Biographies or books by first ladies usually revolve around their prominent husbands. However, The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady breaks this notion.
Irene Pant, better known as Begum Ra’ana, was the first lady of Pakistan from 1947 to 1951. A determined girl from Almora who taught economics in Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi, she married Liaquat Ali Khan, converted to Islam, left India and adopted Pakistan as home.
Young Ra’ana in love is beautifully described in the book. She was smitten the first time she saw Khan. He was already established as a young politician. In an interview, she said: “It was an untraditional marriage for those days, as it was a love marriage.” Khan was already married. He was Muslim and considerably older.
Ra’ana’s father disapproved of their relationship and she could never go back home to Almora. Her grandfather Taradutt was a Brahmin who converted to Christianity, despite opposition from his family and community. Her decision, to choose love over her father’s opposition, came from the same steely conviction.
Ra’ana was as committed to the vision of Pakistan as her husband. As the first lady, Ra’ana fought for women’s freedom and for their space outside their homes. After the assassination of her husband, in 1951, she continued to be active on the political scene. She served as a diplomat, governor of Sindh and the chancellor of Karachi University.
The biography, written by two writers from across the border, tries to capture her life and spirit. It does succeed, but only in parts. While the book offers a view of her world, it fails to be intimate. As a document on her life, it fails to bring her to life.
THE BEGUM: PORTRAIT OF RA’ANA LIAQUAT ALI KHAN, PAKISTAN’S PIONEERING FIRST LADY
Author: Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Pages: 216 • Price: Rs599