Dust of the Caravan
By Anis Kidwai
Translated by Ayesha Kidwai
Zuban, India
ISBN: 978-9385932892

They say that if you want to know what happened, read history. If you desire to know how it felt, read literature. One may add that, if you intend to know both what happened and how it felt, read autobiographies.

The first half of the 20th century was tumultuous around the world, and India was no exception. Most people — having had regular doses of state-approved Pakistan Studies textbooks — think that all Muslims of the Subcontinent were sick and tired of a united India and were bent upon dividing the country.

Little do they realize that there were many Muslims who did not share that particular sentiment. For readers who wish to get out of the Pak Studies mode of thinking, Anis Kidwai’s Dust of the Caravan is the book to read.

Overall giving archival details of the Kidwais, a Muslim family of India, the first part of Dust of the Caravan is the English translation of Ghubaar-i-Karwaan. It tells the story of the first two decades of Ella Kidwai’s life, from her birth de Ella in 1906 in Barabanki, rural Awadh, to 1926. By this time, she had been married to her cousin Ella, Shafi Ahmed Kidwai, for six years.

Covering the first eight decades of the 20th century, a book by the illustrious Muslim author from India is for readers who wish to get out of the Pak Studies mode of thinking

The second part contains extracts from the book Azaadi Ki Chhaon Mein, which picks up Kidwai’s story from 1947 onwards. The original Urdu was published in 1974; the English translation — by Ayesha Kidwai, who has also translated Dust of the Caravan — appeared in 2011 as In Freedom’s Shade.

These two halves of the book give us quite an interesting picture of a person who transforms herself from a domesticated young girl to a grown woman who challenges family traditions and works for her country.

Reading biographical accounts can often be quite tricky, as some subjectivity is bound to tinge the narrative, but it is not hard to see through the conscience of the writer. Dust of the Caravan challenges readers to reshape their opinions in light of the writer’s individual experiences.

The clan of Kidwais boasts a remarkable lineage. Their home state of Awadh — now amalgamated in Uttar Pradesh (UP) — was the center of many upheavals and, although the Kidwais were not one of the richest clans — as they had been experiencing financial decline — that did not deter them from actively participating in the ousting of the British Raj. From this book we get to know that the Kidwais became deeply anti-colonial and joined the nationalist movement led by the Indian National Congress, as opposed to the separatist movement that the All India Muslim League was leading.

The author recounts how she grew up in an overall conservative family that transformed itself to become an active participant in the social and political movements of the period. The first part of the book is mostly a detailed social history of life in rural Awadh. It then segues into political history with a personal account, with Kidwai sharing real-life anecdotes from the homes of Muslim and non-Muslim families that worked together to alleviate the agonies of the communal divide that spread fast and consumed millions of families.

Indian soldiers walk through the debris of a building in Amristar in August 1947. Similar riots had erupted in Delhi and Anis Kidwai gives an eyewitness account of all that happened | AP

Although most of her life was spent in the zenana [women’s quarters], it did not take the author long to come out in the world and play her due role in society. The tragic catalyst was the murder of her husband de ella in Mussoorie, a mere two months after Partition, which compelled the young widow to move to Delhi.

The activist Kidwai was the product of rich traditions of mutual respect and harmony that had suddenly transformed into hatred and loathing. She regretted how understanding and tolerance among different faiths were shattered within a few years, how shared cultures became alien to each other, and how that alienation resulted in decades of acrimony and animosity that is intensifying by the day, even in the 21st century.

Witnessing the carnage of Partition, Kidwai endeavored to ameliorate the sufferings of victims of abduction, displacement, rape and decimation of their families. As with other parts of the Subcontinent, Delhi was in the grip of communal riots in 1947 and Kidwai gives an eyewitness account of all that happened.

The travails of an entire generation are reflected here. The soul of the land was torn apart, leaving behind indelible marks. The post-Partition years were traumatic for both Pakistan and India and, although it should be a distant memory by now, the trauma still lingers. To that end, the book offers a perspective that is gradually evaporating from the annals of officially approved history.

Kidwai’s observant eye captures the multiple spectacles playing out in front of her with finesse, and she paints candid portraits of some of the most prominent personalities of that era — such as her brother-in-law Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi , Abul Kalam Azad and many others.

It is worth noting that, although many memoirs from that particular period are available in Pakistan, most have come from the men — occasionally women — belonging to the Muslim League. An alternative account of personalities and events is nearly non-existent in Pakistan. This makes even the educated lot narrow in thought and parochial in action.

An activist and writer with a commitment to democracy and human rights, Kidwai narrates how the idea of ​​secularism that the Congress proposed faced stiff resistance from the Muslim League and from right-wing Hindu extremists alike.

For 12 years, she was a member of the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) and, in that capacity, fought for the rights of minorities and women. Despite her busy life, she managed to write articles, essays, memoirs and sketches of people she worked with.

The concluding section of this book features two memorial essays that Kidwai wrote for Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Mridula Sarabhai, who had waged an illustrious struggle for freedom, but after Partition were largely forgotten. Another personality that emerges off and on in the book is Chaudhari Mohammad Ali Rudaulvi, who was a frequent visitor to the writer’s home and commanded immense respect as an advocate of women’s rights. He was a writer of repute and has left behind a couple of books featuring humorous, sarcastic and witty writings.

Kidwai does full justice to her topics of discussion and, over the past several years, her memoirs have become a celebrated document for historians and anyone else interested in prominent Muslim families’ accounts of the freedom struggle.

It is also worth mentioning that the translator, Ayesha Kidwai, has done a splendid job. The suppleness of Urdu prose is not easy to accurately reproduce in English, but Ayesha manages to create a work of enjoyable, smoothly flowing English prose. Since the late author is the translator’s grandmother, this also affords Ayesha everyday access to, and intimate details of, the family in which she grew up, making the results of her translation of her that much more authentic.

Never in the narrative — that covers the first eight decades of the 20th century — will you find a passage that is not poetic in expression and poignant in insight. There are piercing details from harrowing case studies of women abducted in the aftermath of Partition. There are also moments of happiness that will make readers smile. The additional essays by Anis Kidwai complement the original text and make incisive comments with rich introductions.

The writer dreamed of a just and equal India. Hers is a story of a struggle that included Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and Bengalis, Gujaratis, Punjabis and others from across India, all converging for the sake of the same cause.

The reviewer is a columnist and educationist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at and tweets @NaazirMahmood

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 22nd, 2022

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