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Rana Safvi says to the women of today: “Just be yourself. Follow your dreams and don’t let yourself be labeled. Enjoy what you are doing.”
Rana Safvi – the historian who is passionate about preserving the ‘Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb’ of India. She has taken many into her fold. The latest example being her latest video for a news website “Urdu wasn’t just meant for the Muslims” has gone viral with more than 630,000 hits on the internet.
She became author at an age when most of us hang our boots. Rana was 58 when her first book ‘Where Stones Speak: Historial Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi’, was launched. It is a best seller now.
She is also the founder and moderator of the popular platform #shair on Twitter which is aimed at reviving popular interest in Urdu poetry. Her blog ‘Hazrat-e-Dilli’ aims at enriching younger generation about how incredible India is.
So who is the woman who goes by the Twitter handle @iamrana? I bring you an exclusive insight into the life of the WOMAN behind the historian, the author RANA SAFVI.
She calls herself a simple person who loves to read a lot and travel.
Rana’s life’s journey unfolds, “I was born in 1957 at Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. My father was an IPS officer with a transferable job. I stayed in Lucknow with my grandmother and studied at La Martiniere Girls College. I later joined the Aligarh Muslim University. I’ve stayed in many towns of U.P. as well as Jamshedpur, Kochi, Pune etc.”
Uttar Pradesh — this land of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb is somehow infamous today. Mention ‘Islam’ here and it raises a million eyebrows. But it wasn’t so in her growing-up years.
Rana goes back in time, “In our growing-up years religion was a private practice. It wasn’t under the microscope as it is today. We were Indians. My parents of four daughters never had any religious or gender bias. My father Syed Asghar Abbas Zaidi, a staunch police officer & my mother Azra was a teacher at St Mary’s Convent School. They sacrificed worldly pleasures to educate us sisters to the best.”
Her aunt Rabab Zamin recalls, “Rana was fond of reading since the age of four! As a child, when she was asked to sleep in-time, she would cover herself with a sheet and read under the torch.”
So, Rana’s mother Azra Zaidi preserved her collection of books. When Rana got married, it was sent to her in a huge box.
Yes, marriage… a topic that pops up in almost every Indian household as soon as a girl attains puberty. But it was different in Zaidi’s home. Rana’s sisters tell me how their parents were supporting Rana when she was all set to appear for the UPSC exams’ finals. But she took them all by surprise with a decision.
Elder sister Farzana writes, “Rana did not appear for the finals of the Indian Civil Services. She was meant for greater achievements. But in 1981 she gave it up all to marry Gazanafar, an engineer working in Bihar.”
Rana doesn’t regret her decision but adds, “In those times I felt that corruption had stifled bureaucracy and it was difficult for honesty to flourish. Today, I feel maybe I could have attempted to reform the system from within.”
So Rana flowed with time, from place to place where her husband’s work took her. Whether it was teaching at a school in Jamshedpur or another at Jubail in Saudi Arabia, life kept her busy managing her two children Saif & Subuhi…and educating many more. It was then… reality bit the hardest. And Rana Safvi — the writer was born.
Rana reminisces, “I started writing as a catharsis for my sorrow of losing my mother to cancer in 2004. I began penning my blog regularly and it really helped in the healing process. Once I discovered Twitter, I combined my passion for writing & teaching on it.”
So #shair was born in 2011 on Twitter which she calls the turning-point in her life.
Rana adds, “I read about poets, symbolism and began posting the same on Twitter. Soon Tehelka offered me to write a piece. Thus, in 2011 began my writing career and there was no looking back. I penned ‘My name is Urdu and I’m not a Muslim’. Its acclaim gave me the confidence to continue writing,” recalls Rana.
“I used to teach in the Middle East where I had lived for many years. In 2013 the writing bug bit me the hardest. I decided to shift to India to pen my first book. I had to leave my husband behind.”
The journey alone wasn’t easy. She knew none in the publishing industry. “Turned away by many publishers, I finally decided to self-publish. Around that time I met Aparna Jain, the author of ‘Own it‘ who introduced me to V Karthika of Harper Collins. Soon we signed a contract.”
Rana Safvi’s first book Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli came out in 2015. She was 58 then! In 2017, two more including Daastan-E-Gadar joined the shelf. Three others are on the cards.
Our chat continued over the delicious Kahwa simmered by Rana. Sipping it away I just wondered how tough is it to stand strong in a world that is flourishing on sensationalism?
“I am responsible for my own work, it has to be as accurate as possible. Only truth and facts last in the end. People have begun realising it,” asserts Rana.
So son Saif is extremely proud of her, but stays in the background as one of her biggest supports. On the contrary, daughter Subuhi a budding Journalist, can pen endless proses in her mom’s honour.
Rana smiles, “Being a wife and mother has been tremendous joy. I have a doting family and great friends. I taught young minds & enjoyed interacting with them. I still interact with youngsters.”
So what word of caution for Subuhi, who works in a world that rips apart a woman-of-substance with the harshest words possible words?
“I get hate messages because I promote syncretic values. My advice is: Don’t give them space, whether your timeline or head. I want my children to be happy as per their belief of what happiness is,” guides Rana.
Best-selling books and a big supportive family, still something is amiss. “My parents are not here to witness my work. But I know they are watching me and over me,” Rana reminisces giving a loving look at the photographs of her parents.
I decide to lighten the mood by asking, “What is a typical day in ‘THE Rana Safvi’s’ life?”
She shifts her gaze, “I work in mornings, rest in the afternoon and read in evenings. My free time is spent tweeting or reading whatever I find interesting. I love to cook and play Spider Solitaire.”
Here I chuckle, “No Mam, this is not all you do! Ahem, THE Shashi Kapoor Films?”
Rana blushes, “Did Farah tell you?” Farah is her youngest sister who told me how Rana hasn’t missed a single film starring the legendary actor. I laugh in answer and Rana confesses, “He is my heartthrob since I was 10. In 1977-78, Shashiji was shooting for Junoon in Malihabad. Saba Zaidi was doing the art design. I jumped at the offer to meet him! Two days went in a daze. The memory is crystal clear even 40 years later.”
I decide to wrap-up our chat on her message to the women of today, “Woman, just be yourself. Follow your dreams and don’t let yourself be labeled. Enjoy what you are doing.”
And with a warm hug, the parting words came from the Shaiyara…
“un kā jo farz hai vo ahl-e-siyāsat jāneñ
merā paiġhām mohabbat hai jahāñ tak pahuñche”
Images source: Rana Safvi and Mahima Sharma