Shahana Raza: Author Interview

Shahana Raza author interview

Saeeda Bano is the first woman in India to work as a radio newsreader. She originally wrote her biography in Urdu, in the year 1994. The book was titled “Dagar Se Hat Kar”. Now in 2020, her grand-daughter Shahana Raza has translated her work into English so that more people can read about her life. The book titled ‘Off The Beaten Track’ is a wonderful and inspiring read. When we at thenotoriousreader came across the book, we just had to ask a few questions about the book and its inspiring author.

Shahana Raza is Saeeda Bano’s grand-daughter. She has a Master’s in Film and Viedo production and has worked in television, radio, and other print media. A liberal feminist, Shahana is an independent writer and video producer, a wannabe vegan, and a dilettante environmentalist. She currently lives in Dubai with her husband and two children.

What inspired you to translate your grandmother’s memoir into English?

Saeeda Bano did! After her memoir was published in Urdu, she asked me if I would translate it to English. Now though I understand Urdu well, I can’t read it. That is when she got a friend of hers to read the entire book on to analog audio cassettes for me!

Can you please give us some more information about the book?

‘Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life’ is the journey of a woman who goes from being a fun-loving headstrong girl to a candid outspoken housewife before becoming India’s First Woman Radio Newsreader.
Interspersed with lyrical Urdu and Farsi poetry the book gives us an extraordinary first-hand glimpse of the socio-cultural atmosphere prevalent in three key Indian cities – Bhopal, Lucknow, and Delhi, from the late 19th century right till the 1980s.

What is your favorite part of the memoir?

My favorite part of the book are the first two chapters, where she describes how people lived at the turn of the 19th century when her mother was a young 14-year-old bride. We see how these people traveled in dolis and mayanas palanquins, homes were lit with diyas oil lamps, the façade of houses were architecturally designed to ensure women could not be seen from outside since they were in purdah, how rules imposed by society on both sexes were starkly different. It’s a riveting description of how men and women lived back in those days.

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What was Saeeda ji’s fondest memory about her work or personal life that she liked to share the most?

Unfortunately, she and I didn’t really discuss her work, but yes, she was quite proud of the fact that she was the First Woman Radio Newsreader for All India Radio’s Urdu service. On the personal front, she would narrate incidents from her childhood, which we grandkids enjoyed listening to, especially how she and her mischievous friends literally ‘sewed’ a lazy maid to the carpet on a hot summer day. It’s in the book!
“Bee Rehmat was a very heavy sleeper. One afternoon, she waddled into the room in her usual manner, stretched out on the mattress, covered herself with a thin sheet, and quickly fell into a deep contented sleep. When we were absolutely sure she was oblivious to the world, we took a needle and thick thread and hastily stitched the edges of her covering sheet onto the white bedsheet spread on top of the mattress.”

What were her thoughts on being the first woman in the country to work as a radio newsreader?

She was immensely proud of this fact. It is quite an achievement, given that most women back then were not allowed to work.

Saeeda Bano, India’s first woman radio newsreader

How did Saeeda Bano’s life and her thoughts impact you and the others in her life?

She had a powerful personality and could be quite intimidating. Wherever we went to a social gathering, I saw the way she carried herself, how she was respected for her achievements. When she retired, she started writing this book. She put her time to good use. I suppose it was from her that I learned to stand up to authority and for myself. As kids, we didn’t feel a woman could not live alone, make crucial decisions without male sanction or even, drive a car for that matter. After all our granny was already doing these things!

The title of the memoir itself states that it was an unconventional life that she lived. How did she feel about that?

She didn’t set out to lead an unconventional life. It happened. There were moments in her life when she felt validated and successful and times that were emotionally very overwhelming. I don’t remember Saeeda Bano ever feeling defeated, beat, or surrendering. She tackled the low turbulent phases of her life with enormous courage.

What were the difficulties you faced while translating the book?

The first step was transcribing the entire book into English. That took hours and hours of work. After that, I had to wade through the intricate complexity of her erudite Urdu vocabulary. Understanding it was not as easy as I had expected. And then of course I had to peel back layers of meaning to find appropriate English words to convey
the emotions and situations she has described so beautifully in this book.

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Do you have plans of trying your hand at writing?

I have been writing on a professional and personal level for the past 20 years. I enjoy the process. Aside from translating this book, I have also penned a non-fiction piece for the anthology ‘Feast on Your Life’ which will be published in 2021 through Speaking Tiger.

Can you tell us who is your favorite author/ authors?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez tops the list. Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, I can re-read these again and again. I also enjoy Khaled Hossaini’s work. Then of course there is Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Georgette Heyer, Daphne Du Maurier. I also love poetry, English, Hindi, Urdu… all of it. From Kaifi Azmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz, T.S. Elliot, John Keats, Pablo Neruda to Kabir, Khusro, Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, the list is long!

Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to share with our readers?

While working on a project or a task, don’t settle for feeling ‘satisfied’ with the effort you put towards it. Push yourself further, take it to a level where you look at your own work and feel, “Wow, I did that!?” This could be true for writing, gardening, cooking, cleaning, drawing – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a project that translates to monetary success. Just something which gives you a deep sense of blissful accomplishment when you reflect upon it in the future.

To know more about the book, click here.

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