Nigar Mahdi Masud  (4th October 1935 – 19th August 2006)


“She walks in beauty, like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies

And all that’s best of dark and bright, meet in her aspect and her eyes…”

In the lush green city of Lucknow, Syeda Nigar Fatima was born on a gold autumn day to the poet Syed Aley Raza and his wife, Hussaini Begum. A city seeped in old world glory, Lucknow, with its gracious expanse of green lawns was a city of courtiers, historians and poets. And while Lucknow was grace itself, in the Syed Aley Raza household, the aroma of poetry wafted through the air.

It was a yellow stone house in an area called Qaisarbaagh, Mummy would recount childhood summer nights when the family slept outside in an ‘aangan’ tiled with rustic red brick. The ‘charpaees’ were solid looking structures promising some serious sleep time and the figures curled up on them both big and small were covered in cosy ‘razaaees’ made of warm velvets and soft silks, burgundy, gold and green. Under the coverlets, little black heads would solemnly pop up to investigate the well-being of the sibling lying next to them. They were the’choti line’ and the ‘bari’ line. My eldest three ‘mamuns’ and ‘khala’ were the ‘bari’ line and Mummy flanked between beloved brothers Yusuf and Ahmed were the ‘choti’ line.

A silver, star studded sky was the canopy under which these happy children of a gentle poet and his generous wife dreamt dreams and built castles of hope. A special summertime treat was being able to sleep outside in the warm, Lucknow nights. ‘It was the best childhood’, recounted Mummy often.
She was a tom-boy, growing up between two sporty brothers. “I played almost every sport possible”. As a child I would listen in wonder at tales of fiesty football games and sessions of shooting marbles. Mummy climbed trees, raced rick-shaws and ran alongside her brothers, relishing every minute of sporting fun.

When World War 2 ended in 1945, Mummy was a sporty ten year old, with silken black plaits which swung from side to side as she discovered one agile activity after another. Climbing trees in pursuit of brothers, Yusuf and Ahmed was just one of these many energetic pastimes. She would relate horse-riding stories where a galloping horse would carry her, a vibrant young girl with hair flying in the wind. It was in the days before jodhpurs were worn by young ladies in Lucknow and so Mummy rode in a ‘gharara’, its fabric flowing in the air as little Nigar Raza rode by.

If Mummy’s childhood anecdotes were laced with rich stories of her antics with brothers, Yusuf and Ahmed, the fact is that they would be incomplete without an honourable mention of her cousin/partner in crime Akhtar (Hasan) Ispahani. Nigar and Akhtar were an exuberant pair prone to exploring new and sometimes forbidden avenues.

Akhtar’s older brother, a well behaved young gentleman of nineteen or so, years later, recalls smoke spiralling up from behind a garden wall. As he followed the mysterious wafts of vapour, he discovered two little eleven year olds attempting to ferociously puff away on their first cigarettes.

Once discovered, they scuttled away in terror leaving behind a stunned young man. It was too early for future Ambassador Mahdi Masud to know that he would, one day be married to one of the little culprits. The good news was that Nigar’s smoking days ended early…the day after they had begun.

1.2Mummy’s eyes would twinkle as she regaled me with delightful nuggets of her childhood. “It was the most wonderful time” she would say. These tales of years ago would become my favourite bed-time stories. And in those precious moments before I would fall asleep, when imagination is at its most vivid, I could almost see the scenes which Mummy related to me. Races over lush green grass with her brothers,  jaunts to the sweet and stationary shop with errant but lovable cousin, Akhtar. Exuberant  trips to a favourite Chinese restaurant, where along with cousins, Nashu and Tanu, a succulent meal could be had for two rupees per head, thanks to ‘Eidi’ money carefully saved up.

My mother was surrounded  by a dynamic extended family which exuded enthusiasm for all kinds of pursuits, simple or grand. It was a home where ‘shair o shairi’ graced the dining table and passionate debates over politics and prose governed evening tete a tetes. It was a love of life, literature and the arts which has been passed down through generations. A legacy I cherish. A culture extended to me through the simple telling of amusing anecdotes woven into bed-time stories. As night fell, and Mummy finished the story, I would curl up and fall asleep, once again inspired.

And as any self-respecting psycho-therapist would tell us, the childhood is where it all begins. Perhaps that’s why my mother was the complete and caring human being she was. Much credit goes to Hussaini Begum, my Naani (a lioness of Paryanwah) who held her just right. A sensitive balance of compassion and discipline. As my mother and hers before her would say “khilao soney ka niwala aur dekho sher ki nigaah se”.

“I loved being around my mother, I felt so comforted, she was so capable.” Mummy would tell me and I grew to have a real sense of what life in the Aley Raza household must have been like.

While my Naana, Syed Aley Raza lived a life of poetic justice, quite literally for he was a poet and lawyer, my Naani was a whirlwind of competent energy She ran her household with an easy efficiency and found ample to both play a mean game of bridge, socialise with gusto and look after all her near and dear ones.

1.3When my grandfather’s poet friends would come by for a spontaneous ‘mushaira’ of sorts, my practical Naani reacted with amused exasperation. Countless cups of tea would be arranged and Naani with a twinkle in her eye and some mild grumbling would allow the poets their poetic license. Always a kind thing to do.

My mother inherited this large heartedness  from her own mother and both my brother Abbas and I felt this love in abundance. With an easy elegance and subtle strength, Mummy like her mother before her, ran her home and looked after her family with calm efficiency.

Nigar was twelve years old when the Syed Aley Raza family left the aristocratic city of Lucknow for a new home, a new country.

In 1947, when my mother’s family moved to Karachi, the roads of Karachi were washed by night. During our bed-time chats  Mummy would relate how the charcoal grey roads would glisten in the dark. My mother’s Uncle Syed Hashim Raza and his wife (later to be my eldest Phuppi Aman) Salma Raza opened their home to their migrating relatives with incredible generosity. For months their home was refuge for family members arriving to embrace their new country. My mother and her siblings found an embryonic embrace paving the way for a new life.

From school days to college life, my mother grew from a sporty tom-boy into a stunning beauty and her peers at St Joseph’s college would find her on the volleyball field, still the agile sportswoman and yet dazzling in her natural beauty, shooting a perfect volley as her thick black silken plaits swung from side to side. While at college, Mummy received a proposal of marriage from her handsome cousin Mahdi Masud, then a scholar at Tufts studying for his Masters in Diplomacy. Rumour has it that he wrote on pale pink letter paper and the proposal was despatched through his eldest sister Begum Hashim Raza. My father’s youngest sister Akhtar Ispahani had been my mother’s loyal partner in mischief when they were children but this did not deter my father from proposing to Mummy.

Nigar and Mahdi made a striking couple, oozing elegance and movie star looks. Sounds biased coming from me, but there is photographic proof.

1.4My father’s role as a diplomat took him to many far off places. Dignified, intellectual and a passionate patriot, to this day he personifies integrity. As a couple they were both great ambassadors of their country and culture. There was morality laced with tolerance and modesty coupled with pride in the country they represented. In embassy homes spanning different continents, the promise of Pakistan was reinforced and my mother was a consumate hostess: witty, gracious and generous. Foreign Guests to our home left with a sense of Pakistan, where the lady of the house combined cultural values with charm and left one little doubt that propriety could come combined with witty repartee. It was this great sense of comfort in who she was that was passed down to us.

Mummy did not preach, she lead by example. From the Shah’s Iran and King Hussain’s Jordan to the lush green loveliness of Belgium and Germany, Nigar imparted to her children, the best from each country we lived in without ever neglecting what was most significant: pride in one’s own culture. Both my parents shared this patriotism, my father being the most devoted son of Pakistan.

This love of our homeland was reflected in the absolute thrill my brother Abbas and I would feel as the plane neared the tarmac and we returned to Pakistan every holiday season. The lights of Karachi glittering like strewn jewels. Forever welcoming. We were Foreign Service kids pining for home.

With devout faith Nigar led her life. Finding time, however, to play a mean game of bridge, an impressive game of table-tennis and of course those graceful swings with the cricket bat. This sporting expertise continued till after she became a grand-mother. In today’s age of extreme intolerance, Mummys’ deft ability to remain both pious and open minded is more admirable than ever. Perhaps this is why I grew to associate religiousity with tolerance and continue to do so till this day.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and yes I absorbed much of my belief system from the values held dear to Mummy. Luckily she was a believer, in the greatness of God and in the goodness of men. ‘Boys can make good friends’ she guided me early on, instead of harping on about their evil intentions. And I made it real. Over the years I have found great friends in both sexes.
The eternal optimist, she chose to see the good in people and so today her children find it easy to trust.

With little need of cosmetic aid, Mummy would descend a staircase, a dash of pink lipstick, an easy chignon, a whiff of Chanel and a pale pink silk sari. She was breathtakingly beautiful and her smile was dazzling. Her core was deep and wise and while the world and all my other relatives dissected the dilemma of ‘when’ I would get married, Mummy remained outwardly calm, taking the utmost care not to push me into an unwelcome decision. There were very rare instances of when I saw her crying, one of the few times when I saw tears in her eyes, she said ‘ I so want you to be happy. And not be married just for the sake of being married.’
Her compassion and strength enabled me to stay single for a very long time (she had my back.) And then when I finally signed on that Nikaahnaama, she had given me license to wait for the right man.

A great friend to her son and daughter, she was both sporty and sensitive as the occasion required. She could be found playing a deft game of badminton with my brother Abbas, sharing ice-cream and anecdotes with her three adoring grand-daughters or holding me close, depending on which was the need of the day.

As a six year old in New York, I remember her tucking me into bed and walking out of the room. I knew she had to go to a diplomatic reception, I could hear the soft rustle of her silk sari as she draped it around her. But it was alright, as always, she had done her job well. Before she left, she had convinced me that my world was a safe place. I could swear that the daunting shadows on my cream colored bed-room wall seemed smaller, less significant.

Not much changed over the years. Those who were touched by her love always felt that their lives shone a little bit brighter.

I am grateful that my baby son was able to feel that love. For the first few months of his life, she held him very close and looked at him in wonder.

The first ten months of my baby’s life were the last ten months of my mother’s life.
As I watched the greatest blessing in my life, my son, grapple with the mysteries of early childhood, I also saw the heart-breaking weakening of my lovely Mummy. Her soft insides corroded by a brutal illness.
Mummy was always elegant. In life, in frailty and finally in death. She bore her illness with courage, never complaining. Always sensitive, even to the suffering of others, as they who loved her, watched her quiet, intense pain.

Days after she left us, on a monsoon, August morning, my little Mustafa, ten months old and trying out his legs, would toddle over to her framed photograph and shower it with kisses. He had felt the love.

Nigar Masud was a poet’s daughter and a diplomat’s wife, but mostly she was a woman of boundless joy.

“…The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below, A heart whose love is innocent!”

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August 2017
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