In the passing of Nurjahan Begum goes an era into eternity. She will be sorely missed, for she embodied times that were defined by values, by the glow of liberalism. More importantly, Nurjahan Begum was a representative, at once assertive and independent, of journalism where the entry of Bengali women was yet in the future. Nurjahan Begum was not willing to wait, however. She opened the gates. She brought the future into her present and by doing so pointed to the immense possibilities out there for those who shared the land and language with her.
My earliest impressions of Nurjahan Begum were not necessarily associated with her per se. But, yes, it was the regular weekly sighting of a magazine man in the neighbourhood which first let me into the discovery that there was a journal named Begum. I was too young to read journals, seeing that I was in my earliest stages in school. But my mother and her sister, my aunt, eagerly waited for that magazine man every week. And with them waited other women, all middle class like my mother, to gather around the man and discover the reading treasures in his basket, a traditional paati woven from bamboo he carried on his head. There were novels, there were collections of poetry. But by far the most popular of the goods were the copies of Begum he carried. It was as if the man had just stepped in with fish freshly netted from the river.
My mother and my aunt, half reclining on the bed in our humble home, spent their happy moments reading their copies of Begum from beginning to end. You could see the ecstasy in their smiles as they read on. It is an image I have always carried in the mind. And that image was to become identified with the cover of Begum, the black-and-white picture related to the lead story displayed on the cover. I was, as I have said, too young to read. But I recall, all these decades later, the palpable glow on the faces of my mother, my aunt and their neighbourhood friends as they turned the pages of Begum before sharing their thoughts on the contents. That perhaps is the greatest tribute one can pay Nurjahan Begum. In a land where newspapers and journals have often appeared with a bang and gone out with a whimper, she had a steady hand on Begum, so much so that the journal withstood the tests and tribulations of time and passed on, generationally, to newer readers.
Nurjahan Begum, in a distinctive way, created her own niche in the field of journalism. And yet it will not do to ignore the fact that it was from her father Mohammad Nasiruddin, the reputed editor of Saogat, that she took inspiration as she took to journalism. And the courage which one needs to bring into journalism was her own. Begum was for her a journey across geography and across the imagination. She was a young woman when she moved from Chandpur to Kolkata, where Begum bared its soul to Bengali households. And then came the trauma of Partition in 1947, a tragedy which laid beauty low in every sense of the meaning. Mohammad Nasiruddin thought it reasonable to move to the eastern province of the newly created Pakistan state. And thus it was that Nurjahan Begum moved from the great cosmopolitan city that was Calcutta to what was at the time a provincial backwater named Dhaka. The change did not intimidate her, a clear hint that where imagination reigns supreme, nothing else matters.
And so Begum began a new journey in a new clime. The values with which it had originally set out remained intact, though. And that reality was to be reflected in the richness encompassed in the articles carried by the journal. Inspired by the journal National Geographic, an experience further cemented by her wide reading (as also the fact that her higher education had been accomplished at Calcutta's iconic Lady Brabourne College) , Nurjahan Begum made sure her journal was a home for well researched and intellectually appealing write-ups. The flavor of liberalism was not to be missed in them. And underlying it all was that sure sense of aesthetics that without question exercised a powerful hold on the imagination. Yes, Begum catered to the literary, indeed intellectual needs of Bengali women. But can men put their hands on their hearts and say they have not had a peek into the pages of the journal?
It was purposeful ninety one years Nurjahan Begum spent on this planet. Till the end, she did not let the lights go out.
The lights went out when the heart stopped beating in Nurjahan Begum.