A universe with four moons

By Raza Rumi

Neelam Ahmad Basheer is best known as a short story writer with a new voice in Urdu fiction. She has been writing all her life but established herself after she moved back to Pakistan from the United States during the 1980s. She spent a “lifetime” in the US married to a doctor who was not appreciative of her writing talents. And, we now know her better through the publication of Char Chaand (four moons) – a collection of autobiographical sketches and essays on her life, family and friends. Barring a few exceptions, few women venture to be as candid in Urdu writing as Neelam is in her new book. There is certainly no glorification, self-promotion or desperation to weave a halo around her persona. In fact, the author emerges as a vulnerable, melancholic and nostalgic character at the outset. The honest and self-fledgling tone of these sketches makes Char Chaand more than just a memorable book. It is in fact a testament to the tribulations of middle class women in private and public spaces and the kinds of struggles they have to wage to survive in a patriarchal society such as Pakistan.

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Neelam’s greatest and perhaps the most ever-lasting influence is her father late Ahmad Basheer, a revolutionary writer, journalist and film-maker who was widely respected in Lahore’s literary and journalistic circles. One gets to know him through Neelam’s loving recollections in Char Chaand, also the title of the leading sketch. The four moons here are Neelam and her sisters: the uber-talented Bushra Ansari, Sumbal, a singer and known TV persona now; and Asma who has made her name in performing arts (but is unforgettable for her legendary performance in the famous parody of Malika Pukhraj and Tahira Syed with Bushra Ansari). Neelam weaves the narrative as if it were a piece of fiction and recreates her inner sanctum where this well-knit family lives in a relatively more tolerant Pakistan. It is amazing to read that Ahmad Basheer Saheb insisted that his wife should be trained in classical music; and an Ustad was hired for this purpose. The four girls grew up with this set of highly cultured parents. Ahmad Basheer was also a radical man at home. Neelam recounts how she was forced to go out of the house by the father when she was a teenager to run errands and how petrified she was to travel alone in a bus. Remarkable for the urban middle class culture where unmarried girls rarely leave the house without a male companion. Neelam is brutally honest about her insecurities growing up with prettier and bolder sisters who are eccentric in their own ways. She tells us how quiet and responsible she was as the eldest them of all. […]