Reema writes at the start of the book – Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience – that her endeavor focuses on “Pakistan’s fraying social order and the sad prospect of it bringing about its own destruction”. In recent decades, the country’s minorities have come under severe attack from extremists and the state has often seemed indifferent or worse, culpable. Reema’s concern is not misplaced. In 1947, the non-Muslim population was nearly 23%. Today it is around 5%. Granted that the separation of East Pakistan caused a major decline in this number but we are all aware of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians migrating abroad. In fact, it has become a class-based exodus. The relatively privileged are the first ones to leave, and sadly, for the right reasons.
“Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come…”
Salma Mahmud, or SM as we called her at TFT, quietly left us last week. I can imagine her, part-disdain and part-panic when death would have walked up to her, announcing that it was time to change her residence. She was not unfamiliar with change or moving around as her life journey was always full of surprises, drama and anguish.
Salma ji was the eldest daughter of MD Taseer, the great poet-intellectual of early 20th century Punjab, and older sister of the brave and unforgettable Salmaan Taseer. Our acquaintance began as colleagues at TFT when SM was working as an assiduous and creative editor. We would correspond half a dozen times a day, and then we started to talk regularly, even when there was no work to discuss. SM was awfully funny and irreverent, and had great taste in literature. It is a separate matter that she also loved reading what she herself called “trashy novels”. I would encourage her to review them for TFT, as I found the idea most exciting that a woman who had read everything under the sun could take a break and enjoy racy and “fun” books.
Her husband Mahmud Sahab was a great companion of hers, a man infinitely proud of his learned wife and fully involved in her writing.
SM was born in Kashmir when Dr. Taseer had started his career as an educationist. In an interview she told me: “My father was the essence of love and affection. I can’t recall any cross words, except just once towards the end of his life, when he was an ill person, and he apologised to me afterwards. He lavished lovely presents on us, especially books, which he bought all the time. Beautiful Japanese art books, for example, as well as the usual classics and Enid Blyton. Wonderful dolls came for us from FAO Schwartz, the legendary toy shop, when he visited New York in 1948.” The 1940s were a turbulent as well as a deeply enriching decade for SM as she imbibed the literary milieu in which her father was a shining light. At the same time she also discovered the existential and social “aloneness” of her father despite his stature as a poet.
Dr. Taseer took a Pak-nationalist line after 1947 which isolated him from some of his “progressive” writer friends. One cannot for long begrudge men of letters for the political choices they make. SM carried her childhood and all the great cities she lived in with her wherever she went. Her memories of Dehli, Simla, Srinagar and Lahore became the lens with which she viewed the world, art and beauty. Lutyens’ Dehli and the Lodhi road bungalow, where she attended dinners held for luminaries such as EM Forster defined for her the idyll of life. But the Partition and its tragic aftermath changed her life.
By 1950, MD Taseer was dead, leaving lots of ideas and poetry but little inheritance for the family. SM’s English mother Christabel (sister of Alys Faiz) took it upon herself to raise her children and provide them with all they needed. SM studied at the Kinnaird College before pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Edinburgh. Like her father, SM turned into a seasoned teacher of the English language and literature and taught in the Gulf and Pakistan in various institutions. Till her last she was dedicated to education and was affiliated with the Beaconhouse National University. […]