The surmedaani of Shamim Begum

Karachi, Pakistan 

This object is called a ‘Surmedaani’ and belongs to my mother, Shamim Begum. A beautiful silver bottle, whose top section or handle are ornately carved with floral patterns, it contains within it a dark ceremonial dye called Surma applied, by both men and women, over the lower waterline of the eyes to darker them. It is often also applied to the eyes of children as it is known to have medical properties. Throughout history, Surma or Kajal as it is more commonly called has always been stored in dainty containers of ivory, porcelain, silver or wood.

Though this can be found in the cosmetic cabinets and vanities of many homes in the subcontinent, it is special to me because my mother carried it across the border with her from India to Pakistan, during the Partition in 1947. She remembers being at a family function when the border was announced and rushed home just as violence broke out throughout the mohalla.

Like many other people, my mother along with her husband and four children abandoned their home overnight and migrated to the newly created state. She was only able to pack a few things but she remembered to pick her surmedaani. Soon after migration, her husband passed away and in September 1948, she married my father. Their marriage was a quiet affair in since it took place on the same day as Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s death. She recalls a rather muted celebrated with people whispering, ‘Ziada shor mat karo, Jinnah ka janaza jaraha hay, we mustn’t make too much noise, his funeral procession is taking place.’

She hailed from Dehli and till her last, remembered her address in the neighbourhood of Saddar Bazar, which I travelled to India to visit in 1992. Ever since her youth, she remained a prim and proper lady who habitually oiled her hair, made a tight braid and regularly applied surma on her eyes. After many years of my parent’s marriage, I was born in 1969. All my siblings were much older and my mother had become quite sick as well. Therefore, I grew up under the care of a lovely neighbour, who I fondly called ‘Mummy’.

L-R Mummy, Jawed Kamal in the arms of his eldest brother, Kausar and their mother.
L-R Mummy, Jawed Kamal in the arms of his eldest brother, Kausar and their mother.

As an adult, I often visited my mother on the weekends and every time she saw me without surma, she applied it immediately and always in a typical and familiar manner. She first cleaned the lid, and dipped it into the surma and applied it on one eye, then she repeated the process while applying it to the other eye. When my daughter was born in 1995 and my mother held her for the first time, she immediately asked me to pass her the surmedaani and applied it to her eyes as well. With this she said ‘Every child of this family has worn this surma’ and gesturing to my sister, Kausar, she continued, ‘Kausar’s eyes so big and beautiful only because of this!’ She strongly believed this is was best remedy for beautifying one’s eyes since its ingredients help make it bigger and enhance the shape.

In 2002, my mother left us, but this surmedaani she loved so much has remained one of her strongest memories. I still have it with me in its best condition. And while I sit here narrating the story of my mother’s prized possession, I ask these questions to myself- Have I managed to explain the personal and cultural connection of this surmedaani to my children? Will they be able to understand its emotional value and will they be able to keep it as close to their hearts as I did or…like every old legacy this too will fade away?

Shamim Begum's surmedaani
Shamim Begum’s surmedaani

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  1. I can imagine the significance this surmedaani would have for the daughter. A piece of family and personal history. A beautiful account of material memory.

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