Noorjehan Murshid | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 02, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 02, 2010

In Memoriam

Noorjehan Murshid

Noorjehan MurshidPhoto: STAR

My first memory of Noorjehan Murshid is as my teacher in Class I (or maybe II) in Viqarunnisa Noon School. I cannot recall what subject she taught us. What I do remember is the word I would have associated with her, though the limited vocabulary of a little girl did not have it at her disposal then, "grace." The grace that lies somewhere in between kindness and strength of character.
It was customary for students at the school to address teachers as "apa." Later, I would address her as "chachi," because of my friendship with her daughters and sons whom I got to know during the time we spent in Calcutta working at the same war news data collection organisation in 1971.
A word of appreciation from the aerial beings, our teachers (who did not, according to us lowly students, have a mundane existence outside the halo of their classroom rostrum), would make our day. And a note of disapproval could plunge us into an abyss of self-doubt. Such was the nature of our reverence.
So imagine my surprise when one day I saw Noorjehan apa supervsising the construction of a house right next door to ours on Satmasjid Road. I walked up shyly to where she was giving instructions to the masons. On seeing me, she drew me close and asked kindly what I was doing there. I must have mumbled something about living next door -- but the fact that a teacher had remembered my name filled a little girl, poised on the brink of uncertainty, with a warm glow.
My next encounter with the Murshid family was during the War of Liberation. Noorjehan Murshid's daughter Tazeen, and two sons Firdous and Kumar, worked in the Bangladesh Information Cell housed in Netaji Bhaban (Subhas Chandra Bose's residence), while her other daughter had joined the Free Bangladesh singing troupe.
After liberation, Mrs. Murshid became deeply involved in the social and political reconstruction of a war ravaged country. She became close to Bangabandhu and was not only an elected member of Parliament from the Awami League, but also the minister for health during the regime.
Shortly afterwards, Professor Sarwar Murshid was appointed as Bangladesh's ambassador to Poland and the family went abroad. In the midst of all this, Mrs. Murshid raised a family and, along with her husband, infused a large part of the spirit, tenacity and work ethic she herself lived by into her children.
It is quite remarkable that a woman born in 1924 in Murshidabad, in an enlightened family but within the milieu of the conservative Muslim society, studied at the Victoria Institution in Calcutta, and later at Calcutta University (Masters in Islamic History and Culture,1945).
This was at a time when most of the less fortunate middle-class Bengali Muslims were struggling against immense odds to pick up the rudiments of a skeletal education within the confines of the andar-mahal.
In an age when few women of the more advanced Brahmo/Hindu community stepped out into the public sphere she served as the principal of Barisal Girls' School and the superintendent of Mannujan Hostel.
The same year (1946), she joined the All India Radio Service. She was the first Muslim woman to do so. After partition she joined Radio Pakistan in Dhaka. But her true vocation lay in the arena of politics and social work.
Noorjehan Murshid was one of the few women from that period to engage in politics. Her involvement started soon after graduation. In 1946, on her way to a meeting organised by the Muslim League on Direct Action Day at the Islamiya College, Calcutta, the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots broke out.
She and a few other girls were unable to return home. They sought refuge in the Millat office and stayed there for about a month, joining Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy in his efforts to restore harmony to the mutilated city. She also met Gandhi at Sealdah Station during this period and received his blessings.
Politics and social work ran in her veins. As did writing, nurturing a family, editing, even acting (in early life). Her emergence as an elected member of parliament, first from the Jukto Front Party in 1954 and then as a member of the Awami League in the historic election of 1970, and service in post-liberation Bangladesh is now part of our history.
This is specially remarkable when we stop to reflect that today the women of Bangladesh are still clamouring for representation in parliament through direct election!
A few years after returning to Bangladesh from the USA, I embarked on one of my most arduous adventures -- the pursuit of a PhD. It was at this point (around 1991) that I reconnected with Noorjehan Murshid. This time, I went on a totally different mission.
I was doing research on social/gender history of colonial Bengal -- the transformation of the Bengali Muslim middle class from tradition to modernity. This involved reconstruction of the trajectory that led to the emergence of the modern Bengali bhadramahila (gentlewoman) -- counterpart to the bhadralok -- a specific historical and social category used by eminent historians.
My application concerned the Muslim community in particular, and was the story of our foremothers and our own emergence. In this historical reconstruction, interviews of women born at the beginning of the 20th Century were important source material.
Noorjehan Murshid was one of my interviewees. As we talked in the lovely study built into a verandah in the house (where I had long ago spied her laying the foundation stone), she expressed her appreciation of the work -- the retrieval of histories lost.
Three interviewees made me comfortable enough to approach some sensitive issues necessary for my understanding of the lives of the bhadramahila. Noorjehan Murshid was one of them. She did it with such -- and I use the word again -- grace.
Till the end she remained the Renaissance woman, a product of the finer things of the transformation that had been taking place since the times of Raja Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar.
I met her often after that -- the girl student had now grown to be a chronicler of past lives such as hers. I saw her health failing, her body growing somewhat more fragile as time took its toll. But it was also evident at that time that whatever havoc time is capable of wreaking, it cannot rob a person of the one quality that will always elude its tyranny -- grace.

Professor Sonia Amin teaches History at the University of Dhaka.

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