Rana Safvi: The Untold Story

The world knows her as a famous historian who came out with her first book at the age of 58, a firm believer in the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb of India and an inspiration to today’s women. Our columnist Mahima brings you the woman behind the icon Rana Safvi, in a candid interview, in the regular column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Rana Safvi calls herself a simple person who loves to read a lot and travel. And of course a food connoisseur and chef-at-heart. So, I let the icon with an enchanting aura, begin unfolding her journey, on her own, without the customary first question, in this interview with her.

Rana Safvi: I was born in 1957 at Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh as the third daughter among four sisters. My father was an IPS with a transferable job, while my mother was a teacher at St Mary’s Convent, Moradabad, and Ali Public School. Thus, I stayed in Lucknow with my grandmother and studied at La Martiniere Girls College. I later joined the Aligarh Muslim University. I’ve stayed in all towns of U.P. as well as Jamshedpur, Kochi, Pune, etc. and later, in Kolkata, post marriage.

Mahima: How tough was raising four girls with advanced education, in Uttar Pradesh which these days frowns at the mention of Islam?

Rana Safvi: Neither religion nor Hijab signified us in those days. In fact, it was a private practice, while some purchased and wore the Hijab, others did not. We were truly a land of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb then. Followers of Islam or that matter any other community were not under the microscope as it is today. And backed by such environment, my parents did their best to raise up with an open-and-intellectual mindset.  They never had any gender bias and I never ever felt that there was anything odd in our family of only girls. We were given the best education that was available at great cost to them. As honest working professionals, they could either educate us with the salary or have a good time themselves; they chose the former. Their sacrifices have been many and that’s why we grew up the way we did.

Mahima: What is your fondest memory of the time spent with parents and siblings?

Rana Safvi: My father was very fond of sports and so we grew up hearing sports commentary on a small transistor. One of my fondest and most vivid memory is crowding around the transistor and following the Bjorn Borges and McEnroe match in Wimbledon.

Mahima: Tell us about the little Rana, I am told she had a little library of her own?

Rana Safvi: I was a little bookworm — had been buying and reading books since I was a four-year-old. I have most of the books I bought as a child. My mother saved them and sent it in a huge box to my house after my marriage.

Mahima: Marriage, your sisters told me this decision of yours shocked your parents.

Rana Safvi: Yes, because I had cleared the preliminary exams of the Indian Civil Services (ICS) and was preparing for finals when came the ‘rishta’ of Gaznafar, an engineer. I chose to hold his hand shocking my family as a whole.

Mahima: Do you regret or uphold that decision of marrying early, now?

Rana Safvi: Those were the days of my idealism and somewhere I felt that corruption had stifled bureaucracy and it was difficult for honesty to flourish. Today I feel maybe I should have joined and tried to reform the system from within.

Mahima: What unfolded after marriage?

Rana Safvi: I started teaching and I enjoyed the interaction with young minds; I do so even today and you interacting with me over Indian culture often, is just another beautiful example. My teaching wings spread in various regions: I taught in DBMS English School, Jamshedpur, as well as the Indian School, Jubail, in Saudi Arabia. It was lots of fun. We were in corporate towns with lots of friends and so we always partying and having fun as one big family. Our children were all friends and continue to be so until today.

Mahima:  From an independent woman to a wife, who gave it up all for the right partner? Let’s unfold the unknown in your own words.

Rana Safvi: I was always independent in my actions. I was fortunate to have a partner in my husband, who supported me and never dictated anything to me. I am fortunate to be a mother to Saifmy son, my strongest support and Subuhi, my daughter, now a budding journalist, who is just taking my teachings forward. I was never ambitious and am not even now.

Mahima: So how did the journey of Rana, the writer, begin amid all these responsibilities at home?

Rana Safvi: I began writing as a catharsis for my sorrow of losing my mother to cancer in 2004, which helped me heal myself. I started writing on my blog regularly. Once I discovered Twitter, @iamrana took wings on Twitter as a regular writer. I combined my passion for writing and teaching on it. #shair was born in 2011 on Twitter. Taking a cue from there, Kunal Majumdar of Tehelka asked me to pen a few pieces for them. After that, there was no looking back.

Mahima: So how and when did the first book happen?  

Rana Safvi: I lived in the Middle East for many years and used to teach in Saudi Arabia. In Dubai, there wasn’t that much to do and I felt stagnated. When I got the chance to write for various magazines and newspapers, I decided to shift to India. It was also around that time I decided to write a book. So while my husband stayed on, I shifted to Noida. Since I knew no one in publishing, I had a tough time. I sent my pitches to many publishing houses but no one responded. I finally decided to self-publish. Around that time, I met Aparna Jain the author of Own it. She read my draft chapter and billed in it and introduced me to V Karthika of Harper Collins. Karthika read the smoke chapter and liked it and soon we signed a contract. My first book Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi came out when I was 58. In 2017, two more including Daastan-E-Gadar joined the shelf. Three others are on the cards.

Mahima: Talking about writing, content quality is degrading by the day (age of faking-news). What are your views?

Rana Safvi: I am very particular about research, about acknowledgment and being as accurate and as humanly possible. I spend a lot of time on researching and verifying sources of whatever I write. Of course, I make mistakes at times, but they are never because of laziness.

Mahima: India is facing a major crisis. There are open attempts to modify history by those with hidden motives. Your comments.

Rana Safvi: I think this is very regrettable. We can analyse it as per our leanings but we can’t change events. For example, I feel this attempt to show Maharana Pratap as the Victor in the Battle of Haldighati is an insult to the memory of a brave warrior. He would have preferred death to deceit. Also, it was a battle between two rulers, not a battle between men of two religions as we are trying to project. Akbar’s general on the battlefield was Man Singh and Maharana Pratap’s was Hamid Khan.

Mahima: Mother to a budding lady journalist in a world governed by Social Media, which rips apart a woman-of-substance with the harshest words anytime they feel like. What’s your advice to her and others like her?

Rana Safvi: I used to get upset when people would send hate messages because I promote syncretic values. But I’ve learned to ignore. My advice would be to everyone just ignore don’t give them space in your timeliness or head.

Mahima: You gave up her career dreams for your children. Where do you see your daughter in future?

Rana Safvi: I never gave up anything for my children. I loved the life I wanted to. I had very little ambition and was perhaps lazy. I want both my children to do what they want and be happy as per their ideas of what happiness is.

Mahima: Beaming children, proud husband, doting sisters. Anything amiss?

Rana Safvi: I regret the fact that my parents are not here to witness my work. But I know they are watching me and are over me.

Mahima: What does a typical day look like in your life?

Rana Safvi: I normally work in the mornings and rest in afternoon and read in the evening. All my free time is spent in tweeting or reading links of articles I find interesting on Twitter or Facebook. I love to cook and play spider solitaire when at leisure.

Mahima: Historian, author, mother, chef-at-heart, etc. How do you find time to wear so many hats?

Rana Safvi: We women are all multi-tasking and good at it. Actually, I just do whatever I want, whenever I want, without labelling it.

Mahima: If given a chance to go back in time, which moment would you like to hold on or bring it to future to be with you? And why?

Rana Safvi: I think everything has a pre-destined time and every action has its own destiny. So now I don’t like to look back and regret. Maybe this is what was meant for me.

Mahima: You think if you were a man and not a woman, the realisation of your dreams to reality would have been easier, at a younger age?

Rana Safvi: I have never ever felt that I’m a woman and not a man. I’m me and that’s how we were brought up. To be human beings. As I said we were never labelled and I don’t believe in them.

Mahima: Last but not the least, Shashi Kapoor …, please complete the sentence!

Rana Safvi: I’ve adored Shashi Kapoor from the time I was a 10-year-old. I must be his biggest fan. My heart skipped a beat when I met him first 40 years back as a teenager. And here goes my latest Facebook update to prove my love for him…

Mahima: Your message to the new-age woman.

Rana Safvi: Don’t try to be anyone else, just be yourself. To enjoy life, you must learn to enjoy what you are doing as well as follow your dreams. Don’t let yourself be labelled.

Mahima: What are your parting words in Shaiyara, Rana Safvi style!

Rana Safvi: Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale, / Chale bhi aao ke gul shan ka kaarobaar chale ~ Faiz

 (Let the breeze of a new spring, flow and fill the flowers with colours,/ Please do come so that the garden can get on with its daily business. ~ Faiz)

©Mahima Sharma 

Photos sourced from Rana Safvi

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