The British royal family made headlines last month once again, and the interest its internal affairs have generated has exceeded its own standards. The reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has once again pointed to the fact that the Windsors are, perhaps, perceived more as celebrities instead of a ruling clique.
Pakistan was not immune to this interest either. To me, this continued interest in a former colony is a curious thing. The Urdu novelist Abdullah Hussain, writing almost 60 years ago, posited an interesting theory as to how people in colonies develop attitudes towards the royal family.
Hussain’s Udaas Naslein, one of Urdu’s most celebrated books, ponders over the theme of how different people in our part of the world think about the royal family. Published in 1963, the novel opens in Colonial India of the 20th century and ends just after Partition. However, the Indian struggle for independence only forms the backdrop against which the relationships between characters play out. Hussain spread out his characters across class divides in a way that gives the reader multiple perspectives on what Indians thought about the British in India, even if they were often on the same side politically.
The novel’s main character is a farmer’s son named Naeem, who falls in love with, and eventually marries, Azra, the daughter of the feudal lord of his village. Naeem had gone to war for the colonial government, losing an arm to gain a cross from the queen for valour in battle. But the experience of the war set him firmly on the path of opposition to the British. As a member of the Congress, he had a clear idea of the direction India must take and his role in it.
Azra, on the other hand, was born and raised in her father’s haveli, called Roshan Mahal, in Delhi. People like Annie Besant and the British Commissioner in Delhi were regular dinnertime guests. Her father lived off a fortune gained by proximity to the British and her brother was a part of the civil service. Independence or no independence, the family was always assured of its fortunes.
In order to get married, Azra and Naeem both decided to forego their own class pride. For a large part of the story, they do this successfully. Naeem agrees to live in a house gifted by the Agha, and Azra agrees to let go of the bright city life, to settle in the village. The only uneven transaction is that Naeem continues to be an active part of the politics against the British and Azra adopts the cause wholeheartedly as her own.
Writing almost 60 years ago, Urdu novelist Abdullah Hussain explored an interesting theory about how people in colonies develop attitudes towards the British royal family
The husband and wife never have to adopt a particular class’s attributes in their life together. They seem to exist in a detached plane of their own, their differences erased and pasts forgotten.
However, how different they really are at heart becomes apparent in a single event: the visit of the Prince of Wales to India. Despite the life they’ve built together, this incident reveals that their marriage is, in the end, an unholy union of rich and poor.
Hussain isn’t fond of mentioning exact years in the book, presumably to help him contract and expand time gaps at will. However, the actual event happened in 1921. Edward VIII, the heir-apparent to the British throne, visited India for four months on behalf of his father, the King, to thank the colonial subjects for sacrificing their lives and limbs in the First World War. The prince planned to appear in public at multiple places accompanied by an armed escort.
To Azra, the prince’s visit was an opportunity not just to see him up close but to possibly interact with him. And she has no doubt that her father’s place in society will afford her the opportunity to actually do this. A perplexed Naeem reminds her that, as a member of the Congress, he is supposed to be protesting, not enjoying the prince’s visit. In her reply, Azra simply fails to understand why the prince’s visit is being protested.
“But he’s a simple gentleman from the royal family, what does he have to do with politics?” she asks. Instead of making a long explanation of it, Naeem simply answers that he is bound to the party’s instructions.
As if suddenly realising the truth, Azra proposes to go to Calcutta to be part of a demonstration. This would keep the couple away from the eyes of her family.
To avoid being noticed by the authorities actively on the lookout for miscreants, the couple decide to discretely carry a page with a slogan on it in Azra’s sari and improvise a sign at the last minute. When the prince’s convoy appears, Naeem finally manages to wrench a signboard from a shop, only to find that Azra has lost her nerve in the decisive moment of action.
At the time they should have been raising the sign, she is too busy admiring the prince to do anything. It suddenly becomes clear that coming to the protest might not have been a political move at all; she just chose the only possible way to be where the prince was.
After the window for registering their protest closes and she realises what has happened, all Azra can manage is to let her head slump on Naeem’s shoulder. The couple look on helplessly as some Indians manage to raise signs with the slogans such as, “Tell your mother, we are hungry” and “Tell your mother, we are dry” in the prince’s face. Hussain also takes care to mention that the prince is extremely perturbed by the resistance he sees, thus emphasising the cost of the failure.
To be clear, Azra’s head is in the right place politically. A few years later, she energetically participates in a protest against the Simon Commission while Naeem is in prison, even though she catches a glimpse of her brother among the law enforcement, on the other side.
She is willing to upset her family and put her own physical safety in danger to be part of the resistance to colonial rule. But it is clear that she does not consider the royal family to be part of the enterprise that is oppressing India. Everyone who thinks the royals are a news item worth engaging with today might be hostage to the same mindset; they perceive the royal family as gentle folk with nothing to do with politics.
The fact that the royal family puts up a neat front for Britain’s more sinister ambitions is no secret. A 2015 paper, by a student of the University of Sydney, found that the addition of Kate Middleton and her children to the Royal Family had had a noticeable effect on decreasing Australians’ will to vote for a republic.
But Udaas Naslein’s exploration of the topic has a more detailed interiority. The case Hussain is making is not that some people choose to let the British crown’s glimmer dazzle them. What he actually tried to explain is that, despite the way we align ourselves, the decision on what we think of the royal family might already have been made for each of us. Sooner or later, our class-based inclinations will become apparent.
Although a small instance from a long book, this extract is a good example of why the book is well worth reading and worthy of its place in Urdu literature. Udaas Naslein is a unique story of India’s independence because it pauses to consider how differently the Partition affected everyone. It tells us how and why some of the most politically active people had to walk across India to Pakistan, on foot, while those who did not even fully appreciate the extent of India’s subjugation simply exchanged their haveli in Delhi for a haveli in Lahore.
Hussain has an amazing way of explaining that politics has uneven influences on people, and that is a lesson that we will all do better to understand.
The writer is a multimedia journalist based in Islamabad, with an interest in literature and human interest stories
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 11th, 2021