Canadian writer and poet Sikeena Karmali makes a foray into the world of historical fiction by means of her new novel, The Mulberry Courtesan, which centres on the life of one of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s concubines. It takes place just some years prior to the defeat of the Indian ‘mutiny’ and the consequent establishment of the British Raj. At just under 300 pages, the book is remarkably well-paced and plotted out, and those seeking palatable and engaging historical fiction related to the subcontinent can do worse than curl up with this novel.
Laale, whose name connotes a “blood-red ruby”, hails from an affluent Afghan family of Badakhshan blood. Early in the novel, while resting on a charpoy in her family’s fragrant garden, she is kidnapped by a lecherous sepoy who rides off with her into the treacherous terrain of the Hindu Kush. In ‘Lochinvar’ style, her family gives chase, but the situation is hopeless — she is lost to them forever. Feisty and enterprising, however, she disposes of her attacker and though this move does not buy her freedom, it does enhance the plot somewhat as she is subsequently sold into slavery. An Englishman and a Nawab bet heavily for her since she is nothing if not wildly alluring. On winning her, the Nawab decides to curry the Mughal emperor’s favour by presenting her personally to Bahadur Shah Zafar at his court in Delhi.
Although possessing well over a dozen sons and numerous wives and concubines, Zafar finds himself attracted both intellectually as well as physically to the charming Laale. Almost providentially, she is equally smitten by him, especially since he accords her a measure of respect and consideration not often bestowed on to courtesans by any courtier, let alone an emperor. Part of her training involves lessons in poetry from the great Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib himself, and Zafar ensures that Laale benefits from his own personal spirituality. In fact, the first time that she and the emperor meet, he is in the guise of an enlightened pir, not a sovereign. The entire relationship is conducted on very courtly lines and it is testament to Karmali’s skill as a writer that the portrayal comes across as neither trite nor forced. Even the most jaded and cynical of readers will be touched by the delicacy with which both lover and beloved approach matters.
A new novel about Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court and one of his concubines goes further than most popular historical fiction in terms of both character development and atmosphere
Zafar has often been depicted as a weak — though well-meaning — ruler, entirely at the mercy of the internecine political machinations between his court and the British. Certainly, Karmali aptly underscores the unhealthy rivalry between his two formidable chief queens, Taj Mahal and Zinat Mahal. While Zinat dismisses Laale as of no consequence — in spite of the latter’s undeniable beauty and dancing prowess — Taj is shrewd enough to cultivate the courtesan as a valuable ally. This proves to be a smart move, since Laale rises rapidly in influence, becoming Zafar’s preferred, official favourite. As the love story progresses, so too do Indian politics, with the situation deteriorating rapidly in the wake of the pig-cartridge scandal that led many Muslims and Hindus alike to revolt against the British.
But, according to Karmali’s stance, Zafar was not so much weak as an inevitable victim of circumstance. In a touching plot twist that, although somewhat far-fetched, retains a measure of genuine sweetness, Laale and a trusted coachman, Sulaiman, intercept several letters from the royal household that bring to light the manner in which key members of Zafar’s household are liaising with the British for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. Zafar realises that not only does Laale love him, she is also one of the very few people around him whom he can trust completely. In a move that, ironically, is less far-fetched than the abovementioned plot twist, he decides to marry her in secret. Although the novel then descends into the realm of unmitigated romance, in aggregate this will not be displeasing to most readers because Karmali handles this shift with a definitive level of grace.
Most popular historical fiction ranks as one step above a beach-read. Karmali’s work goes further than that in terms of both character development and atmosphere. Her writing is delicately sensual without being cloying, and her main characters come across as empathetic and likeable. While readers will find that she paints her British villains in an unapologetically heinous light, perhaps she can be forgiven for this, given how traumatic both the stimuli as well as consequences of the ‘mutiny’ were for oppressed Indians across the country. Those seeking a detailed fictional portrait of the emperor will not be disappointed, for he emerges as a refined, talented, gentle and reflective individual — far stronger in moral and psychological terms than British propaganda has given him credit for being. It is easy to see why — in spite of the fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather — Laale loves him with an ardent passion that comes across as strong and sincere. When he proposes, she recognises the gesture primarily as a “moment of grace.”
Most popular historical fiction ranks as one step above a beach-read. Karmali’s work goes further than that in terms of both character development and atmosphere. Her writing is delicately sensual without being cloying, and her main characters come across as empathetic and likeable.
But perhaps it is the character of Laale herself who will resonate most markedly with the book’s audience. Graceful and accomplished, she possesses a circumspect sense of bravery and self-preservation that is nothing short of admirable. In a court headed by one of the most notable of royal literary figures, she thrives and blooms until one marvels at the multiple layers of textual dimensionality her persona acquires over the matter of just a couple of hundred pages. Whether learning from the maestro Ghalib, taking care of the emperor’s emotional and physical needs, or engaging in adventures while in a variety of disguises, at her core she remains an indomitable spirit and one who truly deserves the sobriquet of ‘heroine’.
Karmali also does a fine job of bringing to life locations ranging from the Delhi Fort and Humayun’s tomb, to the shrine of the revered saint Nizamuddin Auliya. But perhaps the greatest compliment that one can grant her novel is the temperate manner in which everything falls harmoniously into place. Characters never overwhelm place, war never overwhelms love, politics never overwhelms art and, barring a slightly slow beginning, the pace of the novel never flags for an instant. Too often, historical fiction falls victim to its own overarching narrative agenda. We should be eminently grateful that Karmali assiduously avoids that trap while weaving this sparkling and magical tale.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
The Mulberry Courtesan
By Sikeena Karmali
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 2nd, 2019