The story of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy’s life is remarkable in its own trajectory. Likewise the rest of the Suhrawardy clan is also distinguished by lives well lived in the public eye. In the same vein, the story of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy’s second wife, Vera Tiscenko, or Noor Jehan Begum, is even more remarkable. It is not a well known story though.
Vera was born at the turn of the 19th century. The fact of being born at the turn of the century, when the old was refusing to die and the new was struggling to be born in the famous words of Italian political theorist Gramsci, situated her life’s poignant trajectory in the wider context of key historical events of the 19th century: the Russian revolution of the 1905s and 1917s, Spanish civil war of the 1930s and the partition of India and Pakistan.
Each of these world historical events contributed to shaping a remarkable life marked by displacement, high drama and the waning decades of life devoted to furthering the cause of theatre. Vera Alexandrnova Tiscenko Calder was born in 1902 to Polish parents. From an early age she was taken up with the idea of pursuing a career in stage acting despite the opposition of her parents. A child prodigy at the Moscow Art Theatre, she caught the eye of Chekov’s wife, Olga Knipper, who took Vera under her wings, introducing her to giant theatrical talents of her age, Constantine Stanislavski. This introduction was to prove a lasting and enduring influence in her later life.
Powered by her passion for theatre, Vera grew, in time, into a powerful stage talent, touring European capital cities. During her one of the European theatre tours she met a Russian émigré, Eugene Tiscenko, in Berlin. The couple fell in love and were soon married in 1931 in Berlin. In the coming years the married couple lived in different European capitals. Yet the turbulence of Europe marked them deeply.
From Madrid, the couple moved to Rome when the spectre of the Spanish civil war began to take personal toll. In 1938, the couple was living in Rome with their son Oleg. It was the fateful decision of Eugene to pursue his medical career in Edinburgh in the UK that drove the wedge between the couple. Vera was left on her own, bringing up her only son, Oleg.
Partly fearful of the rising tide of fascism in Italy and partly because of her lonely situation, Vera decided to move to India at the invitation of her one-time English professor at the Moscow Art theatre, Hassan Shahid Suhrawardy, elder brother of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Vera, along with her son Oleg, moved to India some time in 1938. She spent more than a decade in India where she found herself at the very heart of the political drama unfolding which eventuated in the partition of India.
In Calcutta, where she pitched her tent, she fell into the wider Suhrawardy clan. In 1940, she converted to Islam where she is reported to have found solace after a life of turbulent-tossed years spent in different European capitals. In Calcutta, she set about raising her son with her savings. While at the task of raising her son, she fell in love with Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the rising star on the political firmament of Calcutta and the future prime minister of the newly created state of Pakistan.
Vera and Suhrawardy wanted to get married (Suhrawardy had been a widower since the death of his first wife in 1922). However, before the marital knot could be tied, the tricky issue of the dissolution of Vera’s first marriage to Tiscenko emerged as the stumbling block. Vera filed for dissolution of her first marriage on the grounds of confessional incompatibility when Eugene refused to convert to Islamic faith. The high court of Calcutta initially ruled in her favour. However, recognising the importance of the public interest of the case, where a Polish women, married in Germany, was seeking to end her marriage in an Indian court on the grounds of conversion to a different faith, the high court overturned its initial decision. Justice Syed Ameer Ali, the famous scholar and historian, sat on the review bench and contributed to the judgment of the Calcutta High Court.
The Vera Tiscenko’s case has become a landmark case in the Indian legal history. The case has been used where conversion to Islam by Hindus, Jewish and women of other faiths is at issue in matrimonial cases. While the case winded its way through the appeal process, Vera went ahead with marriage to Suhrawardy.
Vera, under her new Muslim name Noor Jehan Begum, played an active social and political role in Calcutta. According to Shamim Ahmad, the author of Seven Heavens, Noor Jehan was very instrumental in getting Suhrawardy in a pole position for the prime ministership of Bengal. She conducted the negotiation for the Bengal ministry with great skills on behalf of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Vera also comes across as a liberating influence on other women of the Suhrawardy’s family as attested to by Peter Smetacek in his memoirs of the courtship of his Czech father and one woman from the Suhrawardy clan.
Despite her full-throttle engagement in the high wire political life of Suhrawardy, the marriage was not a happy one. The couple finally divorced in 1951 in London. The only son, Rashid Suhrawardy, went onto become a famous British actor under the name of Robert Ashby.
After the dissolution of the second marriage, Vera began a new life in America under the name of Vera Vlosa, which is the name of a character played in a film based on Maxim Gorky’s novel the Mother. In America, she devoted herself to teaching Stanislavski’s method of acting to theatre students from around the Hollywood area. In 1983, she died of a stroke in Los Angles. Vera Suhrawardy, her married name survives, in the US social security records.