The circle of love

August 16, 2020

Remembering life and work of noted writer and journalist Sadia Dehlvi

Sadia Dehlvi, a journalist, a documentary-maker, and a follower of the Sufi tradition, passed away on August 5.

It is a little difficult to define Dehlvi because she did many things at the same time –or switched from one to the other in the many decades that she pursued the cause of culture.

Being the daughter of a house that was much into publishing, and that too of literature and show-business, she had little choice but to pursue it both as a vocation and profession. However, it was out of pleasure that she wrote, made documentaries, and did journalism to make her a woman who was passionately involved in various areas of cultural activity.

Shama was a legendary Urdu publication with a heady mix of serious writing, showbiz news and gossip and for a news-hungry reading public, it was a godsend gift. The family, it seemed, was not devoted to culture at the expense of home and hearth, but of making it a source of keeping it warm. It was professionally and business-wise the right decision and the copies of Shama at one time sold like hotcakes and the entire web of news, scandal and gossip about the inaccessible revealed itself fully in the pages of this magazine. For the Urdu speaking and reading public, it was the much needed vacuum filler.

Because of her background, she knew on personal basis everyone who mattered in the field of culture and hence was privy to much that was happening. She did not have to knock at the doors of celebrities but they were already familiar with her surname and valued the contribution of notoriety in show business. This was where she was most comfortable, and thus had a subject that she could write about with great facility and ease.

But she, like her family, was not only using the frivolous aspects of show business, but was more inquisitive about its fallout in various areas of society. She was also a few steps ahead of the earlier generation in this regard. She explored the lives and works of important people and allied this with analyses to gauge its impact and reaction. Such information was considered salacious sometimes in a country like India. And this search, analysis and pondering placed her a notch above those who just relished on loaded information.

For years, she edited the women magazine Bano, published by her group and provided a platform for women to express themselves as well as making it a forum to raise the issues that bedeviled them.

And India does have a huge show business industry and the pickings therefore were huge and the readership ever eager to lap up the details and itsy bitsy things. Sadia Dehlvi did not shy away from it, but incorporated it as the raw material for the larger world view. It appears that her understanding was more grounded in an ideal construct that may have satisfied a few intellectuals, but was not a true reflection of the actual state of the society’s maturity.

She often visited Pakistan and she had members of the extended family here. She also married a Pakistani and had a son. So she was familiar with the social and cultural scene of Pakistan as well. As it is, the familial relationship and commonality of show business find many coworkers and co-travelers. She was often spotted in various cultural hubs and houses and found instant connection because of her surname.

For years, she edited the women magazine Bano, published by her group and provided a platform for women to express themselves as well as making it a forum to raise the issues that bedeviled them. Muslim women were considered to be more conservative and they had been pushed into a corner because of being a minority in independent India where they their culture and personal laws had intertwined to become a byword for conservatism.

Like many who want a broader understanding of their faith and seek refuge in the more flexible interpretation of the Sufis, she too looked towards its glorious past and contribution to the various aspects of human life. The Sufis espoused a humanistic approach and a full account for the various strengths and weaknesses of human beings. The scope and need for forgiveness and the desire for coexistence had driven the Sufis of India, who primarily lived in a land that was populated by a huge majority of non-Muslims. Their love for humans won them a following which was, and still is, over and above the religious divide.

Dehlvi was a close friend with author Khushwant Singh, who dedicated one of his books to her: “To Sadia Dehlvi, who gave me more affection and notoriety than I deserve.” Another of Singh’s books, Men and Women in My Life, has an entire chapter on Dehlvi. In 1998, Dehlvi produced a television show, Not a Nice man to Know, in which Khushwant Singh interviewed women.

Dehlvi won acclaim for her television series starring the veteran actress Zohra Sehgal, Amma and Family. Dehlvi co-produced and scripted the series, also playing one of the main roles.

The Sufi humanism and reaching out to others also fascinated Sadia Dehlvi and she wrote Sufism, the Heart of Islam and Sufi Courtyard –Durgahs of Delhi. Both were published by Harper Collins India. She also made television films and documentaries. She was also a columnist for The Hindustan Times and Frontline.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Remembering Sadia Dehlvi