Amir Jehan’s biggest regret is that she never got the opportunity for higher education. But not one to give up, she made the most of the limited opportunities life offered her. She was the first Indian woman to get a driving license in Libya in her first attempt- something that stills remains a taboo in most Middle-Eastern countries.
We catch up today with this spirited woman who got married at the age of 15 and with started that life with Rs100 as the family’s income. She went on to travel almost every continent in the world.
Key to Happiness? Not Money.
It’s seventy-six years of wisdom now but she realized the dynamics of money very early in her life. She was born in a well-to-do family but she was married even before she turned fifteen-years-old. Her new home did not have the resources that her parental home did but that never bothered her.
When we asked her about it, she said, “As a kid, I had a carefree childhood. I honestly never realized that money was that important.”
“My husband had fewer resources but it still didn’t feel like I was underprivileged. You have to accept change and the circumstances that are offered to you. I think that was the key to happiness even then.”
Even then, she was able to break customs and stigmas. Her parent’s home did not seem like a separate place she couldn’t go back to when that was considered a social stigma in those times.
“When I had children and got them enrolled in school, the fees took a fair share of money and I felt like the expenses were increasingly more than we could bear. I wondered how I will be able to meet it. It was the same time my father died.”
On Marriage and Not Changing Her Maiden Name
Amir was a feminist in her own right. Throughout her life, she retained her maiden name, Amir Jehan. When we asked her why she never changed her name to her husband’s which still remains a norm in India, she replied, “Changing my name was not a testament of love for my husband. It seemed superficial to me, not a show of love and surely not something that I should be required to do.”
“I was not old enough to fall in love before I was married or otherwise. And so when I got married, I realized I had to love my husband to have a happy life. And I did, he is my life-partner. I honestly can say I have loved him since then.” And the partnership continues for over sixty years.
“Libya Was Where It All Changed”
“My husband was a Mathematics Professor in Gaya, Bihar. There was a kind senior who offered him a position at the University of Tripoli in Libya.”
When I asked her if it was a big change, she responded, “It sure was. My oldest son was studying then and he had an Atlas with him. We opened the Atlas in wonder and saw where Libya was. It was in the northern part of Africa.”
“My thought process then was that my father had just died and we needed money. I wanted to be financially stable and I was worried that I would not be able to make ends meet if we continue in Bihar. So we decided to go.”
This transition, however, was not as smooth as one would hope. “It seemed like a big decision. I needed a sum of Rs. 10,000 for expenses like getting the passport of my children, tickets and other things. I did not know I would be able to do it.”
News Flash: She Did It The Indian Way.
“I made sure I would not take a loan for it. So, I sold all my silverware. With this money, I got the passports made and put together five sets of clothes for my four children.”
She continued, “My husband was then reluctant. But I was determined and thus, I mortgaged my jewellery and sold off my silver-coated utensils.”
We asked her if she ever got the jewellery back. She replied with a smile, “Yes, I was able to get it all back. My husband started earning handsomely in Libya and I sent money to my brothers in India to buy back the mortgaged jewellery.”
Coup d’état 1969: Surviving a Revolution
“It was a massive cultural shock. Cleaning the bathroom seemed like the biggest ordeal. I did not have any helpers and my husband did not help me in looking after kids as he was always busy with university work. In the first year itself, I got my children admitted to an English school. I was then expecting my fifth child but there was a revolution in Libya we did not see coming.”
“The Kingdom of Libya was overturned and Gaddafi took over King Idris I. Rules were changed in Libya. All English schools closed down. I admitted my kids to an Arabic school but we wanted to have them a formal education in English. So when we visited India in between, I left my oldest son in India.”
For a mother to leave her son at the age of nine must have been heart-wrenching but for her, it was a “sacrifice she had to make”. She said, “Education of my children was more important than what I was feeling then.”
When Her House Burned Down
“I met with a lot of accidents in Libya, including a car accident and a gas leak. But the most significant one made me take an unprecedented decision.”
“I took my third oldest son Shahid to get him from school. My younger daughter, Daisy was a baby then and so I showered her properly, fed her and made her lie on a bed comfortably. Alongside, I asked my fourth son, Firoze to memorize the alphabet and gave him some juice to drink. I specifically asked him to not touch anything in the kitchen. But kids do the opposite of what you tell them to.”
“While I went to school, he lit a matchstick and left it in a cardboard box, which subsequently caught on fire. He became scared and hid the burning box beneath the bed where Daisy was sleeping.”
“When I returned, the house was filled with smoke. I instantly searched for Daisy and Firoze. Daisy was coughing and crying a lot as had inhaled a lot of smoke. So I took her to a corner and fed her milk while the house was literally on fire. It did seem absurd but the right thing to go.”
Her next step was to open the windows to get the smoke out of the house. She says, “The flames in the bed were touching the ceiling. The fire brigade came in some time and neighbours helped a lot to extinguish but everything was burned and the entire house was covered in black soot.”
The Aftermath and Obtaining Her Driving License
“I used to keep saying to my husband that he should learn driving. I decided I needed to learn driving if it was not him taking the charge. If I had driven my children with me while I had gone to pick up Shahid, this wouldn’t have happened and my children’s lives wouldn’t have been put at risk. I promised myself that if I didn’t learn driving, I would go back to India.”
She continues, “I went to driving school and I used to carry Daisy with me. She used to sleep in the backseat. It was not allowed but I did not have any other option.”
“When I went to check the result after giving my driving test, I was told “naaje”. I didn’t understand what it meant and so I went to my husband and told him this. He was taken aback. He told me the Arabic word, “naaje” meant “pass”. I was the first Indian woman in Libya to get the license, that too in the first attempt. Interestingly, I got mine nine years before my husband got his driving license.”
You might also like Of Dreams And Donkeys, The Inspiring Tale of Forbes30Under30 Pooja Kaul