April issue 2015
Obituary: Tahira Mazhar Ali
Aunty T, as I have known her all my life, has been one of my inspirations and mentors for as long as I can remember. Her daughter Topsy (Tauseef Hayat) and her son Tariq Ali were my playmates while I was growing up. The Mazhar Alis were a part of our extended family. When Abba and Mama were working at The Pakistan Times, we would spend countless Sundays playing in their flat on Nicholson Road.
Aunty T was my mother’s closest friend and confidante. They would argue and disagree on almost every issue. She would call my mother (Alys Faiz) Memsahib with both affection and disdain, depending on the issue. However, there was one thing they agreed on: their vision of a better world for the working and downtrodden women of Pakistan. And both worked endless hours towards this end. Another cause dear to their heart was promoting peace across the world. They led rallies and marches down Mall Road, faced police squads, courted arrest, survived lathi-charges, shouted slogans, held banners denouncing fascism and army dictatorships, motivated slum-dwellers to walk with them, and shamed the elite out of their drawing rooms and into action. They were quite the odd couple.
But there was another, amazingly feminine side to Aunty T. I have seen her countless times at formal dinners dressed in the most beautiful chiffon saris, her hair tied in a bun secured with a large hairpin at the nape of her neck which had a single strand of pearls adorning it, and diamond droplets in her ears. Her sleeveless blouses would cause quite a stir, and her perfume hung in the air as she moved around the room. She was quite the belle of the ball wherever she was invited.
She was also an outdoors person. Swimming and playing tennis kept her body fit and supple. We would spend our summers in Nathiagali back then. Those were some of the happiest days of my teenage life. Aunty T would organise the long hikes up Meeranjani Mountain, be up at the crack of dawn, pack the picnic lunch and get us all ready. She was always ahead of us, as we huffed and puffed up the steep climb. We kids would wander here and there plucking daisies, getting stung by nettle leaves, picking wild berries. We would slow down the group and get a “talking to” by Aunty T, who did not like delays. We had a schedule to follow and she made sure we followed it.
An early riser, her breakfasts were almost at the crack of dawn, her dinners early. Inviting her over for a meal was quite an ordeal. A stickler for punctuality, she wanted to know what time dinner would be served and make her entrance accordingly. If it were a late dinner, she would eat at home and arrive later. No one was allowed to fiddle with her schedules. She belonged to the ‘old guard’ of principled and disciplined people who never compromised, never gave up hope, never took orders lying down, never bowed before political pressures, never asked for favours, were never afraid of speaking their mind no matter who asked the question and, most importantly, were always ready to serve the needy and work with them side by side.
I accompanied her to Moscow in 1987 to attend the World Congress of Women. The leader of our delegation was Begum Zari Sarfaraz. That whole trip was an eye-opener for me. I was probably the youngest in the group and totally in awe of all the heavy- weights. I was amazed at the reception Aunty T got from the Soviet government representatives. She was obviously very well respected in that country. She spoke with candour and confidence and mingled with delegates from all over the world with ease.
I remember visiting her to pay my respects just before leaving for Haj. Not a very religious person herself, she chuckled and said “Kyun 900 choohay kha liyay hain?”(Have you eaten the 900 mice?). I asked for her blessings and she laughed and said, “Why me? I don’t think my prayers will be of much use!”
Her astonishing faith in the strength of the Pakistan women was a source of inspiration for me. Once I asked her if she was optimistic about their future, she remarked, “When you look at it in reference to days or weeks, it certainly looks static. But when I look over my shoulder and view the years gone by I am certain we are progressing. Moving forward slowly but surely.” To her, the glass was always half-full.
Born in Wah, Tahira married her cousin, Mazhar Ali Khan, facing strong opposition from her family because he was a committed communist. Jinnah and Nehru were visitors to her father’s home and Tahira recalls meeting and exchanging views with the, even though she was just a teenager. Her political training had begun in her own home.
About her own upbringing, Tahira said, “I was taught to respect elders, to respect all religions. There was much diversity and tolerance in those days. I was friends with Sikhs, Parsis, Hindus and Christians. Also, there was to be no talk that would offend anyone’s personal religious beliefs.”
About her politics, Tahira said, “Our politics was different. It was issue-based and focused. We starved, but never played power politics. I wouldn’t mind having power, but that power should enable me to do something for the people of this country… that power should not be for me to construct two more houses for myself. That’s what it’s like in Pakistan — I want to be an MPA so that I can have a couple of houses.”
She was proud of the work she had done standing alongside peasant women in rural Punjab. She was proud to have been lathi-charged and arrested for voicing her demand for democracy during the Zia era. She was proud of her association with the Bhuttos, especially Begum Nusrat and Benazir, who she advised informally throughout her life. She was proud of the women of Pakistan who, despite the heavy odds, continue to fight for their rights and stand up to the oppressors. She was proud to be a Pakistani, even though most times she felt let down by both the government and the politicians. But she never lost hope. She continued to use her voice to articulate the aspirations of the oppressed and the downtrodden and spoke in defence of democracy and human rights. In her death, Pakistan has lost one of the greatest champions of peace and women’s rights.