2 Chamba House: A Novel
By Shams Haider
The Little Book Company, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9692278089
302pp.

When reading 2 Chamba House, several words will immediately come to the reader’s mind as one is pulled into the riveting pages of Nawabzada Syed Shams Haider’s debut novel.

Some will use ‘gilded’, ‘exotic’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘romantic’ to describe the world inhabited by its characters. The more critical would use ‘decadent’, ‘debauched’ and ‘privileged’.

Admittedly, being born into an aristocratic family with obscene wealth, privileges and responsibilities is something the average person can only dream of, and few can relate to. Yet somehow, the author — who himself comes from a privileged background — manages to craft a beautiful story that draws readers into a world of lavish parties, forbidden love and luxurious lifestyles, yet still allows them to connect with unrelatable characters.

Set during the twilight decades of the British Raj in India, the novel follows the lives of three siblings — Nawab Hashmit Jahan, Nawab Asif Jahan and Noorun Nisa — born to the royal family of Rajghar. The siblings hobnob across various cities of British India, but their base remains Lahore and the family estate of 2 Chamba House.

A debut novel set just before Partition is a riveting read about luxurious lifestyles, lavish parties and forbidden romance, and can serve as the basis for a film about ambitious nawabs and useless sots

Reminiscent of the titular country estate in Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisted, and the plantation of Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, 2 Chamba House is symbolic of a period in time when its inhabitants lived carefree lives full of fun and laughter even as the world outside was changing and a political hurricane, unleashed by the torrent of historical events, rapidly approached.

The patriarch of this privileged family is Nawab Akbar Jahan, who appears to be Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Joseph Kennedy Sr. all rolled into one. A stern and distant man, he harbours great ambitions for his family. He is also a serial skirt-chaser and his three children have been borne by three different women.

Nawab Akbar has great dreams for his sons, especially Hashmit, but he displays nothing but disregard for his daughter Noor, which stems largely from the fact that Noor’s mother abandoned the nawab and eloped to Gibraltar with an Englishman.

Noor, to her credit, is probably the most intelligent of the three siblings. Well-read, opinionated and outspoken, she is vivacious, headstrong and a tremendous beauty. All these factors help to make James Harding — the newly appointed assistant commissioner to Rajghar District —completely smitten.

Dashing, intelligent and upright, Harding sees in Noor a kindred spirit who seeks freedom and adventure away from the confines imposed by a conformist society. They both scoff at societal norms and share a deep love of Persian and Urdu poetry and prose.

Reading about this forbidden love, one can’t help but think that the author got the idea of the mixed-race romance from the real-life love story of British diplomat James Kirkpatrick and Khairun Nissa Begum, memorably told in historian William Dalrymple’s 2004 book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th Century India.

A couplet from a poem by Akbar Allahabadi, which Noor recites to Harding, exemplifies the love between the two:

Allah bachaey marzi-i-ishq se dil ko
Suntay hain ke yeh aarza achcha nahin hota

[May God save the heart from the illness of love
It is rumored that this illness is fatal]

But this forbidden romance is not the real love story that the novel tells. That distinction belongs to the central character, Hashmit, and Zohra Handy, the daughter of a wealthy Parsi wine and liquor merchant.

Although Hashmit — or Hash, as he is known to close friends — is a playboy in the mould of Prince Aly Aga Khan, or Formula 1 racer James Hunt, or Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, or a certain former cricketer-turned-politician of Pakistan, and heir apparent to the family dynasty, he is also an almost Byronic figure.

Tragic and brooding, he wants to follow what the heart wants, but is duty bound by the expectations of his family. Among those expectations is that he should marry into a distinguished, aristocratic clan and this is entirely incompatible with his love for the Parsi Zohra Handy.

He must also be actively involved in politics and maintain strong connections with prominent figures of his era, including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehra and, particularly, one Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his cause for the Muslims of India.

Having so many responsibilities and burdens can put a lot of pressure on a man such as Hash. But despite his carefree approach towards life, he shows several examples of personal courage throughout the novel, including losing a leg after being mauled by a Bengal tiger during a hunt and fighting in World War I.

When his love for Zohra is dismissed, he finds temporary solace with the courtesan Nargis Bai, who eventually gains fame and fortune after becoming an actress. Still, even if Hashmit does find carnal pleasure with a courtesan here or a random woman there, his heart remains bound to Zohra in a love that will, alas, remain unfulfilled.

Novels such as 2 Chamba House remind one of all the films, stories and television shows set during the time of the British Raj, where a rose-tinted narrative about the few is told at the expense of the millions of souls denied opulent lives of wealth and privilege. Some examples one can think of are E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, or the Granada Television series The Jewel in the Crown, which was based on Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ novels.

In fact, Haider’s book would do very well as a period film in the spirit of Merchant-Ivory productions. Had the great Bengali filmmaker Satayajit Ray been alive, even he might have been tempted to have a go. He could have made 2 Chamba House into a film similar to Jalsaghar [The Music Room] or Shatranj Ke Khilarri [The Chess Players], featuring as they do plenty of feudal nawabs and useless sots.

Haider’s novel is an easy pleasure to read, but its big drawback is that, although it has all the ingredients for an epic in its scope and the gilded world it highlights, it somehow doesn’t quite make the cut. One wishes the story could have run for a couple hundred pages more to reach that level.

The reviewer is a writer and journalist interested in history, politics, music, literature and cinema. He tweets @razmat

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2022

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