At age 98, she appears to be feeble. But her mind is as agile as it was when she first travelled to England as a teenager. Her love for the poor, the sick and the infirm hasn’t waned a bit. Nor has her interest in the upliftment and empowerment of women.

Begam Habibullah

Meet Hamida Habibullah, the lady who rose from humble roots to rub shoulders with the high and mighty. Despite the celebrity aura around her, she prefers not to be addressed as Begum.

“Somehow, I do not relish being addressed as Begum. I do not belong to a royal family,” she points out. “I come from a very humble background. My mother, who hailed from Banda district, was a conservative lady. I grew up in an atmosphere where purdah was prevalent. It’s another matter that my father was not as conservative as my mother.”

Much has been written about her in the past, but very few people would probably know that even at the age of seven, when the struggle for independence from British rule was in its nascent stage, Hamida showed her contempt for the British Raj.

It was a time when Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to all Indians to shun any and everything that had British roots. People responded by burning clothes, destroying furniture and all that could in any way be identified with British culture. Hamida, too, wanted to do her bit. “I had a hat, which my father gave for me to protect myself from the sun. I thought it was one of the British symbols. So I went and threw the hat into the bonfire that the neighbourhood people had lit,” she recalls.

Since childhood, Hamida showed inclination towards social service and when her father was transferred by the British to Hyderabad she went along and soon became a regular visitor to a local orphanage.

Noticing her inclination towards the under-privileged, her father sent her to London to pursue higher studies. Her mother, though, was against the decision. After hectic discussions, her mother agreed to accompany her to England.

“Those were the days of sea travel. It used to take three days to reach England from India,” she recalls.

One interesting, but funny, incident during the voyage is still fresh in Hamida’s memory.

“I was in my cabin with my mother. One gentleman came and said to me: ‘Lady Boland wants to see you’,” she says with a chuckle. “I was taken aback. I wondered who this Lady Boland was and why would she want to see me?”

“The gentleman insisted that I follow him. My mother, as usual, held me back by gesturing her disapproval. However, brushing aside her disapproval, I did go to meet ‘Lady Boland’. And guess what? The ‘Lady Boland’ was none other than the wife of Nawab Buland Jung. ‘Lady Boland’ was how the British addressed Begum Buland. To me it was very hilarious,” says the graceful lady with a naughty smile, but in a very Lucknawi andaaz.

Begam Habibullah

Hamida, born on November 20, 1916, had a special place in her heart for fellow Scorpio Indira Gandhi, who was born on November 19, 1917. Her husband, Major-General Enaith Habibullah was a great admirer of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. To Hamida, Indira was a shy lady but very firm in her convictions. She was a woman of action, though some of her actions were not liked by many, Hamida points out.

Those were the days when Indira’s two sons – Rajiv and Sanjay – were studying in Doon School. I, too, happened to be living in Dehradun then. Whenever Indira escorted her son to school after vacations, both of them met.

“During my interaction with Indira I noticed that she was an epitome of simplicity and kind heartedness,” she points out. “Though simple, Indira was stunningly beautiful.”

The memories of Indira, though cherishing for her, do take away the smile from Hamida’s frail face because the blot of Emergency reminds her of the excesses committed by the Congress. It was Hamida who sounded Indira on what her younger son Sanjay Gandhi was doing and what could be the repercussions.

She recalls having alerted Indira that there was anger among people against the family planning programme that was being implemented by the government. What worried Hamida was the fact that the salaries of teachers were being withheld because they were not able to meet the sterilisation targets. (This writer knows at least one person who is still alive to tell the tale….in all likelihood, there may be many more!!!)

Since the mood across the country was tense, Hamida gathered some courage to seek time from Indira to apprise her of the forcible sterilisations that were taking place on a large scale and, more importantly, the sterilisation campaign was being done on orders from Sanjay and that he was monitoring the campaign personally.

Begam Habibullah

“She listened to me patiently and I could guess that she did not like what I told her about the excesses being committed in the name of family planning,” Hamida says.

Soon the chorus against the Emergency gained momentum and then came a time when Indira had to pay the price for what her younger son did. Faced with stiff opposition and the JP movement, Indira lifted the Emergency and announced fresh general elections. Her strength in the Parliament was decimated and what followed is history. Sadly not many from the GenNow are probably aware of the Emergency and its aftermath. And the events thereafter…until the Mandal mess.

After being routed in post-Emergency general elections, Indira realised the worth of Hamida’s advice, but it was too late for redemption. However, the two ladies came closer to each other.

Hamida recalls another episode. When Pandit Kamlapati Tripathi was chief minister of UP, Indira’s ears were poisoned by some of her closest aides. Indira sought Hamida’s opinion on Tripathi and Hamida promptly defended Tripathi by telling Indira that being religious does not mean Tripathi was communal. She pointed out that Tripathi was a very religious person and believed a lot in pooja-paath. But he respected people of other religions and faith. Indira liked the suggestion, but still remained wary about Tripathi.

In her sunset years, Hamida still starts her day early by offering morning prayers, followed by light breakfast. She spends the entire day reflecting on the past. At times, she laments the fact that the silver legs of her bed that was gifted by her parents, were stolen. Another thing that pains her is the neglect of Urdu.

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