Off the Beaten Track, The Story of My Unconventional Life – Book Review

Book – Off the Beaten Track

Author – Saeeda Bano

Translated by – Shahana Raza

Release date – November 2020

Genre – Memoir

The book, as the name suggests, is a memoir. It is about the life of a woman who lived in the early to mid-twentieth century India. Originally written in Urdu by the protagonist, Saeeda Bano, who is also the narrator, the book relates the story of her life, the trials and tribulations she had to face during her lifetime. The woman considered to be the doyenne of Urdu broadcasting in India lived a life that can be a huge inspiration for other women. This book is a translation of the original text by her granddaughter, Shahana Raza.

It is a book which touches your soul, touches your heart and is so, so relatable. You read it, and as a woman, you can identify with so much of it. The struggles, the challenges all seem so real even though Saeeda lived in a different time, a time that seems to be steeped in history, so to say. This shows that times may change, people may change, but certain things remain constant. And women and their struggles are one of those. Things that are a given for men, like the right to live an independent life, have their own money, social security do not exist for many women. They have always had to struggle for them, and that struggle is never easy.

This book though focusing on Saeeda’s struggles, has a very positive feel to it. It highlights that yes she had struggles, she faced challenges, but she didn’t accept them as her fate. She believed that one could change things, alter circumstances if only one had the will to do it. The book gives a sense of direction to the reader. It shows what a woman can do in the face of adversity. It shows that life always gives us choices which could be easy or difficult. It is up to us to make those choices and lead our lives. Saeeda could have chosen the easy option of staying on in the marriage, toeing the conventional line, but she decided not to. She took on the difficult option of walking out and found happiness in her life. Choices that seem difficult may lead to happy outcomes which is what happened in her case. But it is up to us to decide what we want to do.

The book is the story of a woman whose life as she says was ‘Off the Beaten Track ‘and was unconventional in more ways than one. After reading the book, I believe that every woman should read this book, no matter what their age or stage of life. We should also thank the grandmother-granddaughter duo for making the life story of such a bold woman available to us. The story of a woman who was far ahead of her times in every possible way. I feel that some of us in this modern day and age cannot achieve what she did, especially considering the times in which she lived.

Saeeda was a woman who lived a remarkable and unorthodox life. What people said, what the world believed was of no consequence to her. It was her beliefs, her convictions that mattered to her and helped her decide the course of her life.

She made pretty unconventional choices in life. She learnt how to drive a car; she chose to work while being married to a wealthy man, she went on to become the first woman Urdu broadcaster of the country, she walked out of a difficult marriage, was witness to the partition of the country with a small child by her side and then she fell in love with a married man who rose to become the Mayor of Delhi. He was a part of her life for twenty-five long years, by her side through thick and thin.

The woman was independent, daring, determined and absolutely fearless.

The story of her life is a testimonial that you can do anything in life if you have the courage of conviction. There is nothing impossible.

As you read the book, you realise that parents play a critical role in raising their children, especially their daughters. You raise them to be independent, to have a mind of their own, and they will surely conquer life. Nothing will ever be able to hold them back. And the starting point in this journey is education. You don’t teach them to be literate, but you teach them to be educated, which Saeeda’s parents did.

Saeeda, as the reader discovers, is not a flippant, frivolous woman. She knows from day one that she is in a difficult marriage, her husband is not an easy man to be with, but she tries her best to make things work. What is more, though living in a joint family, she doesn’t let anyone get a whiff of what she is going through. She deals with her demons herself. It is only when the situation gets totally out of hand, with her husband deserting her, does the whole world get to know about the fact that they had differences. And this is many years and two children later.

The decision to leave everything familiar and move to a different city with a young kid could not have been easy, especially in those days. But she takes it all in her stride showing loads of grit and fortitude. What is remarkable is the support she gets from her mother and mother-in-law.

Then post-partition living by herself she builds a life which is independent in every respect though full of challenges.

As she says’ Breaking through the chains of an extremely conventional and secure life, I had chosen to live the vulnerable existence of a single woman. Age was on my side; I was young and strong.”

As I understand, she had physical strength, no doubt but a lot of mental strength, which held her in good stead.

This statement amply illustrates the courage that was Saeeda Bano. She made a choice, a choice that took her away from a life of security, money, a marriage to venture into an unchartered territory of an unknown city, an unknown life. A single, working woman never has it easy, and to imagine that it could have been easy in those days is wishful thinking.

The clarity of thought she had in those days when women were not encouraged to have an independent mindset is praiseworthy, to say the least. She and her husband are incompatible, have been from day one, she knows it and makes a choice of not putting up with it. This speaks volumes for her clarity of thought, her courage.

Her strength of character comes out from the way she handles sorrow and pain. She never lets anyone know what she is going through. Whether it is her struggle with her husband, challenges of raising her children, leading an unconventional life of being with a married man and then to lose that man, she bears it all alone, by herself. Adversity comes to her often in life, but she never lets it get to her.

Her life summed up in her words,

‘A woman is invincible. She is a tough creature. By making her a mother, God has placed an enormous burden of responsibility on her, which she must cope with all her life.’

It is a book that I recommend highly.

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