FICTION: EMPIRE’S LAST SONGS

January 20, 2019

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There were times when the Durrani Empire extended far and wide, covering not only present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also some parts of north-eastern Iran, eastern Turkmenistan and north-western India, including the Kashmir region. The Durrani Empire is regarded as the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan with Ahmad Shah Durrani as father of the nation.

With the passage of time, though, the empire lost power and the family scattered. After losing their throne, the Popalzai arm of the Durrani family came to settle in Munda Beri, the oldest part of Peshawar, living with the memories and traditions of their glory days. This part of the Durrani family is the subject of Najma Yusufi’s debut novel The Begums of Peshawar.

While lives in traditional families extant in patriarchal societies revolve around men, the story of The Begums of Peshawar revolves around the four Durrani daughters: the dutiful Bibigul who patiently waits for her husband to call her to London and bears all his abuse quietly; the vain and clever Maagul who wants to have a house of her own where her friends can visit her; the knowledge-hungry Chan who is berated for searching for books in her in-laws’ home and hasn’t abandoned her dreams of going to university; and lastly the shy and overshadowed Firasat, who is made fun of by her sisters because of her dark complexion and suffers at the hands of her husband, but finally finds things changing when her son stands up to his father in support of his wife.

A debut novel traces the lives of four pampered Afghan sisters over four decades as well as that of a rebellious maid who tends to them

The story takes off in the “big house”, as the ancestral home of the Durranis is called. The Durrani daughters have been brought up well, taught to read and write English and have been to school — though none except for Chan is studious. They know how to

“put on make-up and carry off beautiful clothes”, but have not been trained in domestic chores as there are maids to do their bidding and pamper them. After their marriages, their husbands hold them in contempt for being “princesses, untrained for real work”, while the sisters believe their mother is to be blamed for the sorry state of their relationships with their husbands as she failed to train them adequately for married life and did not teach them how to go about tackling household chores.

Spanning over four decades, the story moves from Peshawar to Lahore to Karachi and London as the sisters follow their husbands to distant lands. The four women undergo trials and tribulations in their married life and face difficulties in settling down in the unfamiliar environments of their husbands’ households. We see a glimpse of this when Bibigul is in London and her husband refuses to take her to the doctor. She must go alone with only her young daughter as companion and support: “Bibigul tried to brush away all comparisons to her former life as a Durrani daughter. She couldn’t help but notice how different the system here was than in Munda Beri. They hadn’t even needed to go to the doctors’ chambers; all the doctors had come on house calls and the girls had seen them from behind gossamer curtains.”

Running parallel to the stories of the four sisters is the tale of their maid, the brave and rebellious Bano. Ever since she can remember, Bano had been told by her mother that it is her “kismat” to serve the begums of the Durrani household: “I don’t want to hear talk about my daughter failing to carry on the work of her forefathers. We have always eaten the salt of the Durranis, your grandmother, her mother and I. We are indebted to them.” Although Bano questions this set-up in her mind, she forces herself into silence. However, when she feels her life is in danger she breaks the shackles of imposed tradition and revolts against her “kismat” to save herself.

While the conservative thinking of the family is present throughout the book, it is not starkly evident and in-your-face. Rather, it is expressed in the undertones. From time to time the reader is reminded of the fact that the Durranis are a traditional family and women have to adhere to the set norms. For instance, Maagul is upset at her husband for selling her property without her knowledge and is filled with rage, “But since she had been taught to endure silently, she maintained a calm façade while seething inwardly. A Pathan woman has to exercise self-control and not allow herself to erupt, however serious the provocation.”

Or when Chan expresses her wish to pursue her dreams, her mother-in-law berates her: “Have you lost your mind? First you spend all day looking for books we don’t have and now you want to study. Have you forgotten that you are with child? What you need to do is sit at home and pray for a son and the wellbeing of your marriage. After giving birth it is customary for the mother to stay at home and not step out for 40 days. You must remember that you are a mother first and your duty is to your child. You have to be with the child at all times. You cannot just go anywhere you please.”

Yusufi, a filmmaker and lecturer, is a descendant of the Durranis on the maternal side. She is, in fact, the daughter of Afsar Bibigul Durrani, one of the protagonists of the book. From this it becomes apparent that, while the book is a work of fiction, the writer has drawn heavily from the lives of her mother and aunts and from her discussions with them. This also enables her to vividly describe the Durranis’ way of life, their traditions, weddings and other rituals, along with the life and thinking of the servants who are also an important part of the story. Completing the story of the restrictions imposed on upper-class women and lower-class servants are the liberties enjoyed by the men, with glimpses into their activities in the baithak [men’s lounge] where dancing girls perform at night.

The reviewer is a member of staff

The Begums of Peshawar
By Najma Yusufi
Hachette, India
ISBN: 978-9351952190
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 20th, 2019