Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar was a formidable journalist. More importantly, she was an incredible human being, says Sanjoy Hazarika.
Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar, who passed away in Washington, DC on July 4, was a close friend and a wonderful person who touched everyone she met with her joyfulness and kindness. She was one of those rare people in the world -- a good human being.
Image: Shahnaz (looking into the camera) and Swaminthan Anklesaria Aiyar in Tinsukia, Assam.
Her mother, Mrs A as many of us called her, was a warm presence in the life of her only child and took huge pride in her work and achievements. I had known Shahnaz for nearly 40 years, from her days in Bombay when she and the team at Himmat Weekly, based out of Bombay and led by Kalpana Sharma, fought censorship and the authoritarian state of the internal Emergency.
Many knew her better and I can only share the experiences and stories which resonate with me.
During those days of the Emergency, we had to deal with the censor's annoying blue pen, threats to shut down the magazine and endless challenges to freedom of all kinds, including media freedom. It was such a different world when compared to the freedom that today's shouting anchors and broadsheet editors take for granted.
We followed her fine career in journalism. She moved to Delhi, joined The Statesman where her work won awards and recognition for its quality, campaigning style and incisiveness, free of the verbiage that drapes the work of our present day pundits of print and broadcast.
She worked for India Today and The Indian Express and, in those years, with Kalpana and Neerja Chowdhury, formed a formidable set of pioneering and indomitable journalists who just happened to be women. They led investigative reporting, dug out the truth about human bondage and rights violations in India.
After marriage to Swaminathan S Aiyar, the brilliant columnist and an editor at The Times Of India group, they moved to Washington where Swami worked with the World Bank. It was a city she came to love. Apart from other things, Swami added her surname to his already formidably long name. On their return to Bombay, they had a son, Rustam, and after a few years in India, they went back to DC.
I was always the butt of the happy joke of how Swami got me run out in a cricket match. Of course, we were much younger at the time. And Shahnaz would say, "Swami, tell, tell that story ... The young man who couldn't run fast enough," and burst into peals of her booming laughter. You couldn't but laugh along with her and she never bought my suggestion that I got out in the process of trying to save Swami from that fate. "Rubbish," she would say, her eyes twinkling.
I visited and stayed with them when they shifted to Washington, in the apartment on MacArthur Drive and in then the house on Arizona Avenue. We went for long walks in the neighbourhood that was part of the quiet, genteel uptown DC.
She was constantly creating new spaces in their home for their amazing collection of sculptures and handicrafts from across the world. She loved entertaining people and lavished love and companionship on her friends; she'd cook large and delicious meals during those visits and order, "Young man, eat up."
I was always "kiddo" and "young man" to her and she lavished much love on my daughter, Meghna, especially after my wife, Minal, passed away (on April 3, 2009).
Shahnaz had been to Minal's home in Bombay and to mine in Shillong and was much admired by our relatives. She found in Minal a kindred spirit, a practical Gujarati who had no time for the pretensions of Delhi society, its power brokers or an overly busy husband.
When Minal passed away, Shahnaz called from Washington and consoled me, "My dear Sanjoy, hang in there, just hang in there. We are all with you."
Meghna and Rustam are good friends and in touch during this difficult situation.
Deeply knowledgeable about learning disabilities, she taught in Washington at a school for children with special needs.
No matter how busy, she always had time for people. She would pick visitors from the Metro subway stop, take them shopping and point out the wonderful chrysanthemums which bloomed in the fall. And she rarely let anyone know of her relentless battle against cancer and the years of treatment.
But there is something that not many outside their family and circle of close friends know: Shahnaz and Swami have a very special link with Assam and the health work we do on the Brahmaputra with the boat clinics (external link), reaching the poor and marginalised with health care in Assam, the state with the worst maternal mortality ratio in India.
They sponsored the construction of several boats and, in 2008, came to inaugurate the one which is running in Tinsukia, the SB Swaminathan. But the first boat from their generosity was SB Shahnaz, which, like the person who gave it its name, was graceful, beauteous and supportive.
I recall Swami speaking at the event, on the sand banks of the Brahmaputra, before we lit the diya and broke the coconut on the boat, "In a strange way, the Aiyar name, from another end of India, will travel on and be connected to the waters of the Brahmaputra long after we are gone."
Shahnaz, the boat, has been damaged extensively but we are determined to rebuild it -- that was a decision taken some time back and reaffirmed on July 6, as across Assam, in 15 boat clinics, in the offices of our organisation, at the stroke of 11 am, doctors, nurses, organisers, boat crew and staff rose to observe a minute's silence to honour her and listened to something I had written.
The boat's reconstruction to take health care to the needy and impoverished with a trained team will be a fitting memory to one who gave so much to so many, despite her long fight against cancer.
I am asking my team to raise funds for it, so that work can begin soon and the Shahnaz travels the waves of the Brahmaputra again. It will give Swami some solace in his terrible loss for, at the end of it all, we are all alone.
Shahnaz, you were the sister I never had. You have enriched us all. Today, there is a gap of goodness, fragrance and delighted laughter in our lives.
Photograph: Kind Courtesy, C-NES
Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, director at the Centre for NorthEast Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, and managing trustee, C-NES.