Fate plays strange games with some writers. Stars of fame shine on them for a while and then they are forgotten as if they never wrote anything. Qaiseri Begum was one such writer.
Despite having stirred a great interest in literary circles after the publication of her serialised memoirs in late 1960s and early 1970s, Qaiseri Begum remains generally unsung. Her name is hardly mentioned in any of the books that record the biographical data and obituaries of poets and writers of Urdu. She has generally been ignored by critics, too. Even the date of her death is not found anywhere except in an issue of Urdu nama, a quarterly journal published by Urdu Dictionary Board (UDB), or the then Urdu Development Board.
Qaiseri Begum came under spotlight when Shanul Haq Haqqee began serialising her memoirs titled Kitab-i-Zindagi, or Book of Life, in Urdu nama. The first episode appeared in the March 1967 issue, but it was in fact the last chapter of the book as it introduced the author and her life in a nutshell. All in all, there were 24 episodes and the last one appeared in the June 1976 issue, just in time before she breathed her last on April 10, 1977, in Hyderabad (India).
She had been keeping a sort of diary or journal and did not want to get it published because she thought she was not a writer good enough to publish since in her family ran a long tradition of quite prominent writers, such as Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed, her maternal grandfather and one of the most celebrated post-1857 writers. But Haqqee, a distant relative of hers, heard of her notebooks and asked for her permission to get them published. He started publishing the episodes, stirring a remarkable interest among the scholars as well as lovers of literature and culture, as Kitab-i-Zindagi proffered some rare and absorbing glimpses of a culture almost lost in the mist of time slipping by.
Among those who appreciated the memoirs and impatiently waited for the next episode were eminent writers and scholars such as Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Prof Hameed Ahmed Khan, Dr Ghulam Yazdani, Mahir-ul-Qadri, Mullah Wahidi and many others who would write to Haqqee expressing their praise for the memoirs. Some of the letters were published in the magazine, too. General readers were as well enticed by what is described by Haqqee sahib as “a unique autobiography”. Aside from a unique style and a lovely parlance, the book is an authentic firsthand account of a part of our social history.
Born in Delhi in 1888, Qaiseri Begum was granddaughter of famous writer Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed, whose novel Mirat-ul-aroos is often dubbed as Urdu’s first novel. Nazeer Ahmed had written this novel basically with the aim of educating her daughter Ashghari, who later on became Qaiseri Begum’s mother. Following in the footsteps of her grandfather, Qaiseri Begum wrote chaste and colloquial Urdu. Her book is aptly peppered with idioms and proverbs. It records many interesting and traditional rites, rituals and superstitions of Delhi women of yesteryear. She spent her later life in Deccan and recorded that, too. Despite being an educated woman and a poet, most of her account concerns family and household. But it is an absorbing read from cultural point of view as well.
Qaiseri Begum wrote many books though most of her schooling was done at home. She was taught Urdu, English, Arabic and Persian. She soon began writing and composing poetry and at an early age contributed to Tehzeeb-i-Niswan, a magazine for women published from Lahore. Qaiseri Begum compiled a collection of Urdu proverbs used in Delhi. In another book she had collected lullabies, quite a rare thing in Urdu. Then she compiled a book that preserved songs sung at weddings in Delhi and Deccan. She also wrote a book of recipes and another work of hers was a collection of simple home remedies for common ailments, especially useful for the areas where no doctors were available. But none of these books could be published, neither was she too keen to see them in print. But her two books that got published include a collection of questions and answers. According to Haqqee Sahib, her Lughaat-ul-Quran, or the dictionary of Quranic words, too was published.
Her memoirs too could have been lost forever, had it not been for Haqqee Sahib who obtained the manuscript, beautifully handwritten in seven or eight notebooks, some portions of which were eaten up by the worms. Published in book form in 2003, Kitab-i-Zindagi was edited by Zahara Masroor Ahmed, Qaiseri Begum’s granddaughter. Now Fazlee Sons has reprinted the book. The 661-page book is a reassure-trove of rare words, idioms and proverbs, spoken especially by the Delhi women from noble families. It is a must for all those who want to know how to write simple yet flowing and elegant Urdu prose.
Originally published in Dawn, May 28th, 2019