Home and Hearth


Abstract: The bedrock of Akbar Jehan’s and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s marriage was proclivity to challenge and productively debate each other’s opinions. I learned early in life that people like Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh, who were in public service, were dangerously vulnerable in their public life and lived in glass houses. This was and remains especially true for women. The quickest and easiest way, even in the 21st century, to alleviate the angst caused by a politically influential woman is to slander her. One such libelous story was of Akbar Jehan’s betrothal or marriage to Lawrence of Arabia.

What did the negotiation between Akbar Jehan’s private self and her public persona entail?

Characteristically, Akbar Jehan’s warm home was a public space in which she had carved out a few private places. The downstairs living room served for formal entertaining as well as a more intimate sitting room, in which Akbar Jehan, the Sheikh, their children, and grandchildren religiously convened every evening. In the sparsely furnished dining room, with a table that could seat eight people, elaborate meals were served only during Ramadan. That was when all and sundry, those rigorously fasting as well as those who ate on the sly all day long, would gather to partake of the delectable fare and the atmosphere of a deep-rooted calm and tranquility.

Contrary to expectations and speculation, the home of Akbar Jehan did not have priceless pieces of furniture nor was it decorated with inlaid antiques. Their somber yet elegant way of life did not, I respectfully observe, showcase a lifestyle that could be achieved only in a society of servants and inanely dependent wives. The home of Akbar Jehan and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah effused warmth, belonging, and comfort, but not magnificent luxuries or resplendent accouterments. It was a milieu in which relationships were enacted and bolstered by the carrying out of ordinary practical rituals—watching the evening news, relishing 5:00 pm high tea, breaking fast in the month of Ramadan, discussing the headlines, playing board games, and breathing in the sense of security that even the smallest gesture exuded.

I don’t remember Akbar Jehan’s bedroom ever being immaculately neat. It was just as skimpily decorated as the rest of the house, and always in disarray. The bookcase was deluged with religious texts; the clutter on the dressing table; the antiquated transistor and incense holder on the nightstand; the exquisitely woven prayer rug, which was draped over the headboard, with its tassels knotted around the round knob of the headboard; these rich textures remain in my memory. Suraiya, who has always had a proclivity for tidiness and organization, would carefully organize her mother’s closet every evening, trying to restore order to the confusion.

Although unmethodical and disorderly, Akbar Jehan was a meticulously clean person. When it came to personal hygiene, she was absolutely impeccable and nourished her pasty white hands with fragrant creams, which was the one luxury she allowed herself. The bright colored traditional clothes with which she adorned herself reflected her warm and brisk personality. Being a woman of strength and conviction, she had no desire to keep up with the Joneses and did not covet finery or exquisitely designed jewelry. Having, of her own volition, sold the antique and priceless jewelry bequeathed to her by her mother, Rani jee, during the trying years between 1953 and 1975, she was quite content with her pair of paisley shaped gold earrings on delicate gold chains and a gold bangle, which, for a woman of her generation, symbolized marital status. It always amused me when acquaintances would slyly ask me how much gold my grandmother had gifted to me, because I was well-aware of the non-existence of any “royal coffer.” I learned early in life that people like Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh, who were in public service, were dangerously vulnerable and lived in glass houses.

By all accounts Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh forged a marital bond in which they nurtured

and supported each other. Marriage at the time was the conventional and obligatory narrative to which most women conformed. The quality of their marriage, by all indications, manifested itself in the durability of their friendship, the equality of the husband’s and wife’s quests, and the willingness to bicker, which spoke of their interminable solicitude for each other. Here, I take the risk of trying the reader’s patience by quoting Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness is an engaging and delectable marriage manual: “in God’s intention a happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. . . . Here is a reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us” (87). The happiest and most compatible marriages might not always subscribe to the rigid model fashioned by patriarchy, but couples that are fortunate enough to find themselves in such relationships reaffirm each other’s existence emotionally and intellectually. Such couples have a proclivity to challenge and productively debate each other’s opinions, which was the bedrock of Akbar Jehan’s and Sheikh Mohammad Abdulla’s marriage.

The companionship and support that they gave each other sustained them in the most adverse circumstances. They nourished each other as they ventured forth into a world of political hustle and bustle and consoled each other as they endured the crucibles that life forced them to bear. They faced a harsh and judgmental world standing side by side while emphasizing the inextricability of their fates. The wise as well as the not so wise well know that every marriage has its trials and tribulations. But a marriage that can endure periods of distress by cementing a bond that fathoms the complexities of a public life and supports the risks entailed in the pursuit of that life emerges triumphant, despite the odds. I can hear the reader sighing exasperatedly while reading or is the reader tolerating my perceived naivety with an unparalleled kindness?

While I do not mean to be dismissive of reader reactions I would emphasize that Akbar

Jehan was well aware that in choosing to spend her life with the Sheikh, she was renouncing the possibility of the stagnant comfort of domesticity and a placid old age. She did not, either privately to her children or publicly to her peers, express any regret or blame her husband for the pain that is an integral part of a life lived in the implacable public glare. Akbar Jehan, unlike quite a few of her generation, discovered in the public space a place where she could explore her persona and enact her dreams.

She had an enviable love of life that gave her the ability to cherish every small blessing and to recognize that the world owed her nothing. She had the self-assurance and courage “to treat life as art: to bring all [her] energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what [she] expected to happen did not happen” (Angelou 66). Although marriage between two strong-willed people can never be completely without trouble, Akbar Jehan made adjustments and ran her home to suit the way of life of the Sheikh. She could be intractable at times, but, historically, women have made compromises and adapted their own dreams and ambitions to accommodate the needs of their spouses, children, and communities.

Her desire for emancipation was mediated by a sense of responsibility to her community and, I might add, life partner. Some of us may turn our noses up at that, but I am inclined to believe that a woman like Akbar Jehan, intelligently, adjusted her requirements to those of her husband and his political cause, enabling her to make good use of every period of her life, except, perhaps, the very last. As a wise woman observes, “To be unable, because of inflexibility, to readjust to changes will result in a kind of sterility, great unhappiness, and sometimes almost a state of shock” (Roosevelt 81).

As the years have gone by, I have realized that gender norms in the developing world as well as the developed world have conscripted the wide range of female activity. The quickest and

easiest way, even in the 21st century, to alleviate the angst caused by a politically influential woman, whose communitarian work entails surmounting barriers, is to diminish her. That is usually done by bringing her repute into question. Akbar Jehan’s advocacy of education, health care, and political rights for women, with the resources available to her and within a particular social order, was modern. The problems that she confronted, a lot of which women continue to confront even in the current era, were archaic. But even she wasn’t immune to slander.

I was greatly enraptured by the myth that she had been betrothed or married to Thomas Edward Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), a British Army officer and a prolific writer, much before she met the Sheikh. Lawrence, as several works on him corroborate, worked in British India with the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1926 until 1929. Despite his unparalled ability to adapt to the local cultures in which he lived and functioned, he was accused of working as an anti-Soviet British spy in the North West Frontier Province in 1928 (NWFP). One of the disguises that he donned, according to several reports of doubtful veracity, was of a bland Muslim cleric, Pir Karam Shah. Tariq Ali, Pakistani historian, dogmatically writes about this purported union in his writings on Kashmir. According to him, the story about the betrothal or marriage of Akbar Jehan to Lawrence was relayed by Benji Nedou, Akbar Jehan’s younger brother, which, for him, made it the gospel truth. He further asserts that once Lawrence’s espionage activities and his real identity were discovered, Akbar Jehan’s father, orchestrated their speedy divorce, after which Lawrence surreptitiously returned to England (“The Story of Kashmir,” Clash of Fundamentalisms, 217-252). Sometimes gossip gets legitimized as history.

While I greatly doubted the veracity of this tale and thought it was just a yarn, my sense of decorum made me hesitate to ask Akbar Jehan about the authenticity of this narrative. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the school project of writing a fictional story for my tenth-grade

English class, finally summoned the courage to ask her about this story. She was telling the beads of her rosary and making rhythmic movements while reciting verses from the Quran when I audaciously brought up the subject. A ray of sunlight beamed into her lap, and she looked at me with a penetratingly earnest gaze and replied that slanderers who took delight in defaming God-fearing women wouldn’t escape the wrath of God. She assertively told me that this tall tale was just another fabrication, the purpose of which was to denigrate her and to belittle her work.

Interestingly, in an e-mail exchange with my former professor, Stephen E. Tabachnick, who is a renowned T. E. Lawrence scholar, I asked him about the authenticity of this story, telling him it had preyed on my mind for some time. Professor Tabachnick emphatically stated that he was speaking as someone who had studied and written on Lawrence for forty years, and who was the author of Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia among other books on Lawrence. Professor Tabachnick unequivocally pointed out, “the story of that betrothal or marriage is completely false. If it had happened, it would have been impossible to keep secret, especially given Lawrence’s world-wide fame.” And given Lawrence’s “homosexual tendencies and flagellation compulsion, the odds are really against this story’s being true.” He pointed out that the best biographies of Lawrence were by John Mack and Jeremy Wilson. He observed that neither of them had mentioned this apocryphal story, and nor had any of the many other biographies of Lawrence that Professor Tabachnick was familiar with. “Surely one of Lawrence’s fifty-plus biographers would have come upon the story by now” (E-mail to author, 19 March 2014).

In refuting the myth of Akbar Jehan’s betrothal or marriage to Lawrence of Arabia, he quoted from the “India” entry in his Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), pp. 86-87:

Lawrence left for India in December 1926 on board the troop ship SS Derbyshire. From January 7, 1927, to May 26, 1928, he served in the Engine Repair Section at the Royal Air Force depot at Drigh Road, Karachi . . . . He was then transferred to Miranshah, near the Afghanistan border, where he served as a clerk . . . . However, in September 28 newspapers began false accounts of his alleged spying activities in Afghanistan, and on January 12 he was sent to England on board the SS Rajputana. Both Karachi and Miranshah are in what is now Pakistan. A.W. Lawrence’s T.E. Lawrence by His Friends contains three memoirs by servicemen who knew him during this period. He displayed little interest in India and did not leave either camp.

“In view of this last sentence,” Professor Tabachnick asserted, “the story concerning your grandmother seems even more unlikely than it already does” (Ibid.). Concocted stories gather weight by being repeated, so I couldn’t let this myth go without dispelling it. A biographer cannot build an edifice on shaky ground, which is why, in writing about the marital bond and home of Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh, it was important for me to clear any lurking doubt about this apocryphal narrative.

Nyla Khan can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com

Comments are closed.