The Begum and the Dastan
By Tarana Husain Khan
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729622
280pp.

Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s close to reality. This is why stories of the princely courts and harems of Subcontinental nawabs are still followed with rapt attention, because they open a window to a universe that — modern lifestyles notwithstanding — is not alien, at least to us.

One such story is told by Tarana Husain Khan in her novel The Begum and the Dastan. Khan is a cultural historian and writes on the oral history, culture and cuisine of India’s former princely state of Rampur, where she currently resides. She also hosts a website on Rampur and its cultural past.

Rampur is the inspiration for Khan’s fictional state of Sherpur, and there we meet the young rebel Feroza, who is named after the Arabic word for ‘turquoise’ on account of her vibrant blue eyes.

In 1897, Shams Ali Khan, the nawab of Sherpur, is holding the annual sawani [monsoon] celebrations and Feroza insists on attending. This is unheard of because, according to the diktat of the times, Pakhtun ladies kept away from the royal court.

A cultural historian spins a yarn about a fictional state and its women that is full of captivating social and historical details as well as a commentary on deeply male-centric Subcontinental society

The nawab sees the young woman and covets her. He strong-arms Feroza’s husband into divorcing her and then forcibly marries her. As per standard practice, the victim is blamed for letting all this happen. Meanwhile, to save himself from humiliation and disgrace, her father severs all ties with her and leaves town.

Feroza is understandably distraught at this. Until the nawab showed up, she was a beloved daughter. Now, the anguished young woman is not even allowed to come to her father’s deathbed.

The severance of ties has a lasting effect, and the only way Feroza can find solace is in talking to her own young daughter. This verbal transfer of personal history, from mother to daughter, is the novel’s key theme, replicated in the other two threads.

Effectively abandoned by her own father as well as the father of her unborn child, Feroza must now call upon her sharp mind and fighting spirit to negotiate the glamorous yet unpleasant life in a harem, as well as deal with the nawab’s unpredictable temperament.

Nawab Shams Ali Khan, meanwhile, has his own intrigues to deal with. Like many princely rulers of the time, he must maintain a careful relationship with the British in order to ensure a long reign for himself.

At the same time, he must keep in mind the moods of the region’s ‘Pathan’ sardars, whose support is crucial to ensure the longevity of his rule. In return, the sardars take care not to displease the nawab, so that they may stay on the right side of power. Perhaps this mutual scratching of backs is why Feroza’s kidnapping does not lead to any major upheavals in Sherpur.

As Feroza figures out survival in the harem, the novelist takes us to Sherpur’s bazaar, where Mirza Ameeruddin aka Kallan Mirza is spinning a tale about women confined to basements deep under the ground for their protection. Otherwise, the despotic sorcerer Tareek Jan and his minions will carry them away to Tareek Jan’s harem, called Parda-i-Zulmat.

The third thread of The Begum and the Dastan takes us to the year 2016, where young Ameera’s Daadi [paternal grandmother] is narrating the story of Feroza. Like her great-great-grandmother, Ameera is fighting the same patriarchal rules that governed Feroza — despite the hundred-plus years separating the two women, nothing has changed in Sherpur.

In time-honoured unfair traditions, Ameera’s brother Jugnu is the apple of their mother’s eye. He receives preferential treatment and is given everything he wants, but there is no money in the family coffers to pay Ameera’s school fees. Jugnu goes to a co-educational school, but Ameera cannot because she is a girl and the family can’t allow her to associate with boys.

Ameera is compelled to ask herself if anything has changed for Sherpur’s women. Unable to find the money to pay her fees, the bright young girl is confined to her home, her only source of comfort the stories her daadi tells her.

Khan does a beautiful job of presenting the deeply male-centric society of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Readers in our part of the world will identify with many things, such as grown women having to seek their husbands’ permission to go anywhere, or not being allowed to even say their husband’s name; when Feroza does so, her mother warns, “Don’t take the name of your husband. It will reduce his life!” A few of us may have heard this superstition even in the present day.

The women of Feroza’s era are expected to maintain the family honour and remain subservient to the men’s whims. The men, meanwhile, have zero concern for the women’s wishes or emotions. Unfortunately, the case is much the same in Ameera’s era too.

“We females always depend on our fathers or males to rescue us — our default response to our crisis,” Ameera thinks, but this thought merely serves as a reminder that, even when a woman depends on a man to rescue her, this does not guarantee that the man will, in fact, actually rescue her. Feroza had believed her father or husband would rescue her, but neither showed up in her actual hour of need.

There is also a wealth of insights into the lifestyles of the princely families, such as when Daadi explains to Ameera how “cloth merchants would come bearing swathes of silk, jamdanis and malmals before every occasion, for it was inconceivable that the ladies walk in the bazaars.”

The Shia-Sunni divide is given considerable space. Although initially the references seem unnecessary, as the story progresses, the element of sectarianism does affect the actions of some characters.

The tension between the Shia rulers and the Sunni subjects is palpable. Despite differing beliefs, everyone at the court is expected to participate in the Muharram rituals and the majaalis [gatherings] held at the zenana [ladies’ quarters].

Feroza insists on a Sunni nikaah and is adamant that her children be brought up according to Sunni teachings. She protests against her daughter being raised by the Nawab’s elder wife, who is Shia.

The daastaangoh deserves special mention. Kallan Mirza is no ordinary storyteller. His father had been a daastaangoh at the court of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and, despite his obsessive indulgence in opium, Kallan narrates masterpieces that can captivate anyone — indeed, his audience “came from all classes, loved his passionate romancing, his tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat oblique irony.”

Storytelling was a popular form of entertainment in the days when Feroza’s narrative arc is set, and the skilled tellers of tales had mastered the art of the cliffhanger, ‘ending’ the story at a critical, most exciting juncture that would compel listeners to return for the next session.

The stories also often presented the realities of the times, but in a cloaked manner. Kallan knows this well, for although his story is populated by jinns, fairies and otherworldly beings, it echoes the very real worlds of Feroza and the other begums, trapped in the Nawab’s harem. The women’s reality is not too far from the daastaangoh’s fiction.

One oddity of the book is the detailed captions of photographs that are not there. Although a work of fiction, the plot is inspired by real life and so the inclusion of vintage photographs is a nice touch in bringing readers closer to the novel’s world. But the actual photos are missing.

It may have something to do with the fact that Khan’s novel was initially published in India and there may be reasons why the pictures could not be included in the Pakistan-published version.

Whatever the case may have been, it would have been a good idea for the Pakistani publishers to have taken care, and if they could not have carried the photos in their edition, to have taken out the captions altogether.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 10th, 2022

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