Salma Siddiqui was an Urdu novelist and a prominent member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. She is best known for her novel Sikandarnama in which she documents the various quirks of her domestic help, Sikandar.
Salma Siddiqui was born in Varanasi in 1931. Her father Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui was a noted essayist, educationist and mentor to prominent figures such as filmmaker K A Abbas and poets Ali Sardar Jafri and Jan Nisan Akhtar. Salma’s parental home in Aligarh was bustling with guests of national and international stature, such as Zakir Hussain and EM Forster.
Aligarh itself was a poetic and literary hub during that time, inspiring young poets and writers and providing space for art and drama to flourish. Salma Siddiqui earned a master’s degree in Urdu at Aligarh Muslim University and briefly taught at the Women’s College there.
Not much is known about Siddiqui’s first marriage, except that it ended early. Her second marriage was to Krishnan Chander, a prominent Urdu and Hindi writer. Salma had been influenced by Chander’s short story ‘Annadata’ at the age of thirteen. She married Chander in Nainital in 1957. They settled in Bombay in 1962 and became the ‘first couple’ of Urdu literature.
Progressive Writers’ Movement
Both Salma Siddiqui and her husband were a part of the Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind, also known as the Progressive Writer’s Movement. It was one of the most important movements in Urdu literature, including writers like Ismat Chughtai, Premchand, Manto and Amrita Pritam.
The anti-imperialist and left-oriented movement was established in 1936 by young poets and writers advocating social justice and equality. The word ‘progressive’ was inspired by a similar movement in 19th century England promoting liberation and democracy. Many members of the movement underwent jail terms for their convictions during British rule.
Siddiqui’s most prolific work is the novel Sikandarnama, inspired by her domestic help Sikandar. Originally from Badayun in Uttar Pradesh, Sikandar had been with her family for more than 55 years. His unique philosophy and idiosyncratic mannerisms intrigued her.
She started publishing a series of short stories based on Sikandar in the prestigious magazine Dharma Yug and finally published the novel through the imprint Jnanpith. The novel was adapted into a television series ‘Karname Sikandar Ke’ and broadcast by Doordarshan in 1991.
Salma Siddiqui narrates one such incident with Sikandar in an interview. “Once, the famous novelist E M Forster came to visit us in Aligarh. Sikander presented him with a paan to welcome him and when Forster was about to eat it, he remarked, ‘This is the first time that I am seeing a foreigner indulging in such a dirty habit of eating paan.’ We sent him away on some excuse lest he did more such things.”
Her other works include Gilhari ki Behen, Bharosa and Mangal Sutra.
Later life and death
After three of her completed manuscripts were destroyed in a monsoon shower, Siddiqui lost interest in writing and publishing. Parts of her autobiography shedding light on the golden era of Indian literature were also destroyed in the water.
Salma Siddiqui was inspired by and often overshadowed by the literary skills of Chander. His writings provided powerful critiques of Indian society, such as ‘An Open Letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Quaid-e- Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah from a Prostitute’ describing the suffering of refugees during the partition and the novel Autobiography of a Donkey criticizing bureaucracy.
Since Chander’s demise in 1977, Siddiqui lived alone in Mumbai. She was the last of the Bombay progressives, always ready to talk about her love for Aligarh and Urdu literature and her opinion on Indian literature today. She passed away in February 2017 at the age of 89.
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