April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

What do Benazir Bhutto, Bano Qudsia, Babra Sharif and Bilquis Edhi have in common? Other than being high profile women of strength and substance, they’re all featured in Moneeza Hashmi’s recently launched book, Who Am I? The book features transcripts of interviews the author conducted between 1995 and 2000 for a Pakistan Television series entitled, Tum Jo Chaho Tu Suno. Borrowing its name from one of the poems penned by her father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the show included guests from all walks of life who had made significant contributions in their chosen fields: the arts, politics, philanthropy, sports, etc.

However, for this book, Hashmi has selected 20 interviewees. These include Abida Parveen, Bahar Begum, Bapsi Sidhwa, Dr Fatima Shah, Ruth Pfau, Farida Khanum, Malika Pukhraj, Nasim Wali Khan, Sabiha Khanum, Shamim Ara, Swaran Lata, Tahira Mazhar Ali, Viqar-un-nisa Noon, Zari Sarfaraz, Zehra Nigah and the author’s own sister, Salima Hashmi.

Hashmi, who was associated with PTV, Lahore, from 1967 till 2004, comes from a crop of media persons/television anchors who were known for their commitment to a high standard of programming. Long before histrionics and scheming saas-bahu feuds became central plot fodder on television screens, she and others from her generation demanded that women not be portrayed in demeaning roles onscreen. It was thanks, in part, to her efforts that PTV put a ban on showcasing violence against women.

That level of respect and dignity that was accorded to women on screen in PTV dramas of that period, and that still exists, is given to her interviewees in Who Am I? as well. It is this aspect that is most refreshing about the book, as it stands in contrast to what is often missing on television channels, where interviews tend to be superficial (think morning shows), combative (political talk shows), or exploitative (reality, re-enactment shows). Whether it is a film actress, a jail inmate, a rape survivor, a prostitute or someone from the transgendered community — all interviewees deserve a certain measure of respect.

Ostensibly, Hashmi is a sound interviewer who is genuinely interested in what her subjects have to say. And, perhaps, this is why they open up to her in ways they wouldn’t to others. Despite the formality of the settings and the cameramen and technicians hovering about, she manages to put them at ease and they, in turn, reveal aspects about their lives rarely seen or heard in public before. Though hugely well-known, one realises how little we really know about these women on a personal level. Hashmi feels it’s because she is a woman that other women are at ease with her, but it might be more than that.

In her foreword, Bapsi Sidhwa mentions that, “Moneeza Hashmi exuded a warmth and openness that put me at ease right away. She established a sense of friendship and even intimacy so naturally that I felt I could trust her not to embarrass me or try to trip me up. Not that she shied away from asking difficult questions… But the questions were pertinent and would be of interest to the viewer. Overall, I felt she brought out the best in me.” Hashmi even got the typically reclusive Babra Sharif, whom she only met in that one instance and never again, to speak about her personal and professional life.

Probably, being the daughter of a poet who is considered a national treasure, and who many artists, progressives and left-leaning politicians are fond of, also helped. For example, the author reveals how she was pleasantly surprised to see a large portrait of her father in Abida Parveen’s living room, and Benazir Bhutto also mentioned that her father had a lot of respect for Faiz sahib.

Hashmi pulls readers in with her own anecdotes and observations of her guests before proceeding to the interview itself. These interactions often reveal more about the personalities than the interviews alone. In her session with Benazir Bhutto in 1995, for example, Hashmi narrates how, when the prime minister “regally” walked into the room, followed by Farhatullah Babar, the author stood up, only to be yanked back down by the wire of her microphone. Then, before the cameras began rolling, she confessed in private, “Ma’am, I am so nervous,” to which the prime minister smiled, and said: “Why should you be nervous? I’m the one giving the interview.” The author later learnt that that was BB’s first interview for PTV. Over tea and biscuits, she also revealed how she was “partial to putting women at the helm of affairs.” However, during the official interview itself, BB mentioned that when she told her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, about how the Norwegian prime minister’s husband helped her around the house and ironed all her clothes for her, he responded, “This could never happen in Pakistan!”

By contrast, another Larkana native, Abida Parveen seemed to wear the pants in her house. During the interview with the Sufi singer, conducted before Parveen became “a household name,” her husband/manager disappeared into the kitchen, only to reappear later with tea and cakes, which he served to the guests one by one. The woman of the house didn’t have to lift a finger.

For those who suspect that Hashmi is partial to women, the author revealed that she was working on a sequel to her book featuring interviews with 20 male personalities, at her book launch at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “A Woman’s World.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.