Shahnaz Husain is the ruling high priestess of the Indian beauty scene who has singlehandedly built a globe-straddling empire and served as her own brand ambassador through the years. This biography, written by her daughter Nelofar Currimbhoy, traces Husain’s life and the hurdles she has had to face to reach where she is today.
Born into an aristocratic family, Husain had a fairytale childhood until her mother’s failing health almost turned her world topsy-turvy. She was engaged at 14 and married by 16 but against all odds etched out a path for herself. Currimbhoy traces the ups and downs of her mother’s life.
Sayeeda Begum escorted her youngest daughter Shahnaz to the La Martinière College in Lucknow for her first day at school on a hot summer’s day. The magnificent structure, built on the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow, was a bastion of the British at the time and Shahnaz was one of the few Indian students in its privileged environs. Holding her mother’s hand, she looked around, a trifle perplexed, wondering why all the children had blond hair.
When Shahnaz ran out of the school gates later that afternoon — a little concerned that she might have been abandoned forever — she beamed a relieved smile to see her mother waiting for her in the sun, a sleek clutch in her hand, the edge of her crisp cotton sari elegantly covering her head. Shahnaz jumped happily with her into the waiting car.
They drove through the sleepy afternoon streets of Lucknow and stopped in front of a three-storeyed mansion. Marble House, situated in the heart of Lucknow, was the family home of the Begs. The building had been constructed by a British jeweller who had decided to return to England. It had been bought by the Begs with its accompanying estate of a row of shops and a small gated compound of twenty-odd homes.
Shahnaz tore up the familiar stairs and ran through the maze of rooms. It was the perfect house to play hide-and-seek in with her brother Wally because it had more than fifty rooms. She arranged her schoolbooks neatly on her table and waited for the evening, when she could show them off to her doting father.
The young Shahnaz settled into school life with ease. She had begun to enjoy her time at school and so remembers all the more vividly the moment when the blissful days of her childhood came crashing rudely to the ground. She clearly remembers the day because her life changed irrevocably.
She had noticed her mother looking a little pale for some time now. She no longer went for her ritual evening walks and instead of finding her waiting at the lunch table when she got back from school, Shahnaz was often told in a hushed voice, ‘Mummy is sleeping because she is tired.’ The children were dismayed to find doctors visiting the house regularly and wondered what was wrong.
Shahnaz being the youngest never strayed far from her mother. On that particular day she was hidden behind the door, peering into the living room where Dr Merchant, the British lady doctor who was treating Sayeeda Begum, was explaining her worsening condition to her father.
‘She is suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs. Unfortunately, there is no complete cure. Penicillin will only slow down the inevitable and contain the disease so it will not be contagious.’
‘How long do I have?’ asked Sayeeda Begum abruptly. ‘Well, it depends…,’ Dr Merchant began evasively but at the look in her patient’s eyes she admitted, ‘Anywhere up to three years.’
Seeing the serious expression on her parents’ faces, Shahnaz began to sob and ran down the corridor to her brother’s room.
‘Mummy is going to die, I just heard the doctor. She said Mummy is going to die!’ the little girl wept helplessly.
The environment in the house changed drastically from that day on, as though a pall of gloom had fallen over it. The children went about the house looking shaken and scared. Shahnaz, the youngest, sobbed a lot. Her older brother, consoling her without success, became her closest friend and support at this point. The living room was converted into a sanatorium-like area for their mother and the children were forbidden from entering it. They gathered around the window and watched her through the glass barrier with concern and deep fear.
One night, Shahnaz dreamt her mother was being carried by angels into the clouds. She woke up from her sleep and spent the next few hours sobbing and praying. It pains me even after so many years to think of my mother facing one of life’s biggest challenges at an age when little girls fall asleep listening to fairy-tales.
Sayeeda Begum was deeply religious and spent her days immersed in prayer. Not all the training on the polo fields, or the sword-fencing duels, or her years at Rahat Manzil, however, had prepared her to face her young children and see the stark fear in their eyes. She felt as though she had betrayed her family, yet there was very little she could do about her deteriorating health. Dr Merchant was doing the best she could and after a few weeks of taking penicillin, Sayeeda Begum was declared non-contagious. In those dark times, the moment came like a ray of hope and the children rushed to her wildly. She looked at young Shahnaz and smiled. ‘Chhoti Baby, I will not die till I have got you married,’ she promised.
Flame The story of my mother Shahnaz Husain
Author : Nelofar
Price : Rs 295/-
Publisher : Hachette India