Elusive Lives
Gender, Autobiography, and the Self in Muslim South Asia
Siobhan Lambert-Hurley





In autumn 2005, I began researching the purposefully amorphous topic of “personal narratives of Muslim women in South Asia.”1 My intention was to look at ways in which women reconstructed their life stories in written sources. I thus placed myself, I thought, on solid historical ground—the written word—while still defining “personal narratives” broadly to include autobiographies, memoirs, journal articles, and travel narratives. I had then put together a list of primarily published autobiographical writing, the starting point for which had been those memoirs produced by women at the Bhopal royal court that I had consulted as part of my doctoral and early-career research on the last of the state’s four female rulers, Nawab Sultan Jahan Begam.2 It certainly made the project look viable, but in reality, it hid my uncertainty about what was out there to be found. When I mentioned my plans to fellow academics of Muslim or women’s history in South Asia, many looked skeptical. “Is there any material?” they asked. “I mean, did Muslim women write memoirs?” This, it turned out, was a question I would face continually. The general assumption seemed to be that these silent and secluded creatures would not deign, or perhaps dare, to participate in a genre that required them, in popular parlance, to “lift the veil,” to reveal something of their inner selves or even the “private” world of the zenana, or women’s quarters.

Other historians greeted my project with even greater suspicion. If interdisciplinarity has inspired exciting challenges to traditional historical methods on the pages of Rethinking History, to my colleagues at a provincial British university, it was as if Ranke and his notions of objectivity had never died. More times than I can count during my work on this project, questions have been raised of “reliability, validity and authentication.”3 As a historian of women and gender, I was all the more surprised by this response, because, as noted in the introduction, feminist scholars have been at the forefront of borrowing disciplinary techniques and seeking out new sources: ethnographies, oral traditions, life writing. These materials have transformed history by recovering voices of women and other marginalized groups whose pasts may have been unwritten or unrecorded.4 And yet still these materials, reliant on memory, can be deemed fickle and limited, if not unreliable, by history’s establishment: suitable to supplementing history, but not actually making it. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan writes in Real and Imagined Women, “Women’s voices from the past come to us only as ghostly visitations, not with the materiality of ‘evidence.’5 Many historians still think of autobiography as an appropriate historical source only if it can be verified by “real” material from a “real” archive. Like Antoinette Burton in her excellent Dwelling in the Archive, we are left asking: “Who counts as a historical subject and what counts as an archive?”6

Scholars from other disciplines have asked rather different questions of autobiography. For literary theorists, the debates have often focused on defining autobiography as a genre by asking if it can be distinguished from other literary forms. As Jill Ker Conway puts it on the first page of her pithy and accessible When Memory Speaks: “Is autobiography just another form of fiction? A bastard form of the novel or of biography?”7 Hayden White’s persuasive interventions from Metahistory onward have encouraged other scholars to ask if life writers are so different from historians: are both not just aiming to “tell a story” about the past?8 Others have looked inward, seeking to differentiate forms of personal narrative within the autobiographical genre. In Design and Truth in Autobiography (still widely consulted, though it was first published in 1960), Roy Pascal seeks to separate memoir—only sometimes introspective—from autobiography, with its necessary “driving force.”9 Significantly, both terms have been abandoned fairly recently in favor of the more inclusive life writing and life narrative by postmodern and postcolonial theorists attempting to recognize the “heterogeneity of self-referential practices.”10 And yet, for gender specialists, the question remains of whether women of all nationalities can even participate in a genre that, to borrow another of Conway’s phrases, “celebrates the experiences of the atomistic Western male hero.”11

Far from hypothetical, these questions about where to draw the line seem all the more pertinent to the historian in the field faced with the very real problem of identifying and collecting materials—for whatever the attempts on the part of academics to define and categorize, historical sources rarely sit comfortably in one theoretical box or another. The problem seems compounded when the historian’s subject is Muslim women in South Asia, a group often presumed not to write autobiography at all. What I offer in this first chapter is an autobiographical narrative in itself—though, inevitably for a historian, grounded in appropriate academic literature—in which I recount my own experience of trying to find, choose, and label appropriate sources for a project on “personal narratives of Muslim women in South Asia.” I do this to flag methodological and theoretical questions that this process raised in relation to the broad categories of gender, autobiography, and history itself: questions about the nature of the archive and the distinctiveness of women’s writing as they relate to issues of nomenclature, structure, chronology, language, voice, and regional specificity. To justify my title, this chapter is about life, history, and the archive, as well as a life history archive.

A necessary first stage was exploration of the colonial archive par excellence, the British Library in London. In tribute to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, I title this stage “Beginnings.” For Derrida, the arkhe was, to quote Carolyn Steedman, “a place where things begin, where power originates.”12 This statement has resonance when working in the Oriental and India Office Collections (now, notably, renamed Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections) with all their historical associations with an imperial state’s glory and authority.13 But my beginnings here were twofold. On the one hand, my forays into the British Library marked the (frustrating, unsatisfactory) beginnings of my research process. On the other, they led to a realization that the kind of material that I uncovered here—biographies, reformist writings, and travelogues, but little identifiable autobiography—marked a kind of beginning for South Asian Muslim women writing lives, whether lives of others or their own or both. The second, longer section acts somewhat as an antidote to the “archive fever” of the first by charting my subsequent experience of seeking a new collection of sources outside the conventional archive. Yet this process led to problems of categorization: to “blurrings,” as I title the second section. I consider the range of possibilities under the label of “personal narratives”: novels, devotional literature, letters, diaries, journal articles, oral sources, film, biographies, memoirs, and ghosted narratives. I conclude this chapter by reflecting on the issue of “labeling” itself, reflected in the title of the third section.


When I began this project, I was accustomed, as a trained historian, to thinking of the archive as a physical location: as Antoinette Burton summarizes, “an institutional site in a faraway place that requires hotel accommodation and a gruelling nine-to-five workday.”14 Admittedly, the latter had rarely been possible in the provincial Indian archive in Bhopal—with its truncated opening hours and extended tea breaks—in which I had apprenticed as a historian. But still, this description was familiar enough to my own general experience. The cultural turn has been interpreted by some imperial historians as having dealt a nearly fatal blow to the archive—such that, by the end of the twentieth century, it was “hardly dead but dissected into unrecognizability and memorialized as the victim of a veritable academic epidemic.”15 But really the hysteria seems ill-founded. Those “swirling intellectual currents” defined by the “post” prefix—“post-colonial, post-modern, post-Orientalist, and post-structural historical perspectives,” to borrow an unwieldy section title from Bose and Jalal’s Modern South Asia16—may have involved a robust critique of the colonial archive, but not an attempt to get rid of it entirely.17 Most often, the British Library in London is still the first stop for British-based scholars of South Asia, and many others besides. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that I began my research by perusing bibliographical records there. In this section, I offer an extended discussion of this process of interrogating the colonial archive for South Asian Muslim women’s writings.

Starting with the electronic catalogue, I came across a number of well-known historical examples of Muslim women’s autobiographical writing, many of which were already in my collection. From the Mughal period was Gulbadan Banu Begam’s Ahval-i-Humayun Badshah, usually referred to, as in Annette Beveridge’s early-twentieth-century translation, as the Humayun-nama.18 By this time, Ruby Lal had already probed this fascinating memoir as a source for the domestic life of the early Mughal court.19 There was also a rather dubious little volume published in 1931 by a German linguist, Andrea Butenschon, claiming to be the translation of a handwritten memoir by the Mughal princess Jahanara, stumbled upon behind a marble slab at the Agra Fort.20 Even if not authentic, it pointed to Jahanara’s actual first-person narrative, Risala-i-Sahibiyah (1641), or “The Lady’s Treatise,” then being examined by Afshan Bokhari for her doctoral research and soon to be republished in English translation.21 Most familiar to me, in that they related to the colonial period, were Shaista Ikramullah’s From Purdah to Parliament (1963) and Jahan Ara Shahnawaz’s Father and Daughter (1971), both recounting the political careers of well-known female activists in the All-India Muslim League who later became Pakistani parliamentarians.22 There were also a few contemporary autobiographies from Pakistan—most of them the sensationalist variety, charting untold sorrows and political melodramas, but also a couple by feminist poets and even one by a blind social worker.23

As a historian with some facility in South Asian languages, I thought there must be more: more from the colonial period and soon after, more in Urdu. I spent some days in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room scrutinizing Blumhardt’s original catalogue of Hindustani books and manuscripts from 1900, and with the generous assistance of archivist Leena Mitford, Quraishi’s more recent Urdu catalogues, published and unpublished. I searched broadly—entry by entry—my eyes attuned to anything related to auto/biography and/or women (by, for, and about). The findings were revealing, if not necessarily what I thought I was looking for. What was most plentiful—with as many as twenty-eight pages of entries in Quraishi’s 1991 catalogue—was biography, primarily of saints, scholars, and poets, though with some princely rulers and a few reformers thrown in. Those interested in the Muslim world will know that life history has long been a staple of Islamic scholarship, the earliest biography, or sira, of the Prophet Muhammad being compiled within a century of his death in 632.24 This early example set a precedent: to narrate an exemplary life, whether of one of the Prophet’s Companions, a Sufi shaikh, or a notable ‘alim, was to offer a model of Islamic practice for every “ordinary” Muslim to become, in Barbara Metcalf’s phrase, “living hadith.”25 No wonder that biography and its related genre, the biographical dictionary, or tabaqat, were to flourish as the key mode of historical writing in the Arab world and beyond, at least from the eleventh century onward.26

The focus on biography in the India Office Collections, then, was not entirely surprising, reflecting as it did these “enduring Islamic patterns.”27 But a seeming proliferation in nineteenth-century South Asia also appeared indicative of a more modern trend: the spread of print culture and the religious change that accompanied it in the colonial era. Francis Robinson indicates how the acceptance of print among South Asian Muslims initiated a “process of interiorization” reflected in “the expression of a growing sense of self” or, as he puts it more poetically, “the manifold nature of the human individual.”28 As individuals became more important, biography flourished—with the effect that, as the esteemed W. C. Smith observed, “more lives of Muhammad appeared between the two World Wars than in any one of the centuries between the twelfth and the nineteenth.”29 Yet the effect was not just more biographies, but also different biographies. On the one hand, this meant the same lives told differently. To paraphrase Robinson again, even the Prophet Muhammad metamorphosed from the “Perfect Man” of the Sufi tradition to the good middle-class family man identifiable to the era’s Muslim reformers.30 On the other hand, it meant different lives told. Among the many biographies listed in the British Library catalogues were a number that recounted the lives of women. Favored were exemplars from early Islamic history—Khadijah, Aisha, Fatima—though Mughal queens and princesses, maharanis and begams, a poetess, and even a schoolteacher were also deemed appropriate subjects from the first decade of the twentieth century.31

These full-length biographies would have complemented the many speeches and articles being prepared around this same time by Muslim reformers on women in Islamic history. As a whole, this output is best characterized as collective biography, beginning usually with examples of women in seventh-century Arabia before moving on to female scholars and rulers at different points and places in Muslim history. South Asian examples, like Raziya Sultana in thirteenth-century Delhi and Chand Bibi in sixteenth-century Bijapur, were regularly trotted out before a survey of women at the Mughal court: always Nurjahan, but also sometimes Mumtaz Mahal of Taj Mahal fame, the scholarly Jahanara and the poetic Zaibunnisa.32 More current examples usually filled out the list, a favorite set being the nawab begams of Bhopal—who also featured in biographical pieces in the Arabic press around the same time.33 These columns on “famous women” soon became a regular item in women’s journals in South Asia, too. An early issue of Zill us-Sultan, published in Bhopal from 1918, for instance, carried a lengthier piece on the grandmother of the last independent nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-daula, in which she was described in contemporary reformist parlance as such a “helpmeet” to her husband, Nawab Ali Vardi Khan of Bengal, that she even assisted him in battle.34 Reflecting growing nationalist sentiment, a 1934 edition of Tahzib un-Niswan (published in Lahore) carried an article on the French vanquisher of the English, Jeanne d’Arc.35 Like the Egyptian examples examined so fruitfully by Marilyn Booth, these biographies of exemplary women were crafted to reflect specific reformist and political agendas.36

So Muslim women’s lives were certainly being written in South Asia at least from the late nineteenth century, but primarily, if catalogues of Hindustani books in the British Library were anything to go by, in biographical format by male authors. That is not to say that there were no female biographers. As I already knew well, the last begam of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan, had written book-length accounts of the life of her mother, Shah Jahan, and her great-grandmother Qudsia.37 The life of Ashrafunnisa Begam, a teacher at the Victoria Girls’ High School in Lahore, was prepared by her close friend Muhammadi Begam.38 Drawing on feminist studies of auto/biography, Booth makes the point that “biography is always autobiography.”39 What is reflected here is a charge often leveled at biography by its detractors: the idea that biography actually tells the reader more about the author than about the subject. We might consider, as an illustrative (if slightly roundabout) example, the biographer Richard Holmes’s discussion of Samuel Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, as summarized by yet another biographer, Michael Holroyd:

Holmes has shown how Johnson recreated the Life of Richard Savage as if it were his own buried life, a violent, dark life of the imagination. Holmes’s Dr Johnson & Mr Savage presents us with a version of RL Stevenson’s characters Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Between the lines of Johnson’s romantic account of Savage’s early life, our modern detective Holmes reveals how the author identified with his subject. Here was the life that he never lived but that festered in his imagination.40

And so, according to this approach, by the very act of writing, the biographer projects himself—or, in our case, herself—into the subject, with the effect of an “interweaving of lives.” As Booth explicates, “the authorial ‘I’ links the act of writing biography to individual and collective identity.”41

The question is thus raised of whether these biographies by women authors were appropriate material for my study of autobiography. At the time, I did not even consider them—though, as we will see in the next section, I was forced to return to the knotty problem of auto/biography again later in my research. What I did instead was note what else in the British Library catalogues was written by or for women. At this juncture, it is perhaps worth saying that one of the underlying reasons that I had begun a project on women’s personal narratives in the first place was because, after years of studying highly moralistic and often dry reformist literature (admittedly necessary for a book on women’s participation in socioreligious reform movements), I wanted to read something different. Yet it was that very reformist literature that kept reappearing in my search, making it the second most inhabited of my broad categories: advice manuals for women on correct Islamic practice, home economics, housekeeping, childcare, personal hygiene, and the rest. Like the biographies, most of it was written by men, but there were a few female authors too—most prolifically, the begams of Bhopal again, but also some unknown. One of these manualists was described only as “the mother of M. Abd al-Aziz,” while another, Amat al-Nasīr, had to be justified as the “daughter of Sardar Ahmed”—apparently a deputy collector, who also took responsibility for editing and publishing her text—and “wife of Sardar Faqir Allah BA.”42 It made me consider the possibility that perhaps most women’s identities were simply too relational to others in this period to participate in a genre, like autobiography, supposedly defined by its emphasis on self.

Only much later, upon revisiting Shah Jahan’s Tahzib un-Niswan wa Tarbiyat ul-Insan (1889) for a different purpose, did I consider the manuals themselves as a form of self-representation or even life writing. Did they not contain a woman’s own rules for running a household and sometimes even incidents from the author’s life used to explain a particular point or justify a specific reformist stance? Perhaps the most revealing example of the latter was in a passage on sexual intercourse in the above text in which the reigning nawab asserted a woman’s right to carnal pleasure using her own experiences as illustration. Apparently, she felt unfulfilled by her first husband, the older and already married Baqi Muhammad Khan, and thus her youth had been lost in “ranj o gham,” suffering and sadness. Her controversial second husband, Siddiq Hasan, changed all that, provoking her to affirm that she had never been so happy.43 Her daughter, Sultan Jahan, was too circumspect to discuss sexual matters in her own reformist writings (though not too circumspect to conceive five children). And yet she too used her life to illustrate her reformist stance. When discussing polygamy in her widely circulated advice manual for married couples, she suggested that women could follow her example in adding an extra clause to their marriage contracts to protect them financially should their husbands ever exercise the right to take another wife.44 Surely there was much to be mined from reformist literature in terms of autobiographical fragments, if not more.

And yet still the question remained: were there any autobiographies proper in the British Library’s Hindustani catalogues? Well, yes, a couple—but by men.45 What I also found, though, was a goodly selection of another type of personal narrative on my list of potential sources: travel writing. Substantial academic interest has followed this literary form in recent years as, on the back of Said, scholars have sought to make explicit the links between physical travel and imaginative journey.46 These analyses take as a starting point the idea that travel writing is not a “literal and objective record of journeys undertaken,” to borrow the phrase of Tim Youngs, so much as it is an “ideological” undertaking that “draws on the conventions of other literary genres.”47 In a South Asian context, Barbara Metcalf has shown how even accounts of the quintessential Muslim journey, the hajj pilgrimage, became “modes of self-presentation” in the modern period—thus suggesting the crossover between travel writing and autobiography.48 And so it felt like quite a coup to come across this stash of travelogues, several of which were written by Muslim women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Including an Indian tour diary, pilgrimage narratives, and a European travel account, they proved to be merely representative: as my research progressed to and across the Indian subcontinent, these travel accounts continued to accrue.49 Many women employed the regular Persian term for a book of travels, safarnama, while others evoked the idea of a travel diary by using roznamcha. Either way, by purporting to describe objective reality, the travel narrative seemed to provide women with a useful cover by which to write of personal experience, if only when in motion, in the colonial period and beyond.

And so I ended my time in the British Library with just a handful of materials, most of which I had already known about. Still, I was beginning to develop a sense of how Muslim women could have gained access to the world of life writing in colonial South Asia, how they may have found their autobiographical beginnings. I began to conjecture that the sociocultural and technological changes of the nineteenth century enabled India’s Muslim women to be recognized, particularly within the context of Islamic reform, as appropriate subjects for biography, some of which may have had autobiographical content. Thus established, a few exemplars began making use of other literary genres—reformist texts, travel literature—to speak of the self. Good beginnings, for sure; but, like many feminist scholars before me, I still had a sense that the colonial archive had failed me. My experience of libraries and archives in South Asia—whether national, formerly princely, or university-based—was more fruitful from the perspective of conventional women’s autobiography, but only partially so. The Maulana Azad Library at Aligarh Muslim University, for instance, provided access to a few fairly well-known Urdu texts, while the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi offered a peculiar scattering of English, Hindi, and Urdu materials. But the Rampur Raza Library—that “treasure house of Indo-Islamic learning and art”—yielded almost nothing.50 Clearly, this project was going to require a different tack.


When I arrived in Delhi in autumn 2005, I had only a few leads—a reference to a manuscript in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the possibility of an article in an early Urdu women’s magazine, a name or two of people who might be able to help. Yet these one or two contacts led to meetings that led to phone calls that led to more meetings that led to more phone calls, and before long, I found myself doing historical research as I had never done it before. Whether in Delhi, Bhopal, Dhaka, Hyderabad, or Bombay, each morning saw me dashing across jagged lanes of traffic to hail an auto rickshaw to another previously unfamiliar corner of the city. Each tangled journey took me into a different woman’s home or office or favorite café where she might hand over a scribbled manuscript, an old journal, or a rare publication: maybe it was her own or that of a grandmother, a famous aunt, an admired teacher. And then, over innumerable cups of tea, too many sweets, a spate of samosa folding, or an impromptu meal, I sat and listened to the stories behind the words on the page. My notebooks are revealing of the time and patience required for this kind of research, as well as the pleasures of it: relationships needed to be made, trust to be gained, goodwill to be shown. Multilingual transcriptions from books and interviews—in a scrambled mix of abbreviated English, high Urdu, everyday Hindi, and sometimes a regional language—are interspersed with recipes, children’s drawings, and sketches of yoga positions. A receipt falls out for 2,000 rupees donated to a community project—an expenditure too hard to justify to my university’s finance office—that facilitated access to one group of women in a Delhi neighborhood. These fragments suggest what would emerge as the main source base for my project: the home, the market, the street. To borrow Antoinette Burton’s phrase, the people I met were literally “dwelling in the archive.”51

But the problem with using the world outside the archive as an archive was that there were blurrings: blurrings by genre and blurrings by terminology, blurrings by others and blurrings by me. To return to the questions raised by literary theorists: How was autobiography to be identified? How was it to be defined? Let me take readers to a bright day in Dhaka in January 2006. With a friend from the Dhaka University history department, I went to a book fair. “Do you have any Muslim women’s memoirs?” my friend asked in Bengali. We might note the specific phrase she employed to denote the type of writing I was looking for: atma jibani, one’s own story. Inevitably, we were greeted with a slow shake of the head in the negative. Yet a scan of what was actually on the table often did turn up something I thought I was looking for—perhaps a piece of fiction with a lengthy autobiographical introduction or a personal travel account given the title of “guide.”52 There were even two women’s accounts of their experiences of Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.53 My friend would check: “No memoirs? Are you sure?” Then perhaps we would be presented with a novel written by a woman—perhaps Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Padmarag (1924), described by its recent translator, Barnita Bagchi, as “resonant with autobiographical undertones.”54 I’d shake my head in refusal: “No, that’s not a memoir; it’s a novel, a piece of fiction.” Maybe, the bookseller would shrug, but it’s based on “real life.”

This slippage between novel and memoir in popular parlance was raised in academic forums, too. Would I, one of my audience asked at a seminar at the lively Sarai Initiative in Delhi months later, be using what he termed so nicely “disguised autobiographical writing”? The reference was to the collected works of outstanding literary figures like Qurratulain Hyder and “partition novels,” like Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961)—the latter, ironically, one of the first things I ever read by a South Asian Muslim woman as a student. Perhaps it is right that these materials be considered for a historical study of women’s personal narratives. Qurratulain Hyder’s two-volume Kar-i-Jahan Daraz Hai, usually translated as “The Work of the World Goes On,” is sometimes described as a “family chronicle” but more often as an “autobiographical novel.” Its interweaving of individual and family, past and present, fact and fiction is evoked by Ali Jawad Zaidi in his history of Urdu literature, which I discussed in the introduction—significantly, in his section on autobiography in the chapter “Literary Miscellany,” not in “Modern Fiction,” where the book is only listed as one of Hyder’s novels. This book, he writes, “weaves autobiographical reality into the fictional stretch of centuries to show the present as an inseparable part of the past inherited through historical present.”55

Hosain’s Sunlight, on the other hand, was hailed by Mushirul Hasan as “one of the most compelling archives of Muslim experience before, during, and after partition” before being “counterread as a history” of house and home in Burton’s aforementioned Dwelling in the Archive.56 These descriptions seek to make the book admissible to history, while again raising the question of genre: that fuzzy line between novel and autobiography. On this theme, Burton points to Mulk Raj Anand’s attempt to “rescue Sunlight from the category of autobiography” in order to give Hosain “what he viewed as the exalted and more legitimate status of novelist”57—thus implying that Sunlight needed to be rescued. Burton records Hosain’s own assertion, made in an interview late in life, that Sunlight was “like an autobiography, but it is not one”—and yet “it’s not purely fictional” either.58

These examples raise the important question of whether, in a cultural context like South Asia where women’s voices are so often silenced, the novel becomes a preferred, if not necessary, form of self-expression. We may consider what Sukrita Paul Kumar has written of the eminent and often controversial Urdu writer, Ismat Chughtai:

There is virtually no distinction between the actual life experience of Ismat Chughtai and the fiction she created. The members of her family, the servants of her household, and her friends, became the characters of her stories, sometimes with the same names. The episodes and relationships that she went through became the content of her fiction and the society in which she lived, the context.59

And yet Ismat Chughtai did also write an autobiography—alluringly titled not “Autobiographical Fragments” or “Reminiscences” or “Her Life” as in the selective translations, but instead Kaghazi Hai Pairahan. The title, usually translated as “My Clothes Are Made of Paper,” was borrowed from a couplet by the great Urdu poet Ghalib, apparently making reference to the legend of the paper clothes worn by petitioners in Iran and thus the transience of human life as we stand before the Creator.60 Such a title would not seem out of place as the header to one of her identifiably fictional writings. And so it is perhaps appropriate that, as critics have pointed out, not all of what she writes in her autobiography actually corroborates the known “facts of her life.” As Kumar explains, “Ismat’s real life gets carried into her fiction just as easily as fiction slips into the text of her life.”61

Kumar goes on to say that we should not discount Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography just because it does not appear all to be “true.” As she writes: “I believe what is important is how she perceives the fact of her life, however imaginary it may be. After all, truth is what is realized, not what may get projected superficially as action. And imagination too is founded in some truth.”62 Her statement points to important questions debated routinely by literary theorists under the title of “autobiographical truth”: To what extent may we assume that the life writer is telling the truth? And the truth of what and for whom? As Smith and Watson summarize: “Are we expecting fidelity to the facts of their biographies, to lived experience, to self-understanding, to the historical moment, to social community, to prevailing beliefs about diverse identities, to the norms of autobiography as a literary genre itself?”63

Whatever I presumed to be the answers to these questions was challenged further when, at the home of another gracious hostess in Delhi I was presented with a small book titled The Heart of a Gopi, by one of Gandhi’s closest disciples, Raihana Tyabji. As noted in the introduction, this author was at least nominally Muslim, having been born into the renowned Tyabji clan at the forefront of Bombay’s Sulaimani Bohra community. Yet, according to the book’s introduction, she had composed this piece of bhakti devotionalism—about Sharmila, a gopi, or milkmaid, enraptured by Krishna in his guise as the cowherd at Vrindavan—in the following circumstances:

Sometime in 1926, (I remember neither the month nor the date), I suddenly felt a tremendous, an irresistible urge to write—To write what? That I did not know . . . I sat at my desk with sheets of foolscap and poised pen, and the story of Sharmila came pouring out at the end of it almost faster than the ink could flow. For three days I was literally possessed. And so was the heart of a Gopi revealed to my own astonished and enraptured gaze . . . To me this story was something strange, something that I had not written, and yet that no one else had written. I must risk being either smiled or sniffed at by “rationalists” if I am to speak the truth here, for the truth is that this story is not mine except in that it has been written by this hand. During the three days that it took to write I had a distinct sensation of being possessed by some force outside myself, and of being compelled to write even in spite of myself. I cannot explain this. I can only state the things as I experienced it.64

How to interpret this narration? Should we, in the tradition of Islamic life writing, breach the gap between “the miraculous and the mundane” to understand the mystical experience charted here as a kind of life writing? Even from the rationalist’s perspective, should not the life of the imagination still be considered part of the life?65

Other attempts to use the home as an archive were fraught with similar problems of identification. Just a week after arriving in Delhi, a fellow researcher from Britain kindly offered to take me into the winding lanes of old Delhi to meet her Persian tutor. He responded generously to my request for help in finding “Muslim women’s memoirs” by presenting me with a large box of dusty papers in handwritten Urdu long kept in his family’s rambling haveli. In them, he explained, I would find his sister’s “life story.” What the box actually contained was the steady exchange of letters between this brother in India and his sister in Pakistan over the sixty-odd years since Partition.66 Feminist historians especially have made excellent use of these kinds of materials to chart “changing life styles, expectations and aspirations” from the late nineteenth century—when letter writing became “increasingly common” among South Asia’s elite—to the present.67 And yet, from the perspective of a study of life writing as a genre, they seemed too immediate, not constructed enough. Like diaries and journals, they offered “raw data” instead of “synthesized memory,” to quote Joanne Cooper.68 But what if those letters were then edited for publication and even shaped into a coherent narrative? I think here of two other sources: travelogues composed by Atiya Fyzee and her sister Nazli, the begam of Janjira, during trips to Europe in 1906–7 and 1908. Both began life as regular letters to relatives in India before they were, in one case, edited by another sister, Zehra, for publication in serial form in an Urdu women’s journal and, in both cases, assembled in book form as a roznamcha.69

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to test this process of selection often when it came to diaries—that is, if we take a diary to refer to an individual’s daily record or even “here-and-now jottings” of everyday activities not usually intended for publication.70 My earlier work on Bhopal had suggested that the act of keeping a diary had been taken up (if not sustained) by some elite Muslim women—like the young Sultan Jahan, future nawab begam of Bhopal—as early as the 1870s.71 She had, in turn, instilled the “habit” in her favored granddaughter, Abida, who had continued the practice from 1930 until her death in 2002—a startling seventy-two-year record!72 According to Udaya Kumar, this practice of diary writing was fostered in colonial South Asia as part of “new projects of education”; as he writes, “the diary helped in the cultivation of literary competence and a disciplined survey of everyday activities.”73 But while I had read Sultan Jahan’s diary in Princess Abida’s own home in Karachi, I was never given a chance to see her own log—except where portions were reproduced in her Memoirs of a Rebel Princess.74 According to Burton, Attia Hosain also kept diaries “from the 1930s until her death in 1997” that were subsequently stored in a steamer trunk in her son’s living room in London—but locked with a padlock!75 A notable exception to this rule of concealment—in that it was interred in an Indian national library for nationalist posterity—was the “manuscript memoir” of Badruddin Tyabji’s youngest daughter, Safia Jabir Ali. Despite the title, it is really a diary written in 1926 and then again in 1942, though it does include some reminiscence on her life as a whole—which, we may conjecture, perhaps moves it into another category.76

What I also had a chance to consult—in that they too were deposited in an Indian national archive and a university library by the same historically conscious extended family—was a set of unusual family diaries known variously as “Akhbar ki Kitab,” “Kitab-i-Akhbar,” or “Akhbarnama,” meaning literally “news books.” These documents were a kind of glorified guest book kept in various homes of different branches of Bombay’s Tyabji clan (after which they were named) from as early as the 1860s. They record the family’s daily routines—from badminton matches and sports tournaments to picnics, club meetings, and visits to the dentist—alongside notable public events in which leading lights, like Badruddin Tyabji himself, took part.77 Certain Tyabjis also contributed literary pieces, including poetry, extracts from speeches, travel narratives, and obituaries—many of which were written by women after they were encouraged to participate by the family matriarchs.78 In most cases, these scattered entries have the same immediate, uncrafted quality of letters and diaries, though one might say less so of the travel accounts composed after long journeys and the occasional retrospectives on individual lives. Some of the latter even found their way into mainstream women’s journals for which other Tyabji women, having cut their authorial milk teeth writing manuscripts for family circulation, also wrote short travel pieces and autobiographical fragments.79 Several examples of this type of material are probed in chapter 5 as part of a more sustained analysis of the Tyabji family’s autobiographical output from the nineteenth century onward.

My experience of perusing women’s journals brought the question of oral sources to the fore. One of the first tasks I set myself in Delhi—for lack of much else to do at that point—was to survey the back issues of the feminist periodical Manushi (dating from 1978), in search of autobiographical fragments in the form of journal articles. There was a little of that—and in time I was to find more in other women’s magazines, like Tahzib un-Niswan (from Lahore), Zebunnisa (also from Lahore), Begum (from Dhaka), and Roshni (from Delhi).80 But what stood out more in terms of “life history” were the regular interviews, many of which were conducted by Manushi’s founding editors, Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita, before perhaps being translated and then excerpted in article form. The careful reader will remember that right from the outset of my project, I had been clear that I intended to exclude life histories extracted through interview, somehow considering this material the purview of the anthropologist, not the historian. Yet what of the interview written down? Among the interviewees telling about their family histories, professional experiences, and political ideologies were the musician Asghari Begum Sagarwali, the writer Ismat Chughtai, and the actress Shabana Azmi.81

Well-wishers directed me to other examples profiling well-known South Asian women—an important example being a lengthy interview with Attia Hosain from May 1991 published in 2004 on, a Pakistani website promising “glimpses of South Asia before 1947.”82 At thirty-two typed pages, it is a comprehensive document complete with wonderful photos of Attia, her family, and her contemporaries. It is told in the first person, divided into subject headings (mini-chapters, in effect), and punctuated only intermittently by the interviewer’s questions. I offer, as an example, this excerpt from a section titled “Growing Up in Gadia,” on Attia’s childhood in the United Provinces. Here she also touches on her early political affiliations:

Q: What did your father do?

AH: My father [Shahid Hosain Kidwai] was a Taluqdar [feudal landholder of Gadia, District Bari Banki, United Provinces]. He was also one of those people who was involved in his life politically a time [in the 1910s] when it wasn’t a question of confronting the British as happened later when Gandhiji came on the scene.

It was when there were questions in the minds of all the people who were interested in the country’s future independence, how to go about it. He was ahead of his time in many ways. . . . His friends were all people of that time who became very prominent later . . . They were all finally rather important, or part of the country’s history, or fighting for independence.

But I remember most of them, as we used to say “uncles” . . . Above all my hero was Panditji [Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister]. He was the son of father’s friend, Moti Lal Nehru, a very close friend.

Therefore I grew up in an atmosphere where people spoke of what to do next, how to be involved, not only in the national movements, but in the community, one had to be a part of it.83

Later sections moved on to her experience of living in postwar Britain, her writing, and beyond.

These published interviews, then, certainly provided a type of personal narrative, but was it the type of narrative to be included in my study of autobiographical writing? Two things made me think not. The first was their basis in conversation, a fairly unstructured medium even when punctuated by the interviewer’s questions. Was it not the constructed life that I was interested in? But then, as those who use oral narratives know well, a story told can be as constructed as a story written, especially if it is one oft repeated.84 At the same time, a written autobiography may well be characterized as conversational. Let me take, as an example, a text I would certainly include in my study: Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri’s Hamsafar, first published in Urdu in 1992, but translated into English fairly recently (with more connotation than was probably meant) as My Fellow Traveller.85 In the preface, the author explains that she was encouraged to write her memoir by her deceased husband’s friend, no less than the renowned Pakistani scholar of Urdu language and literature, Jamil Jalibi. Providing her with some pens and some registers, he advised her to “write down what you see in those films running before your mind’s eye”—in other words, all those memories of the past that come to one in old age.86 He went on: “I am not asking you to do something that is impracticable for you. All I am suggesting is to say with your pen whatever you say in your speech. Imagine when you are writing that I am sitting before you, and you are speaking to me.”87 And so she does. The book is thus in the form of an extended conversation with “Jamil Bhai”—to whom she directs her remarks and reflections explicitly in a voice that could as easily have been spoken as written. For its “chatty, conversational style,” it is celebrated.88

To return to the published interviews, a second concern was the presence of the interviewer, setting questions and conditioning answers. Is not the crucial role played by the interviewer in shaping the story one of the “pitfalls of oral history,” to quote John Tosh, against which university students are routinely warned?89 And yet, as I explore in chapter 4, few memoirs are untarnished by outside interference. Readers, editors, and publishers—to list only the usual players—all take roles in crafting a memoir for public consumption. And what if the interviewer is still there, but just not so present? One of the bestselling recent autobiographies in Kerala—in its sixth edition when I visited in December 2005—is Nalini Jameela’s account of her life as a sex worker, Oru Laingikathozhilaliyude Atmakatha, to which I referred in the introduction.90 Again, it is worth noting the word used in the local vernacular, this time Malayalam, to denote autobiography: atmakatha, or one’s own story. Yet, while the narrative reads fluidly (at least in the English translation kindly provided to me by J. Devika at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum), the book was put together by a male reformer on the basis of taped interviews.91 The careful reader (like my own interlocutor, Devika) may be able to discern “two voices talking”—Nalini Jameela and the interviewer—in the first editions (before the supposed author demanded that the text be rewritten to prevent “misrepresentation”), but this nuance was most probably lost on those who devoured the startling 13,000 copies sold in the first four months after publication.92

A linked set of questions related to the written source made oral. Not long after my arrival in Delhi, I was invited to a seminar in Aligarh hosted by the Female Education Association. The intention was to celebrate the birth centenary of the esteemed Progressive Writer, Rashid Jahan, in her hometown. Many of the talks were of an academic nature, but two nieces, Lubna Kazim and Shabnam Zafar, offered personal “recollections” of their aunt.93 Subsequently, they provided me with copies of their scripts: an autobiographical fragment not much different from the journal articles I had set out to look for. Consider, for example, the opening to Lubna’s printed speech:

My name is Lubna Kazim, and I am Rasheed Jahan’s niece and Khurshid Mirza’s daughter. In 1947 my parents went to Pakistan, but we didn’t lose our bonding with either Aligarh, Papa Mian, or family members. Aligarh as it is now is nothing as I used to know it then. Before 1947 it was a sleepy University town, quiet and clean. Aligarh was such a quiet city. There were no buses and only a couple of cycle rickshaws on Marris Road and no honking of traffic.94

We see here how her aunt gains a mention only alongside other important relationships in Lubna’s own life—namely, those with her mother, actress Khurshid Mirza; her grandfather (“Papa Mian”), social reformer and educator Shaikh Abdullah; and her hometown, Aligarh. Later in the same document, Lubna did offer a number of short personal anecdotes about “Apa-bi,” as Rashid Jahan was known within the family, but, again, in a way that told as much about herself as about the subject: how, as young children, Lubna and Shabnam got “new frocks and shoes” only after their aunt scolded her younger sister—their mother—for not buying a “bigger size” to replace their tight-fitting clothing and footwear.95

In time, other women graciously provided me with copies of speeches they had given on “personal” topics. Some of these were, like those mentioned already, a relative’s account of a better-known relation—for instance, Muneeza Shamsie’s dedication to her “mamou,” the renowned diplomat Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, revealingly titled, “My Uncle and Me.”96 These pieces again pointed to the “interweaving of lives” that seemed to blur the boundaries between biography and autobiography. Others were more explicit in their focus on the self. To stay with Muneeza Shamsie, let me cite a speech, highly revealing and reflective in its tone, given to an audience of college girls at the British Council in Karachi in 1999 on her “experiences as a working woman”:

After my marriage, my best friend said, “Well you’ve always wanted to write, why don’t you start?” So I did. . . . then began a long and difficult process of self-teaching, of self-discipline. Of throwing things away. Reading. Throwing away. . . . I went on writing, in secret. Most of these efforts ended up in the waste paper basket. I did not have the courage to show them to anyone, because I thought that nobody in this society was really interested in anything I had to say. Then my best friend intervened again and said, “You’ve got to start doing this properly, you’ve got to start feeling you are a writer.” The next thing I knew was that my pieces started getting accepted . . . And one day, I suddenly realized that I had found what I had wanted all my life: a voice.97

In my previous work on Bhopal, I had pointed to the ritual of public speaking followed by publication in early women’s clubs, noting that it resulted in a “linking of oral and written traditions within the new literary culture.”98 Perhaps these speeches, too, should be understood to have bridged the gap between oral traditions of life history and the written practice of memoir/autobiography.

Ultimately, I decided to consider autobiographical speeches in cases where the orator was related to an earlier author who was also included in my sample. My thinking was that, for instance, Shamsie’s speeches could offer a productive means of considering how forms and styles of writing about the self had evolved over time when placed in juxtaposition to the autobiographical output of her own mother, Jahanara Habibullah.99 Also deemed useful in this regard was another form of written-made-oral source: the autobiographical film. In the concluding scene of Samina Mishra’s exquisite House on Gulmohar Avenue (2005), the filmmaker’s own voice can be heard to intone: “Sometimes the story of a life is the story of a search to be at home.”100 Her brief synopsis points to how she uses the symbol of her family home in New Delhi’s Okhla—the “house” of the title—to reflect on “ideas of identity and belonging” through four generations, including her own. Mishra’s autobiographical reflections in film proved of special interest to my historical project in that her grandmother Sayyida Khurshid Alam also produced a personal narrative focused on previous generations: an ostensibly biographical account of her esteemed father, India’s third president, Zakir Husain (1897–1969).101 Similarly, Sabina Kidwai’s film Shadows of Freedom was explicit in its aim to use the lives of three Indian Muslim women—the filmmaker, her mother, and her grandmother—to explore “issues of identity and gender conflicts.”102 That the filmmaker’s grandmother was Anis Kidwai, author of the celebrated Partition memoir Azadi ki Chhaon Mein (first published in 1974, but translated recently as In Freedom’s Shade), facilitated another comparison.103

The examples in the previous paragraphs also draw me back to a suggestion I made earlier: that some materials that I collected unquestioningly were not an individual’s memoir so much as the interwoven life stories of a woman and a man to whom she was close. I think of another two examples mentioned already, Jahan Ara Shahnawaz’s Father and Daughter or Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri’s Hamsafar. Far more, like Sayyida Khurshid Alam’s Zakir Husain ki Kahani, were projected as biographies of close male relatives—husband, father, son.104 Yet, in charting a relationship, they were often as revealing of the female author as the male subject. Examining women’s accounts of social reform campaigns in Maharashtra, Jyotsna Kapur includes a section on this kind of “biography as autobiography.” She points out that many “biographies” that women wrote about reforming husbands—often at their husband’s request—had a special emphasis on their wedding and married life. Ramabai Ranade, in her “biography” of her famed husband, talks not of his “public role as a social reformer” but instead about “her relationship with him, how this affected her relationship with others in the family, and her own opinions about some of the public decisions that he took which affected her.” Such examples lead Kapur to conclude: “The accounts, then, describe women’s experiences in great detail and are really autobiographical.”105 These examples set alongside my own seemed to suggest that for women in South Asia, writing biography—or a travelogue or a novel—was another necessary strategy for writing about the self in a cultural context where women’s voices were not meant to be heard.

The line between these autobiographical biographies and autobiography proper was especially blurred because many of the latter that I consulted actually seemed to be more about others in a woman’s life than about the woman herself. In other words, just as the biographies would appear, to my mind at least, to be autobiographical (about the self), so some of the autobiographies would appear to be more a collection of biographies (about others). Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri’s aforementioned Hamsafar, for instance, is presented from the outset, as the title probably suggests, as being more about the author’s more famous husband, the acclaimed Urdu writer Akhtar Husain Raipuri, than about herself. Hence this memoir begins not with the author’s own birth, as one might expect, but instead with the moment she meets her husband for the first time.106 And yet it is not just about him—or, perhaps better, her relationship with him—but also, as she specifies in her preface (“Dil ki Bat,” or “Matters of the Heart”), all the “great personalities” that the couple had met.107 Her focus on others is reinforced by a quick survey of the table of contents, from which we see that many of the chapters are actually named after individuals that Hameeda knew: Maulvi Abdul Haq (“Baba-i-Urdu” or “Father of Urdu”), Munir Bano, Prem Bada Devi, Khalida Adib Khanum, “My Father.”108 Other female writers proved even more explicit in their focus on others. As Hamida Rahman, a writer and educator in Bangladesh, wrote of her autobiography—notably titled Jiban Smriti in Bengali (Memories of My Life): “[This title] does not mean writing only about my own life. While walking in this event-filled world, one meets so many people. Their memories peep into the pages of one’s life. I cannot but describe them.”109

The approach taken by these authors may be viewed as reflecting some of the generic features of women’s autobiography. As I have summarized elsewhere, women’s autobiographical writings are often characterized—almost exclusively on a reading of those produced in Europe and North America—as being “more collective than individual, more about relationships than accomplishments.”110 What is reflected here is that while men may find it easy enough to write a “coherent, linear, narrative describing an individualized self,” women are more likely to root their life stories in collective identities associated with the family, friendships, or kinship networks—though, naturally in making this statement, one should be careful of generalizations that overwrite difference of class, race, and sexual orientation.111 The inclination to collectivity may be accentuated in a society, like South Asia, which, as noted in the introduction, is often presumed to “privilege the social and communal over the individual.”112 But the model of Islamic life story seems to be as important in the cases I discuss here. As Barbara Metcalf writes of an autobiographical narrative composed within that tradition by Maulana Muhammad Zakariyya, a Muslim scholar, or ‘alim, from the Islamic madrasa at Deoband, in northwest India, in the 1970s:

The material is not presented as Muhammad Zakariyya’s exclusive story at all, but, throughout, as the story of his relations with other people. He counts, as part of his life, stories of the elders he has interacted with or whom he, in turn, knows from stories recounted by others. Indeed, one might say that the “autobiography” is not much about Muhammad Zakariyya at all.113

No wonder I was experiencing a sense of genre instability.

Also blurring the lines between biography and autobiography was my growing realization—fostered by my informal conversations with those surrounding memoirs—that not all my sources were actually written by their proclaimed author. Returning to Delhi from Aligarh late one evening, I chatted with Lubna Kazim, the daughter of actress and later memoirist Begum Khurshid Mirza, to pass the time. In the course of our conversation, she made what seemed to me to be a surprising admission: that, faced with a publisher’s charge that her mother’s memoir was too “sketchy,” she had, in effect, filled in some of the bits that her mother had “left unsaid” so as to “bring things to a close.” The memoir was thus written, as she put it, “as a family thing.”114 Later, I realized that Lubna had been very forthright about her contribution in print, noting in her preface to the Indian edition that” the informative chapters two, four, and five are largely mine. For reasons of preserving the continuity of the narrative, they have been included in the main text and not moved to the appendix.”115 And yet they were still written in the first person. I had come across an even more extreme example of this “ghosting” once before and had not been sure what to make of it. The preface of Bilkees Latif’s Her India made clear that what followed was, in effect, a biography of the author’s French-born mother, Alys Iffrig—later Begam Ali Yar Khan and later still Begam Ali Hydari—written on the basis of conversations with her aged mother supplemented by family papers and archival research. And yet, it too was composed in the first person: “in her own words,” as the named author explained, as if this was sufficient to distinguish them from her own “author’s words” that resurfaced in the final chapter to recount her mother’s death and draw the narrative to a close.116 So what makes a biography and what an autobiography? To conclude this chapter, let us consider this issue of labeling further.


In Metcalf’s aforementioned study of Muhammad Zakariyya’s autobiographical writings—composed between 1970 and 1981—she notes that the Deobandi ‘alim shunned “more elevated terms” used for autobiography in favor of calling his work Ap Biti: the “ordinary” Hindi term for a written or spoken life story. The implication, as Metcalf points out, was of “having his own say”—perhaps appropriate, since much of this “modest, incomplete, sometimes repetitive document” was transcribed from speech.117 But the booksellers that I encountered in Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar in the shadow of the Jama Masjid—while demonstrating untold patience with my broken spoken Hindustani—only really responded to the Persianized khud navisht: “self-writing,” or “that which is written about oneself.” Their informal lessons in nomenclature suggested that this term is the more accepted now for autobiography in Urdu. Interestingly, this phrase is not found in Platt’s classic dictionary of Urdu, Hindi, and English published in 1884, though it does appear in certain Urdu publications by the early twentieth century—like the great poet Hali’s fleeting account of his life up to 1901.118 Its growing use among South Asian Muslims is also implicit in the title additions experienced by a text composed by Princess Shahr Bano Begam of Pataudi between 1885 and 1887. Originally, the manuscript was called Bītī Kahāni, a title that could be translated rather indelicately as a “story of incidents that one has experienced.” Yet, when it was finally published in Pakistan in 1995, it also boasted a (not necessarily accurate) subtitle: Urdu ki awwālin niswānī khud navisht (The First Autobiography by a Woman in the Urdu Language).119 Recently published again in Pakistan, but in an English translation by Tahera Aftab, it is now simply an “autobiography.”120

Initially I identified my study as being about personal narratives. I had chosen this particular phrase in tribute to Malavika Karlekar’s groundbreaking study of “early personal narratives” produced by (Hindu) women in Bengal, Voices from Within (1993). As Karlekar noted in her preface, she, too, had faced a difficulty over the “choice of texts, their availability and relevance,” but had settled on those “autobiographical writings” either published or available in Calcutta’s main libraries. Her sources thus included not just “the more formal, full-length, structured autobiography,” but also diaries, letters, newspaper and journal articles, poems, stories, and essays.121 Nearly two decades later, she and her coeditor, Aparna Basu, stood by this label, while also expressing a preference for the term “life experiences” in their compendium, In So Many Words (2008). Yet here they expanded their source base to also include “portraits from memory” and an oral interview.122 Others working with this kind of material in the context of South Asia have preferred the term “life histories.”123 According to Arnold and Blackburn, this terminology allows contributors to their important volume, Telling Lives in India, already discussed in the introduction, to go beyond “clearly biographical or autobiographical texts” that could “privilege print over orality” to also include folktales, legends, and “spoken lives.” Attractive in this broad definition is its attempt to avoid “artificial boundaries” that can hide the “often fragmentary or allusive nature of many life-historical forms.”124 By settling on the term “autobiographical writing” instead, I hope to recognize this instability of genre while still evoking my focus on the written life. My hope too is that by employing a derivative of the term “autobiography”—with its resonance on a global scale—my work will help disrupt the established Western canon by asserting the place of South Asian Muslim women’s writings in that “new, globalized history of the field” to which I referred in the introduction.125

So, what actually is to be included in my life history archive? I started my fieldwork wondering if there was anything out there to be found; and, throughout, I continued to face skepticism at the idea of Muslim women writing memoirs. Without doubt, these sources can be difficult to find. While the colonial archive and its successors threw up some material, much more fruitful was the experience of getting out onto the streets and into people’s homes and lives. Through this more holistic approach to research, I collected literally hundreds of books, manuscripts, articles, and words relevant to this study of autobiographical writing—whether called “autobiography” or “memoir,” ap biti, biti kahani, or khud navisht, atmakatha or atma jibani, or, in more specific forms, roznamcha or safarnama. Yet, as I have sought to show, a constant problem was how to fit these real-life historical sources into the theoretical boxes dreamt up by academics usually within the context of a Euro-American literary tradition. In the course of this chapter, then, I have traversed from autobiographical biographies and biographical autobiographies to travelogues, reformist literature, novels, devotionalism, letters, diaries, interviews, speeches, and ghosted narratives. In the end, I draw a line—if a hazy and traversable line—at the constructed life: no novels, but more autobiographical biographies and the biographical autobiographies; the autobiographical fragment; the written-made-oral (including some film), but not the oral-made-written; the published “diary book,” but not diaries or letters; the spiritual, but not the ghosted; and the travelogue where relevant. I have thus evolved a definition for autobiographical writing that emerges from the specific experience of a historian crafting a unique archive from which to study gender, autobiography, and the self in Muslim South Asia. Having done so, I now turn from what to who.


1. The British Academy and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded this early stage of the project (2005–6); I acknowledge their support with gratitude.

2. See, for example, Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women, Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal (London: Routledge, 2007).

3. I quote a review of Suvir Kaul’s The Partitions of Memory, cited in Burton, Dwelling in the Archive, 21.

4. For a useful summary of these developments, see Vatuk, “Hamara Daur-i Hayat,” 147.

5. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1993), 91.

6. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive, 141.

7. Conway, When Memory Speaks. For a fuller discussion of these questions, see Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 5–12.

8. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 13–15.

9. Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography, 5.

10. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 4.

11. Conway, When Memory Speaks, 3.

12. Carolyn Steedman, Dust (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 1.

13. On a related theme, see Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2, nos. 1–2 (March 2002): 87–109.

14. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive, 139.

15. Ibid., 141.

16. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 1997), 7.

17. See, for example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,” History and Theory 24, no. 3 (1985): 247–72.

18. Gulbadan Begam, The History of Humāyūn-Humāyūn-nāma, trans. Annette S. Beveridge (London, 1902). For the Persian original, see MS.Or 166.

19. Lal, “Historicizing the Harem.” Also see her Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

20. Andrea Butenschon, The Life of a Mogul Princess (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1931). It has since been reprinted by Sang-e-Meel Publications in Lahore (2004). Contemporary reviewers seem to take Butenschon’s claim at face value. See Mohsin Maqbool Elahi, “Review: A Princess with Taste,” Dawn, July 18, 2004.

21. Afshan Bokhari’s doctoral thesis will appear as Imperial Women in Mughal India: The Piety and Patronage of Jahanara Begum (London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming). Sunil Sharma is preparing a full translation of Jahanara’s Risala-i-Sahibiyah for publication. An extract from his translation is available at “Accessing Muslim Lives,”

22. Shaista Ikramullah, From Purdah to Parliament (London: Cressat Press, 1963); and Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, Father and Daughter: A Political Autobiography (Lahore: Nigarishat, 1971). More recently, both of these texts have been republished by Oxford University Press in Karachi (1998 and 2002).

23. Tehmina Durrani, My Feudal Lord (London: Bantam Press, 1994); Salma Ahmed, Cutting Free (Karachi: Sama, 2002); Kishwar Naheed, Buri ‘aurat ki Katha: Khudnavisht (New Delhi: Adab Publications, 1995); Azra Abbas, Mere Bachpan (Karachi: Jadid Klasik Pablisharz, 1994); and Fatima Shah, Sunshine and Shadows: The Autobiography of Dr. Fatima Shah (Lahore: Ferozsons, 1999).

24. Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 22.

25. Metcalf, “The Past in the Present,” 119.

26. On the relationship between biography and history in the Arab world, see Tucker, “Biography as History,” 9–10.

27. Metcalf, “The Past in the Present,” 119.

28. Robinson, “Islam and the Impact of Print in South Asia,” in his Islam and Muslim History in South Asia, 95.

29. W. C. Smith, quoted in ibid.

30. Robinson, “Islam and the Impact of Print,” 96.

31. See, for example, Sayyid Asghar Husain, Nurjahan Badshah Begam ki Sawanih-i-‘Umri (Agra: Agra Akhbar, 1903); Muhammad Husain Mahvi Siddiqi, Azvaj ul-Anboya (Bhopal: Nawab of Bhopal, 1916); Inayat Allah, Panc Mashhur Begamat (Lahore: Nur Illahi, 1928); and Muhammad ‘Ilm al-Din Salih, Dukhtaran-i-Hind (Lahore: Malik House, 1935).

32. A typical example of this type of writing is Ameer Ali’s “The Influence of Women in Islam,” reprinted from The Nineteenth Century (May 1899), in K. K. Aziz, Ameer Ali: His Life and Work (Lahore: Publishers United, 1968), 172–76.

33. For example, see Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Indian Muhammedans: Their Past, Present and Future,” Journal of the Society of Arts 55, no. 2825 (January 4, 1907). For comparison, see Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied, 91–92, 136, 150, 165, 228, 270, 272.

34. “Nawab Ali Vardi ki Begam,” Zill us-Sultan, February 1918, 20–23.

35. Tahzib un-Niswan, January 6, 1934, 33–36.

36. Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied, esp. xiv.

37. Sultan Jahan Begam, Hayat-i-Shahjahani (Agra: Mufid-i-‘Am, 1914); and Hayat-i-Qudsi (Bhopal: Matba‘-i-Sultani, 1917). These biographies are available in English translation as: Hayat-i-Shahjehani: Life of Her Highness the Late Nawab Shahjehan Begum of Bhopal, trans. B. Ghosal (Bombay: Times Press, 1926); and Hayat-i-Qudsi: Life of the Nawab Gauhar Begum alias the Nawab Begum Qudsia of Bhopal, trans. W. S. Davis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1918).

38. Muhammadi Begam, Hayat-i-Ashraf (Lahore: Rifah-i-‘Am Press, 1904).

39. Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied, xvi. For examples of the wider literature on which she draws, see Stanley, The Auto/biographical I; and Blanche Weisen Cook, “Biographer and Subject: A Critical Connection,” in Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers, and Artists Write about Their Work on Women, ed. Carol Ascher, Louise de Salvo, and Sara Ruddick (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

40. Michael Holroyd, “Our Friends the Dead,” Guardian (June 1, 2002). For the original study, see Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage: A Biographical Mystery (London: Flamingo, 2004).

41. Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied, xvi.

42. The Mother of M. Abd al-Aziz, Mu’avvin-i-Mashurat (Hardoi: Matba‘-i-Muraqqa‘i ‘Alam, 1905).

43. Shah Jahan Begam, Tahzib un-Niswan wa Tarbiyat ul-Insan (Delhi: Matba‘i-Ansari, 1889). I develop this theme in my “To Write of the Conjugal Act: Intimacy and Sexuality in Muslim Women’s Autobiographical Writing in South Asia,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 23, no. 2 (May 2014): 155–81).

44. Sultan Jahan Begam, Hadiyat uz-Zaujain (Madras: Weekly Newspaper Press, 1917), 22–25. This work was translated into English as Muslim Home, Part 1: Present to the Married Couple (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1916).

45. M. Abd al-Qadir, Sirat ul-Mamduh, ed. Maulavi Hidayat Muhayy al-Din (Agra: Mufid-i-‘Am, 1906); and Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali, Bayan-i-Hali (Panipat: Shaikh M. Ismail Panipati, 1939). The latter appears to be a reprint of “Maulana Hali ki Khud-navisht Sawanih-i-‘Umri,” Ma‘arif 19: no. 5 (May 1927): 344–51.

46. A useful compendium is Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

47. Tim Youngs, “Introduction: Filling the Blank Spaces,” in Tim Youngs, ed., Travel Writing in the Nineteenth Century: Filling the Blank Spaces (London: Anthem, 2006), 2–3.

48. Metcalf, “The Pilgrimage Remembered,” 85.

49. See Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, “Muslim Women Write Their Journeys Abroad: A Bibliographical Essay,” in Travel Writing in India, ed. Shobhana Bhattacharji (Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2008), 28–39. Three dedicated studies of this material, spin-offs and follow-ons to the larger project, are: Lambert-Hurley, A Princess’s Pilgrimage; Lambert-Hurley and Sharma, Atiya’s Journeys; and Lambert-Hurley with Sharma and Majchrowicz, Anthology of Muslim Women Travelers.

50. See the website of the Rampur Raza Library, accessed June 29, 2011,

51. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive.

52. Nawab Faizunnessa Chaudhurani, Rupjalal, ed. Mohammad Abdul Kuddus (originally published Dhaka, 1876; reprint Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2004); and Dr. Sabrina Q Rashid, Hajj: A Wonderful Experience: With a Guide to Hajj (Dhaka: Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, 2005). Bangladesh proved to be a mine of resources, a geographical clustering discussed in chapter 3.

53. Jahanara Imam, Of Blood and Fire: The Untold Story of Bangladesh’s War of Independence, trans. Mustafizur Rahman (Dhaka: The University Press, 1998); Farida Huq, Journey Through 1971: My Story (Dhaka: Academic Press and Publishers, 2004).

54. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, trans. Barnita Bagchi (New Delhi: Penguin, 2005), back cover.

55. Zaidi, A History of Urdu Literature, 435.

56. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive, 106.

57. Ibid., 117.

58. Ibid.

59. Sukrita Paul Kumar, “Introducing Ismat,” in Kumar and Sadique, Ismat: Her Life, Her Times (Delhi: Katha, 2000), 9.

60. Ibid., 18. A very recent translation has simplified the title to The Paper Attire. See Ismat Chughtai, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan [The paper attire], trans. Noor Zaheer (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2016).

61. Kumar, “Introducing Ismat,” 10.

62. Ibid., 10.

63. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 15.

64. Raihana Tyabji, The Heart of a Gopi, v–vi.

65. The questions are transposed from my “The Heart of a Gopi,” 569.

66. This meeting occurred on November 21, 2005.

67. Karlekar, Voices from Within, 19.

68. Joanne E. Cooper, “Shaping Meaning: Women’s Diaries, Journals, and Letters—The Old and the New,” Women’s Studies International Forum 10, no. 1 (1987): 95.

69. Atiya Fyzee’s Zamana-i-Tahsil (Agra: Mufid-i-‘Am, 1921), originally published in the Lahore women’s weekly Tahzib un-Niswan (see issues dated January 26, 1907–November 30, 1907); and Nazli Rafia Sultan Nawab Begam Sahiba, Sair-i-Yurop (Lahore: Union Steam Press, n.d.). For a detailed analysis of the first, see Lambert-Hurley and Sharma, Atiya’s Journeys.

70. I borrow the latter phrase from Karlekar, Voices from Within, 18.

71. As indicated in chapter 1, I came across this brief sixteen-page document among the possessions of Princess Abida Sultaan at her home in Karachi, Pakistan. Written in Urdu, it contains extensive Persian and Arabic vocabulary.

72. Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, 132.

73. Kumar, “Autobiography as a Way of Writing History,” 418–19.

74. For example, see Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, 244.

75. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive, 135.

76. “Manuscript Memoirs of Mrs. Safia Jabir Ali,” Badruddin Tyabji Family Papers 6. Also blurring the lines around the diary form are various autobiographical acts on the Internet, including blogs and social media posts—but as a historian, I choose to leave those to scholars more interested in the contemporary. For example, see Zainab Bawa’s Twitter feed @zainabbawa and blog, A Writer Runs, For an analysis of the blog as a “new autobiographical genre,” see Gillian Whitlock, Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), chapter 1, “Arablish: The Baghdad Blogger.”

77. This summary is based on my consultation of the “Akhbar ki Kitab” from Matheran and Mahabaleshwar relating to the period from 1894 to 1907 at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Some notebooks, like the “Kitab-i-Akhbar-i-Kihim-Yali,” are kept in the archives of the University of Mumbai; others, labeled “Akhbarnama-i-Qabila-i-Shujauddin Tyabji,” are in the Fyzee-Rahamin archives in Karachi. Still others remain in the private collections of Tyabji descendants.

78. See, for example, Durrat al-Vali’s entry for June 1, 1892, “Kitab-i-Akhbar-i-Kihim-Yali,” University of Mumbai.

79. See, for example, “A Page from the Past: Extracts from the Diary of Amina Binte Badruddin Tyabji,” Roshni, special issue (1946): 69–73; and Shareefah Hamid Ali, “My Journey to America by Air,” Roshni 2, no. 6 (July 1947): 23–28; “My Visit to America II,” Roshni 2, no. 7 (August 1947): 16–22; “Washington Diary III,” Roshni 2, no. 8 (October 1947): 23–26; and “Excursion to Mount Vernon,” Roshni 2, no. 9 (November 1947): 5–7.

80. I consulted Tahzib un-Niswan and Zebunnisa at the Maulana Azad Library of Aligarh Muslim University and/or the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad, Roshni at the All India Women’s Conference Library in Delhi, and Begum at the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. My thanks to my generous hostess, Asha Islam, for her assistance with Bengali translation. Perhaps the best known of this type of material is Bibi Ashraf’s “How I Learned to Read and Write,” first published in Tahzib un-Niswan in two installments (March 23 and 30, 1899), then reproduced in Muhammadi Begam’s Hayat-i-Ashraf, 5–20, then translated in C. M. Naim’s “How Bibi Ashraf Learned to Read and Write,” Annual of Urdu Studies 6 (1987): 99–115.

81. “A Grand Old Lady of Music—An Interview with Asghari Begum Sagarwali,” Manushi (March–April 1983): 8–10; “An Irrepressible Spirit—An Interview with Ismat Chughtai,” Manushi 19, no. 4 (November–December 1983): 2–7; “The Final Goal Is Justice . . . ,” Manushi 36, no. 6 (September–October 1986): 2–6.

82. See the opening page, accessed January 10, 2010,

83. I consulted “Attia Hosain—Interview,” accessed January 10, 2010, It is now available here, accessed April 20, 2017: I have corrected some punctuation, but the material in square brackets is original to the document.

84. For a fascinating study of the “literary qualities” of Texan oral narratives, see Richard Bauman’s Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

85. Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Hamsafar (Karachi: Daniyal, 1992). For the translation, see Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri, My Fellow Traveller: A Translation of Humsafar (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006). I refer to the use of the phrase “fellow traveller” to denote Communists. Doubt as to the appropriateness of this translated title was raised by the author’s son, Irfan Husain, who generously invited me to the book’s release in the UK at the Pakistan High Commission in London on September 12, 2006.

86. Raipuri, Hamsafar, 9. For the translation, see Raipuri, Fellow Traveller, xiii.

87. Quoted in Mushfiq Khwaja’s foreword to Raipuri, Fellow Traveller, ix–x.

88. Asif Farrukhi, introduction to Raipuri, Fellow Traveller, xxvii. Similar descriptors have been applied to other autobiographical writings by South Asian Muslim women. For example, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, in her “translator’s note,” admires Qaisari Begam’s Kitab-i-Zindagi for its “refreshing, animated, conversational style.” See Qaisari Begam, “Excerpts from Kitab-e Zindagi,” Annual of Urdu Studies 20 (2005): 232–41.

89. John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 5th ed. (Harlow: Pearson, 2010), 319.

90. Nalini Jameela, Oru Laingikathozhilaliyude Atmakatha.

91. J. Devika’s translation of Nalini Jameela’s autobiography was later published as The Autobiography of a Sex Worker (Chennai: Westland, 2007).

92. This discussion is based on a wonderful conversation with J. Devika at her office and elsewhere in Trivandrum on Christmas Eve 2005.

93. Speeches by Shabnam Zafar and Lubna Kazim at the conference to celebrate Rashid Jahan’s birth centenary, Aligarh, November 27–28, 2005.

94. Speech by Lubna Kazim, 1.

95. Ibid., 2.

96. Muneeza Shamsie, “My Uncle and Me” (unpublished manuscript). A condensed version was subsequently published in Strategy, Diplomacy, Humanity: Life and Work of Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan, ed. Anwar Dil (San Diego and Islamabad: Intercultural Forum, Takshila Research University, 2005), 361.

97. Muneeza Shamsie, “Women’s Day speech, March 1999” (unpublished manuscript).

98. Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women, Reform and Princely Patronage, 114.

99. Habibullah, Remembrance. For application of this method, see chapter 5.

100. The House on Gulmohar Avenue, dir. Samina Mishra (Public Service Broadcasting Trust, New Delhi, 2005). I am particularly grateful to the filmmaker for sharing her film, time, and memories in situ at the family’s Okhla home. The film is now also available online at

101. Sayyida Khurshid Alam, Zakir Sahib ki Kahani: ap ki beti ke zubani (Delhi: National Book Trust, 1975).

102. Shadows of Freedom, dir. Sabina Kidwai (Public Service Broadcasting Trust, New Delhi, 2004). Again, I am grateful to the filmmaker for presenting me with a copy of this film.

103. I used a reprint of the original: Begam Anis Kidwai, Azadi ki Chhaon Mein (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1980). In translation, see Anis Kidwai, In Freedom’s Shade, trans. Ayesha Kidwai (Delhi: Penguin, 2011).

104. Other examples include: Qamar Azad Hashmi, Panchwan Chirag (New Delhi: Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, 1995), trans. Madhu Prasad and Sohail Hashmi as The Fifth Flame: The Story of Safdar Hashmi (New Delhi: Penguin, 1997); Zakia Sultana Nayyar, Bite Lamhe: Yadon ke Chiragh (New Delhi: Modern Publishing House, 1995); and Sara Suleri Goodyear, Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). There are also a number of shorter examples in Saif Hyder Hasan, ed., One Yesterday (New Delhi: Rupa, 2004).

105. Jyotsna Kapur, “Putting Herself into the Picture: Women’s Accounts of the Social Reform Campaign in Maharashtra, Mid Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries,” Manushi 56 (1990): 28–30.

106. Raipuri, Hamsafar, 16.

107. Ibid., 11.

108. Ibid., ii.

109. Hamida Rahman, Jiban Smriti (Dhaka: Naoroze Kitabistan, 1990), 84.

110. Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, “Introduction: A Princess Revealed,” in Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, xxiii.

111. Shirley Neuman, “Autobiography and Questions of Gender: An Introduction,” in her Autobiography and Questions of Gender, 1–11.

112. Malhotra and Lambert-Hurley, introduction to Speaking of the Self, 7.

113. Metcalf, “The Past in the Present,” 116–17.

114. Conversation with Lubna Kazim, between Aligarh and Delhi, November 28, 2005.

115. Kazim, A Woman of Substance, viii.

116. Bilkees Latif, Her India: The Fragrance of Forgotten Years (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann Publishers, 1984), esp. 8, 254. A parallel could be drawn here with Abida Sultaan’s Memoirs of a Rebel Princess. It, too, includes an “epilogue” by her son, Shaharyar M. Khan, in which he recounts her death and also how he was responsible for producing the “draft of the final chapters” while she lay bedridden during her last days. Distinguishing his effort, however, was his mother’s continued involvement in the process: “She would meticulously go through the drafts and make corrections where I had recorded her thoughts inaccurately.” Ibid., 285–86.

117. Metcalf, “The Past in the Present,” 116–17.

118. “Maulana Hali ki Khud-navisht Sawanih-i-‘Umri.”

119. Shahr Bano Begam, Bītī Kahāni, Urdu ki Awwālin Niswānī Khud Navisht, ed. Moinuddin Aqeel (Hyderabad, Pakistan: Allied Printing Corporation, 1995). My thanks to Barbara Metcalf for directing me to this text.

120. Tahera Aftab, trans. and ed., A Story of Days Gone By: A Translation of Bītī Kahānī: An Autobiography of Princess Shahr Bano Begam of Pataudi (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012).

121. Karlekar, Voices from Within, 2, 12, 18–19.

122. Basu and Karlekar, introduction to their In So Many Words, viii.

123. For a recent exploration of this term, see Judith M. Brown, “‘Life Histories’ and the History of Modern South Asia,” American Historical Review 114, no. 3 (June 2009): 587–95.

124. Arnold and Blackburn, “Introduction: Life Histories in India,” to their edited volume, Telling Lives in India, 9.

125. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 5.