THE EVERLASTING SPIRIT OF BEGUM BILKEES I. LATIF

It is said that service to mankind is service to God, and that’s exactly what Late Begum Bilkees I. Latif, philanthropist and Padma Shri awardee believed. She was the personification of grace and class and although she came from an affluent family, she always lived a modest life. Her work as the Founder of Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED) speaks volumes of her courageous and generous nature. She single-handedly lifted the status of Dharavi—India’s largest slums and once an area crammed with unhygienic wastes and unemployed people who were forced to partake in unlawful practices—to a colony that now houses almost 99% employed residents. Here, she made people aware of the need for hygiene.

She also empowered the women of the area to work and study in order to be able to earn a livelihood and support their families. Apart from this, the graceful lady was also involved in children’s education and as the Chairperson of the National Bal Bhavan and Children’s Museum, she provided several creative activities for children across the country.

Born to a noble Hyderabadi family, Begum Latif’s father, the late Nawab Ali Yavar Jung, was a diplomat and former Governor of Maharashtra, while her mother, Alys Iffrig, was a French lady whose family owned hotels in Paris and Mulhouse. She was married into yet another noble family and her husband Idris Hasan Latif was, just like her father, a Governor of Maharashta and the Ambassador to France. Ingrained with values and morals passed down to her by her parents, and with a love for giving back to society, she worked selflessly to uplift women children in society.

Her eye for detail and sophisticated taste also made her an artistic and creative lady. One of her artworks, a 24 by 8-foot mural, was displayed at the Japan Aero Exposition in Osaka in 1970. Her books, Her India, the Fragrance of Forgotten Years, The Essential Andhra Cookbook, Forgotten, and most recently The Ladder of his Life, a biography of her husband, Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif, won her great critical acclaim too.  A highly inspiring woman, Begum Bilkees Latif, who breathed her last  on October 27, will forever be in our hearts.    --- Niharika

My indelible impression of Begum Bilkees Latif is one of indomitable courage and compassion. It was in the early 80s and Mumbai (then Bombay) was torn apart by communal riots in the sensitive areas of south and south central Mumbai. These riots had spread from the powerloom centre of Bhiwandi, then a virtual powder keg of communal tension.

Begum Latif was then the First Lady of Maharashtra. I was asked to come to Raj Bhavan, where Begum Latif unfurled a very audacious, and now in hindsight, a very dangerous plan. She was going to the riot torn areas on a one-woman peace mission without the accoutrements of official staff or security and would I accompany her? Thus, with just a driver and an old chopdar we set out on this unique peace mission.

At railway stations, she walked up to people with folded hands pleading for sanity and peace. To the majority community she spoke of the contribution of her husband to the nation and his services as the chief of the Indian Air Force. There was palpable belligerence and anger in the air, but what was directed to her was only deep respect and appreciation.

If that was courage, this was compassion. Begum Latif in her sari kneeling on the sands of the Raj Bhavan Beach in Mumbai playing with slum children who spent the day at her invitation. This was the first of our Fresh-Air-Fund outings, where we took disadvantaged children out of their dismal environment for a day, and later a week, of fun and adventure This courage, compassion and a willing attitude to work for the poor characterised Begum Latif. SHED, the child she gave birth to and nurtured is living testimony to this. As First Lady, she desired to shed the trappings and seek a cause to use her position to help. This took her to Dharavi, where every depravation know to man could be witnessed. She began with drug addiction, exploitation of children, and spread to other societal ills for SHED to become the largest outreach program in Asia’s largest slum. SHED concentrated on education and skilling helping hundreds of thousands to educate themselves and gain meaningful employment. Even with advancing age and ill health, she continued to fly down to Mumbai from Hyderabad, creating a dedicated and loyal work force committed to continue taking her task forward with renewed vigour in her absence.

In life, one measures blessings by different yardsticks, the most common one being wealth. I count mine in the affection that people shower on me. I was distinctly blessed in abundance by having the good fortune of being by the side of this noble lady.

There are a few people who one meets in life that leave an indelible mark. For many it could be a grandparent, a teacher, a mentor... someone they can hold as standard bearers of life, to emulate and to put on a pedestal. Begum Bilkees Latif merited this distinction for many of us whose lives she touched. Not so much because of her lineage and family, but more because of the charitable work she did and how she lived her life, forever believing in the adage that good begets good.

As a couple, the Latifs were an embodiment of the perfect family. With the Air Chief Marshal’s military rank, followed later by his Governorship of Maharashtra and then an Ambassadorship to France; they were in many ways part of India’s core cultural cognoscenti. Begum Latif used these opportunities to do a lot of good. A firm believer in giving back, she spent her days as an Air Force wife, counselling other wives on how to aid their husband’s morale. Later, during her days in Mumbai, she dedicated her time to the slums of Dharavi. Here she created schools and fought an ideological war with the local mafia, resulting in the exemption of children from their labour forces, where they were often used in the manufacturing of illicit alcohol. Never one to shy away from getting into the thick of things, she was instrumental in quelling tensions during the religious riots in Mumbai, once standing in the midst of a mob and convincing them to not attack a building occupied by widows and orphans.

Apart from her influential restructuring of Dharavi, Begum Bilkees Latif went on to establish numerous organisations that, increasingly today, work for the betterment of the poor. The Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED) was one of her first charitable foundations. She had also been passionately involved in children’s education and later occupied, for several years, the position of the Chairperson of the National Bal Bhavan and Children’s Museum that provided creative activities for children from all over India, and had 107 Bal Bhavans affiliated with it. She became a charitable force in her own right, often trusting that the truth and good can prevail through even the most oppressive situations.

An artist with an evolved aesthetic sense, Begum Latif’s works received much praise from industry veterans. A seminal mural created by her, measuring an impressive 24 by 8 feet, was even displayed at the Japan Aero Exposition in Osaka in 1970. Also an established writer, her books won her critical acclaim over the years; proving that she could wear many hats with ease.

Born to Nawab Ali Yavar Jung and his French wife Alys Iffrig, Begum Latif lived in a rarefied world that today is a time forgotten. She saw a Hyderabad that was resplendent in the charm of the days of the Raj. The tehzeeb and intricacies of the Nizami court flowed through her veins...along with a French heritage that set her apart from her brethren. She lived a life few can fathom, all the while being surrounded by those some term as ‘the world’s rich and famous.’ But in the end she was revered and loved the most, by thousands of the needy and poor to whose lives she brought positive reform.
On Friday, October 27, 2017, Begum Latif passed away peacefully in Hyderabad. India lost a Padma Shri, Hyderabad an icon, and the Latifs their family anchor. May she forever Rest In Peace.    

“My most beloved aunt, Bilkees Latif, wife of Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, passed away a few hours ago, after a long and difficult illness, borne with her usual grace and thought for others.
I loved her dearly. I was there aged two, at her wedding to my favourite uncle, 68 years ago. After crying bitterly at the thought of losing my charming Mamoo to some unknown interloper, I rapidly realised this beautiful new aunt was an incredible asset, and became her devoted admirer!

Bilkees Mumani was beautiful inside and out. She was also lively, ebullient, loving, adventurous, gifted; embracing people and life to the full. And in turn she enhanced all our lives. My father, who could be acerbic about some relatives, said, “A person who never says anything bad about anybody should theoretically be a bore, but Bilkees is utterly delightful.”

With my parents abroad, Bilkees Mumani and Idris Mamoo’s homes—in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Paris—were a constant refuge and joy. Both, my aunt and uncle, were brilliant, loving hosts, and Bilkees Mumani had the art of turning every house, whether Air Force accommodation, staid Raj Bhavan, or Ambassador’s Residence, into a stunning flower-and-objet d’art-filled welcoming home — with absolutely delicious food.

Growing up, I learnt from this, as I did from her caring warmth and generosity. She had a knack of always noticing the nice things about one, which I, as an awkward, unconfident teen, appreciated greatly. And even in her mid 80s, she would walk into a room and notice a flower arrangement, a different placement of a sofa, and even recognise and have a word with a new servant.

I also learnt a lot about relationships from her. A painter and writer in her own right, Bilkees Mumani’s marriage with my adoring but also demanding uncle was a master class in the art of giving in order to receive. A lesson in how this did not diminish her personality but enhanced it. In her 80s, I used to tease her for flying in from Hyderabad for her Bal Bhavan meetings on an early morning flight, and insisting on taking a flight  back the same evening, bad knees and all; not stopping even one night in Delhi. She had so many friends here and exhibitions she’d have loved to see. She would laugh and say, “If you’re lucky enough to have a husband who still wants you home with him after 60-plus years, it’s worth making the effort to be there.” The photograph of my uncle holding my aunt’s hand in her last illness says it all. Mariam, Asad, and Asgar, you were lucky to have such a mother. The fragrance of her memory will live on.”   

She was the embodiment of how a refined lady can use her liberal education and privileged background to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Begum Latif worked tirelessly to give Mumbai a facelift when she and her husband were posted here. Apart from the welfare work she did amongst underprivileged women, she also threw the weight of her good taste to brighten up the long, dreary journey to the airport. The Bombay Western highway in those days was a bumpy drive clogged with traffic. Begum Latif took it upon herself to position these large lollipop structures alongside that highway that featured the flora, fauna, and avifauna of different countries. The Mumbai Municipal Corporation typically approved the plan when the Begum mooted it, then turned around and said they didn’t have the funds. The good Begum was undaunted. She had a huge reservoir of goodwill amongst the city’s well-heeled who were aware of the work she did for the poor. From the Tatas, the Wadias, the Godrejs to all the leading multinationals—they came forward and sponsored a lollipop each. For many years those were the only cheerful things on that dreary skyline. Alas, once the Begum moved away from Mumbai to Hyderabad those lollipops were forgotten and eventually fell down. I miss those endearing lollipops.

Begum Latif—the beautiful, graceful philanthropist. She has left behind a legacy that has left a very impactful mark on our minds and hearts. She will never leave the planet; she will always be with us.

My first interaction with this beautiful human being was when my father had taken me to a slum in Jogeshwari as he was part of a club where Begumji was supposed to come and interact with the people to understand their problems. There came in this graceful, beautiful, powerful lady; one look at her and I always wanted to be like her, and at that tender age your mind absorbs everything it sees, and that’s what she did to me. Her beautiful chiffon yellow saree, long dangling earrings, gorgeous skin, and her soft-spoken but powerful voice left such an impact on my mind, especially because she did exactly what she had promised to do. There are a lot of people who came there but I don’t know if they actually fulfilled their promises, but this lady surely did. As my father told me, she came, asked questions, and solved them. She didn’t just go away after listening to everyone’s problems. And that’s most imperative. Most importantly though, she took care of the largest slum in the world—Dharavi. Today it has become a tourist spot, not because people want to see what the slums are like, but to see what a once slum has now become. It has become a landmark for hygiene, and the largest economy of Maharashtra comes from there. 99% of the houses there have some kind of home industry happening within its doors, whether it is food, leather or anything else. And who started all of this—Begum Latif. She went after it, saw to it that everybody was employed, and created a mindset for people who had no idea where they were going. She turned people who were uneducated and unaware or social skills into soft human beings. In the past she has also herself, in her elegant saree, swept the streets to show people that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in doing so. How many people would actually do that? I don’t have the guts to do what she did. But after the impact Begum Latif has left in my mind, I think I will, and I want to.

My last interaction with Begumji was when she was honoured at Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. She remembered everyone, and met everyone with so much warmth and grace. Where does all this come from I often wonder…obviously from the legacy that her parents have left behind and of course her loving husband who’s always been supportive of her endeavours. I’m proud to say her children, Huma and Asad, are carrying forward her legacy with utmost grace. And I do hope I do the same.

Begumji is one lady who can never be erased from anyone’s mind. And my tribute to her will be to do something for the society selflessly.   

Begum Bilkees I. Latif was an epitome of a glorious age of a Hyderabad that no longer exists. On hearing of her passing on, I was filled with memories of all the interesting interactions I had with her over the past two decades. She lived gracefully. I share here one such special meeting with her.

I was the regional editor with Femina back then. The annual Femina Book of Cookery was being planned and, it was decided, a good part of the book would be dedicated to the rich cuisine from Andhra Pradesh. I didn’t need a search engine to tell me whom I needed to consult for traditional cuisine and authentic recipes. Mrs Latif’s book, The Essential Andhra Cookbook – with Hyderabadi and Telengana specialities, was published by Penguin in 1998. It had drawn attention and admiration for its research, authentic recipes, and assimilation of facts around food culture and traditions. It was the ‘go to’ book for Andhra and Hyderabadi style cooking, hosting or celebrating life and culture. Her book (she has written four others on subjects other than food) revealed her deep understanding of the region -- the communities, culture, festivals, rituals, and also the improvisations that have come about in the cuisine. The part of the book that appealed to me even more than the precise recipes was Mrs Latif’s introduction. She shares her life as it was then -- of dak bungalows and chota haazri. The introduction is indeed a peek into her flavourful life and the genteel Hyderabadi tehzeeb (culture doesn’t quite sum it) that she was part of.

Not many would know that she was the daughter of Nawab Ali Yavar Jung, an eminent diplomat, who was the governor of Maharashtra, the Indian ambassador to countries including Egypt, Greece, France and the United States. He was also the Vice Chancellor of Osmania and Aligarh Muslim University. Her mother Alys, a French lady, belonged to the Iffrig family who owned hotels in parts of France, including Paris.

Mrs Latif had shared that her interest in gourmet cooking grew when she married Air Chief Marshal I.H. Latif, a decorated officer, who himself went on to become the governor of Maharashtra and the Indian ambassador to France. The Latif hospitality had become legendary; her lavish and well-thought out menus of Indian food were appreciated and enjoyed both at the Raj Bhawan in Mumbai and at the embassy residence in Paris. The dinner she hosted for President Mitterand was a social and diplomatic success. And, it’s a well documented fact that when Queen Elizabeth II was visiting Hyderabad, Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, had asked Mrs Latif to oversee the food arrangements, both private meals as well as the banquet. She was a natural choice.

When I met Begum Latif at her well kept duplex home in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, she looked resplendent in her signature French chiffon saree, with her pallo delicately draped around her shoulders, and with touches of tasteful jewellery. Her graceful personality revealed her lineage and interests.

I got to experience the famous Latif hospitality that evening. Mr and Mrs Latif made it a point to greet and usher their guest in and, after the visit, see them to the door, personally. The Hyderabadi Luqmi served that evening remains one of the finest I have eaten. I don’t just recall the elegantly laid out tea or the spread I also remember the conversations. Mr Latif, a charming storyteller, joined us and we discussed cuisines, food cultures, food history, travel, and photography.

They recounted their road trip, with a few French friends, from New Delhi to Varanasi. They recalled that while driving back to Delhi, after seeing the temple town and Sarnath, a casual conversation with the driver made them realize they had not ‘experienced’ the Ganga. Realising they might have missed something significant, they immediately turned around, even though they had gone some distance and drove right back into the city. As the river banks (ghats) came alive with chantings, bells ringing and a hundred conch shells, the evening aarti being offered to the holy river made it a worthwhile experience. Begum Latif pointed out the two monochrome photographs in the living room that had been taken by Mr Latif. I vividly remember the look she had held in her eyes as they exchanged glances. They were married for 67 years.

All through her life, Mrs Latif was known for her aesthetics; and she was both dignified and conscious of how things should be. There was a sense of propriety and decorum in each of the roles she played as daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and public figure. She was an engaging conversationalist with a wide variety of interests. She asked me my preference between Hyderabadi and Lucknowi Biryanis and the succulent Kebabs from both cities. I don’t remember what I said, but I recall her saying that Lucknowi flavours were deliciously subtle. I remember asking her how she maintained the heirloom ivory tusk in their home. “With a toothbrush, of course” they had chuckled.

Her contribution to society through social work is commendable. During her stay at the Raj Bhawan in Mumbai, she had worked relentlessly towards the cause of the underprivileged children of Dharavi. She had revisited it just few months ago. She had managed to send almost 25,000 children to school, hoping that education could change the course of their lives. It is believed that she even received threatening calls from the underworld because of it. She also worked for the war widows from Andhra. She was awarded many honours, including the National Unity Award in 1991 and a Padma Shri in 2009.

Begum Bilkees I Latif’s life was evidently well lived. People will remember her in different ways but for me, she will always remain an impeccable picture of grace and dignity.

Padma Shri Begum Bilkees I. Latif was the Chairperson of the Montessori Training and Research Trust (MTRT) for more than 13 years. She had joined the Trust at the invitation of Bharat Ratna Mr J.R.D. Tata, a personal friend, who at that time was Chairperson of the Trust.

The MTRT was founded in 1984 for the purpose of furthering the cause of Montessori Education. In all these years she was deeply involved with every activity of the Trust. She helped in the planning  of activities, chaired Trust meetings, attended every function, be it an international symposium, a course inauguration, a Trust  meeting, an invited Lecture, mela, or a formal meal for visitors. Her very presence raised the level of the occasion from a routinely one to an extraordinary one. She was ready for any challenge and deeply appreciative of the work of others. As Chairperson, her decisions were made with a clear vision and with long term goals in mind. She was most attentive to whatever was being said and was an object lesson in courtesy and perfect manners for all those she dealt with. She was unfailingly punctual and on occasions even took autos to reach on time if her personal transport was delayed. She and the Air Chief Marshal enjoyed programmes for children like the drumbeats or guest lectures, with equal enthusiasm. Both their speeches on formal occasions where they were always the Chief Guests (we did not need any other) were both educative and entertaining. She took obstacles as challenges and never let her personal status come in the way of dealing with day-to-day issues. She was always apologetic that she was not a good fundraiser but we often told her that no one would believe any organisation she was associated with could possibly be in need of funds. She made it a point to meet visiting dignitaries from AMI like Philip O’Brien, Lynne Lawrence, the trainers, and the trainees.

She belonged to an aristocratic Hyderabadi family with prime ministers and minsters of the Nizam’s government on both sides of the family. She was the daughter of the late Nawab Ali Yavar Jung, former Vice Chancellor, diplomat, and Governor of Maharashtra. She was the wife of Air Chief Marshal Idris H. Latif (retd), who also served as Governor of Maharashtra and as Ambassador to France. She was an epitome of beauty, elegance, charm, and old world culture, always perfectly turned out in her chiffon sarees and antique jewellery.

In her own right she was a reputed author and champion of several social causes. Her first book—Her India, the Fragrance of Forgotten Years— was about her French mother. Other bestsellers include the Andhra Cook Book and Forgotten, on women. She has lectured extensively in the United States and France and is also the recipient of the Padma Shri in 2008.

She has also received the Lions  International medal, USA, for her riot rehabilitation work, the Priyadarshini Award, the Mahatma Karve Medal Pune, the National Unity award and the Women’s Service award. She was formerly President of the Air Force wives’ Welfare Association and was instrumental in getting 60 air force schools recognised. She was Chairperson of the National Bal Bhavan and the Rajiv Gandhi Children’s Museum. A hundred Bal Bhavans were opened during her tenure. She even initiated the Annual National Bal Shree awards for creativity in four categories and launched a movement for children to ‘build the India of their dreams, with values’ in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s presence. ‘Values’ as a subject were introduced in Delhi Government schools during her tenure.

Begum Bilkees Latif was appointed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to be in-charge of the programmes of the First ladies—the wives of Presidents at the NAM conference. Smt. Gandhi also appointed her to be in-charge of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, to Hyderabad. She has been the Indian delegate to the United Nations and Chairperson, the, AP Central Social Welfare Board, Government of India.
She also organised rehabilitation work after the Bhiwandi riots and worked tirelessly to create understanding between communities. She went to the riot affected areas without her security and support staff, much to their concern, and fearlessly mingled with the crowds to bring reconciliation. She facilitated the re-equipment of over 6,000 destroyed homes, and more than 730 destroyed houses of both communities were rebuilt.

Begum Latif was the president of the National Society for clean cities, India, which has organised numerous programmes for children from 37 slums of Mumbai. She has been President, Trustee, and Founder Member of several institutions, including INTACH, Population Foundation, The Nandi foundation, Population first, the Indian Council for Child Welfare, the Indian council for Cultural Relations Hyderabad, and has served on the Board of Air India, the State bank of Hyderabad, the Anjuman-e-Khawateen, and several others.

She bore her last illness with grace and fortitude, more concerned about the welfare of her family and friends than of herself. Her loss is a personal loss to each of us. She passed away with dignity, leaving behind the peerless Air Chief Marshal, her loving children Mariam, Asad, Asgar, daughter-in-law Huma and her grandchildren. Her wisdom, loving kindness, and graciousness will not be seen again.