By Zofeen Ebrahim
An impish smile, one that reached her eyes and made them twinkle; the way she’d intertwine her arm with yours, like school girls do; her intelligent conversations; her wry humour that was always interspersed with chortles of laughter – there was a sort of joie de vivre about Parveen Rehman that suggested a new lightness of being. She exuded warmth and a gentleness that is hard to find these days.
So why was her life snuffed out in that terrible manner?
Was it because she was a messiah for the poor or was it due to her attempts to make people understand what development meant in poor settlements?
Did they hate her for finding joy in simple things?
Parveen Rehman was an architect by qualification and she headed the well-known Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI), in Karachi’s Orangi area.
“I am an optimist. The maximum I can remain depressed for is ten minutes!” she told me in an interview I was conducting back in 2009, for a book “Women Managing Water” published in India for which was collecting inspiring stories of women from around South Asia.
And then she added,
Maybe it has to do with what happened to us in East Pakistan.
In her own words,
I was in class nine, in 1971, when Pakistan lost its eastern half (present Bangladesh). I was spoilt and pampered, being the youngest among four siblings and was like any teenager, obsessed with music, friends and partying.”
Transported back in time, she said life then for her was a never-ending joyride till the day the Mukti Bahini came to Mirpur, in Dhaka, where they lived and she finally saw men becoming animals.
Every night, she said, soldiers would pick a few women from among them.
I remember my mother telling me and my sister that if somebody dragged us out, we should kill ourselves.
Strangely, her harrowing experience back in 1971 did not turn her into a bitter person. She told me in an interview to Dawn in 2000,
All issues, in my opinion deal with society as a whole and women cannot be separated; you have to see the situation in its totality.
When she talked about the 18 years she spent with Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, it brought a glow on her face.
“He taught me a way of life,” she said.
I am lucky to have worked with the best. At the OPP (Orangi Pilot Project) you learn as you grow. It teaches you that you can have a good life even in simplicity.
She described the OPP in various ways during the course of the interview – as “a way of life”; an “attitude”, a “catalyst”, a “great people’s work”, an “urban phenomenon”, a “movement”, but not a project.
The one piece of advice from Khan sahib that stayed with her always was,
“First acknowledge what you lack, try and see who has those skills and then stick to them like a leech and pick their brains!”
She believed it was important for men and women to work together as that way women learn to be assertive and men become gentler, she’d say.
My mind is still too numbed and my heart seems in physical pain; I cannot think beyond the fact that it’s the biggest loss for our country. I felt something akin to the way I felt when Benazir Bhutto was shot and killed.
I keep wondering what she felt when the bullets hit her. She was slightly built and didn’t stand a chance, so it’s ironic that she once said,
“Physical strength really does not matter; it’s all about what you have up here” and she’d pointed to her temple.
Back in 2000, just a year after Khan sahib had passed away I had asked her if she felt his absence and she’d said,
There is no vacuum, neither is there the pain of his departure. He lived a full life. I enjoyed being with him, now his thoughts are there to guide me.
I’m not sure I can say the same for Parveen’s hasty departure, but then I’m not so magnanimous, I had not learnt enough from her. Images and her words are all that remain.