around that time I wrote a piece “My name is Urdu and I’m not a Muslim.” It received a lot of acclaim and that gave me the confidence to continue writing.
On one of my trips to Delhi I went for a heritage walk with the Delhi Karavan group run by Asif Khan Dehlvi. It was on this walk in November 2011 that I first thought of writing a book on Delhi. It was to be modeled on Gordan Hearn’s The Seven Cities of Delhi.
I knew it was time to leave Dubai and come back to India if I wanted to pursue a career in writing. So with my husband’s support, I packed most of our furniture and belongings and shifted in 2013. My husband remained in Dubai.
By then I had made many journeys to Mehrauli and realized that this first city of Delhi deserved a dedicated, separate book . I was drawn by Qutub Saheb and started reading about Sufism and our syncretic customs. A result of having learnt Urdu was that I read a lot of reference books in the language and was able to pick up many characteristic Urdu writing traits. What makes my work unique from contemporary writings on heritage is my combination of storytelling, use of evocative Urdu verse and verified historical facts. I rely on contemporary sources in Urdu and translations of Persian sources.
Thanks to my treks to Mehrauli, a place which is steeped in spirituality, I also became greatly influenced by Sufism. I realize now that all these appear in my writing too.
However, writing and publishing are two very different issues. I had a book but could not find a publisher. No one responded to my pitches. I met a few editors but they ignored my calls after that. I was not disheartened as I knew I had a good book and decided to self publish it along with Syed Mohammed Qasim, who had done the photography.
At that time I met Aparna Jain, to whom I will always be grateful for introducing me to Karthika VK of Harper Collins. Karthika liked the book and we signed a contract to publish it.
An article of mine of mine on Basant in the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, which was published by Scroll, caught the attention of Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side. We met. He asked me if I would like him to represent me and though I had already got my first book deal, I knew the perils involved in dealing with publishers directly. At that time I was working on a translation of Dastan e Ghadar and Kanishka made my life smooth by negotiating with publishers on my behalf and getting me a great deal. I’m doing three other books with him and hope to do many more, InshaAllah. This May, Penguin is publishing Dastanin hard cover under its classics section. An English translation of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s two editions of Asar us Sanadeed is being published by Tulika Books in April.
Now I sound Kanishka out on anything new that I plan and he gives me great advice on what projects to take up, which one to put on the burner and which to discard.
As I look back on the past five years of my life, I feel blessed. I’ve already published two books, and have three more coming out this year. I have written innumerable articles for print and digital newspapers and am recognized as a writer on heritage, culture, Sufism and GangaJamuni tehzeeb. #shair is still running strong on Twitter and is unique in being perhaps the longest running forum where so many people participate every day. I am doing a fortnightly column for The Hindu on built heritage. I am even pursuing my other hobby,cooking, and recently did a food promotion for ITC Maurya titled Simply Banaras, where I co-curated and cooked with Sangeeta Khanna, a noted food blogger and nutritionist.
I want to try everything that I love at least once.
Sitaaro’n ke aage jahan aur bhi hain
Abhii ishq ke imtihaan aur bhi hain
There are new worlds beyond the stars
Your passion has many more tests to pass