Most Hindus write for Hindus, English writers for Christians but no one ever writes about Muslim women,” says Rama Pandey, 58. She cuts a larger than life figure with cascading hair, a full smile, and generously kohl-ed eyes, deftly weaving in between her guests. It’s the launch of her latest book, Faisle (meaning decisions), in Delhi. It’s a compilation of stories of Muslim women in India put together by Pandey in a serialised book in Hindi as well as a television programme. “It came out of my long association with the Muslim girls with whom I studied and grew up with in Rajasthan,” explains this multifaceted personality, who has to her credit a long innings with Doordarshan as its first woman producer-director for SITE (Indian Satellite Programmes in 1972-73) as well as for BBC Radio London in 1981.
Of her earliest influences she says, “Rabia, a classmate, was an excellent athlete in school till class eight but in class nine, her family forbade her pursuing sports, saying uska nikah karna hai (she has to get married). I tried speaking to her mother, thinking it would be as easy as it was with our parents, but realised it wasn’t the same — Rabia didn’t have a voice in her own home. I told her to stand on her own feet and her response was, daud nahi sakti toh khadi kya hongi (If I can’t run, how will I stand) but she went on to participate in the nationals. I lost track of her and met her years later when she was 42 and had decided never to marry. Rabia’s revolt made a big impact on me and I titled her story, Daudti Hirni.”
Her own sister-in-law, Pandey says, was also an inspiring story. “She’s a para-jumper who moved to Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to buy from male-shopkeepers unless accompanied by a male family member. She revolted saying, ‘this kind of Muslim society is not meant for me’ and is now the headmistress of a school in Kashmir.” Then there is the story of Shaistha in Hyderabad who refused to be sold to sheikhs. “Wahan dalalon ko aise dekhte hain jaise bhagwan aaya ho (They look upon pimps like gods). Then, one girl will wish for all the old men to die, and another will say, ‘then who’ll marry us’? All these real stories which came from all sections of society, stayed in my subconscious,” she says.
Wife of a Kashmir-based bureaucrat, Najamus Saqib, Pandey counts Sarath Chandra’s portrayal of his heroines, Chandramukhi and Paro, in his epic Devdas as her greatest inspiration. “He showed nuances of Chanda’s character as well as Paro’s though they came from different strata – what amazing characterisation!”
A rebel herself, Pandey says she frequently got into trouble at home till her Hindi teacher told her to channelise her “bak-bak” into something more useful – debating. “I never lost an argument after that!” she claims. Pandey then went on to study filmmaking in Holland on a scholarship, and then worked in television, radio, and theatre.
Pandey is the eldest of four famous siblings and calls herself the “China Wall” for them — admen Piyush and Prasoon Pandey and singer-actor Ila Arun. About them she says, “Piyush would rhyme things on the dinner-table and it became a family game. A god-sent adman! I admire his insight and ability to keep calm. Ila is chirpy and a good judge of people. Baby of the family, Prasoon, is meticulous and can enthuse anyone about anything.”