Always vibrant and vivacious, professionally a journalist and a special educator — that was Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar, who is no more. She died on July 4 in Washington at the age of 64, finally succumbing to the battle against cancer she had fought spiritedly for 12 years.
That spirit marked everything she did, as a journalist with Himmat Weekly or at The Statesman, where she wrote on development and women’s issues, then at The Indian Express as its Washington correspondent for two years in the late 1980s, when she really came into her own. And finally, to a stint at India Today. And then, though a successful journalist, she decided to change tack mid-career — to do her masters in special education and go on to teach differently abled children through their strengths, not weaknesses, at the famous Lab School in Washington.
Like me, she cut her journalistic teeth at Himmat, which Shahnaz joined inspired by the way the magazine, like several smaller papers of the time, had fought the censorship of the Emergency, hounded from one printing press to another, finally buying its own barely functional press with small contributions from its readers. We joined The Statesman at about the same time, and sat facing each other in a little space carved out of what used to be the sports room, which hardly endeared us to the sports editors of the time!
What stands out in my mind is our visit to Punjab in 1984, in the hours after Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star, with the army storming the Golden Temple. The border had been sealed and a curfew imposed. Shahnaz and I set out from Delhi towards Punjab. There were buses and trucks lined up, not allowed to enter the state. We somehow managed to get across the border, sweet-talking our way in, and a few kilometres inside the border, Shahnaz even charmed the gun-toting army officials into telling us something about what was going on. I was trepidatious that they would bundle us out if they knew how we had smuggled ourselves in. We had been assigned to do an “atmosphere piece”, as also a series on Punjab in the days that followed. She would tell me, “NC, you let me do the final copy,” and after some argument I would reluctantly agree. For Shahnaz was a better writer than me.
During those years we were rivals, collaborators, confidantes, all rolled into one. It was a period when our sensitivity to gender issues — and a sense of our rights as women — grew. It was also the time when Swaminathan Aiyar was courting her, and many in the office smiled knowingly when he would amble in at lunch time. When they married, she made him change his name to Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, just as she took his surname.
We wrote about bonded labour, child labour, undertrials languishing in jails, and were educated about the complexities of the caste system in Bihar. This “Parsi princess”, as a friend liked to call her, gave a voice to those who did not have one.
I used to marvel at how she always managed to look so smart and on top of the situation, even as she was undergoing chemotherapy. She never liked to talk about her illness and would answer any query with one of her own, like, “Tell me the latest political gossip of Delhi.”
We shared an uncannily common trajectory. We married around the same time, our sons are of an age, and friends. Rustam was her heartbeat, and is today a poised and hulking young man. Her last words to me, two weeks before she died — her voice was feeble on the phone and she told me her kidneys had packed up — were, “Please tell Nakul I love him very much.” Nakul (my son) used to call her Ma Number Two.
Her going is one more reminder that an era we were comfortable with— of shared values, of camaraderie despite differences, of optimism and a belief that our words, oral and written, could make a difference — is fading away. All one can say is farewell friend, a friend to so many.
The writer is a senior journalist.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines