Saturday, April 1, 2023
HomeOpinionKhuda hafiz, Fatma Zakaria — an unruffled editor and gracious host: Shobhaa...

Khuda hafiz, Fatma Zakaria — an unruffled editor and gracious host: Shobhaa De

Fatma Zakaria was my first editor at the Sunday Times more than 40 years ago. Last time I met her there was a catch in my throat.

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The late Khushwant Singh still retains his crown as the ‘King of Obituaries’ in India. Nobody has done a better job of summing up a life with as much insight, bluntness and courage. During his lifetime, he published his own obit – and did not spare himself! I wonder what he would have had to write about Fatma Zakaria, the beautiful begum, who worked closely with him for years at The Illustrated Weekly. I am hopeless at writing obits – matlabbilkul terrible! It’s too fine an art that requires enormous tact, a shrewd use of words and the canny ability to say everything without saying a thing. But my affection for Fatma outweighs all this – I really don’t care if this tribute emerges as an unapologetic gush, but that’s my truest emotion as I digest the news of her passing away in Aurangabad, aged 85.

I have to admit, when I last met her — in Aurangabad — I had wondered how my heroine’s story might end. She had invited me to speak to her ‘girls’ and I had jumped at the chance, mainly to meet her again after a gap of many years. Would she still be the imposing, imperial, supremely elegant lady with a long braid touching the small of her back? Would she be clad in a traditional shalwar-kameez, a gauzy dupatta covering her broad shoulders? Would her bejewelled fingers wave in quite the same royal fashion? Her bangles? Matching jhumkis? I was not disappointed.

Yes, Fatma had aged from the lady I had first met in her beautiful Cuffe Parade apartment, over which she used to preside with appropriate authority as her gregarious husband Rafiq Zakaria regaled guests with colourful stories about political rivals and their shady doings. Fatma would move around silently, regally, making sure their invitees were perfectly looked after. Known for the magnificent cuisine served at ‘Sealand’ (the name of her building), people used to crave for a dinner invitation – uff! The heady fragrance of chameli gajras, rare ittar, rose water, and the intoxicating mix of guests! Writers, poets, painters, intellectuals, filmmakers, industrialists, politicians and diplomats. The sparkling conversation, the gossip! Each time Khushwant Singh visited Mumbai, the Zakarias would host a wonderful evening for him – it invariably became the hottest ticket in town. Years later, when her ‘boys’ (Fareed and Arshad) visited from America, Fatma would make sure to invite a few of their friends over – the gracious tradition stayed intact and vibrantly alive as long as Fatma lived here.

Fatma, the editor

She was my first editor at the Sunday Times more than 40 years ago – it was her idea to bring in a fresh, young voice on her page. I heard she’d stuck her neck out to get me to write for the highly coveted column in India’s most prestigious newspaper. We didn’t know each other. She liked what I wrote and approached me directly, after I’m told, convincing a few stodgy seniors, who were aghast.

One of my columns was titled “The Ghati in me…” and spoke about ‘Maharashtrian-ness’, my version of it, being a Maharashtrian myself. This was at a time when Balasaheb Thackeray ruled the state and the Shiv Sena was creating havoc with daily attacks on non-Maharashtrians. I didn’t think of ‘Ghati’ as a pejorative term at all, and said so in the column. To me, all it suggested was ‘people from the Ghats’ and I cheekily stated we should have a sense of humour and take such terms with a fistful of ‘namak’. But hey – who says that was explanation enough? Soon there was a Shiv Sena morcha and several protests —  “How dare she insult the Marathi manoos” kind of stuff. Fatma remained unruffled. The column stayed. And to my utter delight, it is still there! What if Fatma had not followed her gut instinct, taken that chance with a relatively unknown brat-writer and given me such an incredible break?

It was this sense of adventure, daring and flair she brought to The Taj Magazine when she took over as editor. She brought scholarship, style, erudition and more to make The Taj Magazine a collector’s item – I have preserved so many volumes myself. Each one, thoughtfully themed, meticulously researched. Fatma made the rich cultural history of India jump out of those glossy pages. It was not just an in-house PR publication raving about India’s leading luxury hotels chain, it was a tribute to the beauty and craft skills, architecture and rituals, festivals and feasts from across the land. Fatma’s faultless eye for detail ensured the magazine retained its glory to showcase all that we can be rightfully proud of – our priceless heritage.

Fatma Begum

Fatma’s final years may have been her finest legacy as she built educational institutions in Aurangabad with complete dedication and commitment. During my visit, I saw Fatma’s kohl-lined eyes shine with pride as young girl after young girl came forward to share her story. I could tell Fatma had come into her own magnificently… it was her shining hour. As we hugged to say goodbye, there was a catch in my throat… and in hers. Some relationships, certain bonds, defy categorisation. I remain forever overawed by Fatma Zakaria — the woman I knew and interacted with. She was not my ‘friend’ (I could never be that presumptuous!), but this much I know for sure, we felt for one another. Itna hi kaafi hai mere liye.

Thank you, beautiful begum, for your refinement, class, sophistication, support and affection.

To quote Rumi, “Do not say goodbye, remember a grave is only a curtain, with a paradise behind.”

The author is a columnist, social commentator, journalist and opinion-shaper. She has written 20 books. Views are personal.

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  1. No mention or acknowledgement of the abusive men in her family and those who stayed in Pakistan (& became leaders there!!)

    Fatma’s story is of survival and success & not talking about this is somewhat diminises her & whitewashes

  2. Once in a while Ms. De tries her hand at writing something serious and useful. But as usual she messes up. Not a surprise though. For someone who has made a living writing sleazy and cheap stories and “novels”, its really tough to pen something beautiful and insightful.
    Nevertheless, she deserves appreciation for trying.
    RIP Ms. Fatma Zakaria.

  3. The late Khushwant Singh was a clown. No more no less. However, he was an avowed member of the liberal-secular cabal. As such, other members of this cabal, such as Ms. De, keep patting his back, singing eulogies and glorifying his “deeds”. When he was alive he used to return the favour.

  4. so?shobha de is an opinion shaper??? Pray tell me print, what does it mean? And who appointed her? Why cant I arrogate that exalted title for myself?

  5. “What if Fatma had not followed her gut instinct, taken that chance with a relatively unknown brat-writer and given me such an incredible break?”. Well then, many of us would have been spared of the gibberish that you have written over the years.

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