The world knew Tahira Syed as famous Pakistani singer Mallika Pukhraj’s daughter — until Tahira slipped into the space vacated by her mother. It had its joys and limitations — the joy of singing to the world her mother’s immortal “Abhi to main jawan hoon…” and the limitation of not being able to evolve a style of her own. Tahira was not a willing singer. Music to her was synonymous with Cliff Richards and ghazals were not for her. Her lessons with Ustadji were forced by her mother, who wanted at least one of her five children to carry on her legacy. Tahira did not protest. But what turned her into an artiste was her mother’s grief. “After my father died, the only recollection I have is of my mother weeping. She stopped singing altogether. Once when I sang to her, her smile returned. I felt that this could lessen her grief and I decided that I would sing to her, for her and with her.”
There is a lot about her mother that Tahira does not share — her mother’s difficult food habits, for instance. “It was such a problem when we were invited out. My mother would always carry her own food despite the poor host’s embarrassment. While travelling, a tiffin carrier full of food was a ‘must’.” Once, when they took a cruise, her mother carried pickles, pakoras and desi ghee puris to last her through the journey. Even when these ran out, she refused to touch ‘outside food’, and survived on liquids till they returned home. It was the same ship where their cabin nearly caught fire because Mallika insisted on lighting her hooka with the coals she had smuggled into her suitcase. Tahira, thankfully, savours her chhola bhatura and golgappa whenever she’s in India.
Unlike her mother, she has a living room in her house. “My mother thought drawing rooms were unnecessary. To me it was embarrassing to live in a huge house with only bedrooms. My mother said people come to meet us, not our house.” Even while she understood the logic later, Tahira decided that she would spare her children the ‘missing drawing-room jigsaw’.
But like her mother, Tahira carries her own pillows. Earlier she used to dismiss this habit as fussiness. Now, she finds herself doing the same, at least in Pakistan.