April issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 11 years ago

It was a pleasant evening in mid-February when I made my way to the Alliance Francaise Lahore to attend the launch of French-Turkish writer Kenize Mourad’s new novel In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal. Following her illuminating conversation at the Lahore Literature Festival just days earlier, I expected an equally stimulating session.

The novel is about the life and resistance of Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh. Of modest origins, she was chosen by Wajid Ali Shah as a courtesan, and later became a part of his harem. Mahal married Shah in the 1850s, when the British were annexing state after state in India.

According to Mourad, Awadh was annexed in the same way as Iraq was occupied by the United States. Hazrat Mahal went on to become the real leader of Awadh,with her son being crowned king. She had hardly emerged from the zenana, but showed great leadership skills during the resistance. Her struggles kept the British at bay for five months. Unfortunately, her army was massacred and she took refuge in Nepal, where she died at the age of 48. But the pertinent question Mourad asked that evening was: Why has Hazrat Mahal been forgotten? The Rani of Jhansi is much better known although she fought for only five months and died on the field. Mourad discovered during her recent trip to India that no one knew about Mahal.

She felt that it was unfair that such a great woman as Mahal had been forgotten. She found nothing on Mahal in the archives at Cambridge, Oxford, London or even in Delhi. In Lucknow, she found something about the warrior queen thanks to the fact that in 1957 the Uttar Pradesh government had issued six huge volumes of the entire communication exchanged among the British regarding the 1857 Rebellion and it was among those papers that Mourad found a lot of material for her novel. From the novel, what emerges is that Mahal had a hard time imposing herself on a predominantly male army but she succeeded. Interestingly, the Quran was invoked against her by narrow-minded clerics but she saw through such attempts. Mourad also shows the conviviality of Lucknow city as opposed to mere tolerance. She further reveals that Wajid Ali Shah used to dance like the Hindu god Krishna and the Hindus accepted him as such. These were the hallmarks of a syncretic ‘Ganga-Jamni culture’ or a gold-silver culture which gives the novel its title, rather than any allusion to the riches of the city. For about 100 years Lucknow was the greatest cultural centre in architecture, cuisine, music and poetry. The book is a tribute to the city. Mourad remarked during the launch that a big exhibition on Lucknow was recently held in Paris; it had traveled all the way from Los Angeles. Mourad imagined a romance between Hazrat Mahal and her leading general, Raja Jai Lal Singh, whom she met daily to discuss the resistance. According to Mourad, this is the only real liberty she took with historical facts in her book. Towards the end of her talk, Mourad wondered aloud whether she should have also looked in Pakistan for material on Hazrat Mahal.

I later caught up with her for a short interview about her novel:

How would you define Hazrat Mahal’s importance in the context of the 1857 rebellion?

Hazrat Mahal was the supreme leader in Lucknow, which was the main centre of the rebellion. She stood up against the British for nine months and collaborated with other rebels like Tantya Tope and Nana Sahi. She was also at the centre of the rebels’ consultation and, according to the British, the “soul of the revolt.”

What is Hazrat Mahal’s legacy in post-colonial India and Pakistan?

In Pakistan, you still have strong women like Asma Jehangir, and of course Malala Yousafzai. There are very strong women in India as well. To rise to such importance as Hazrat Mahal did, there must be special historical circumstances like war, revolution, etc. It’s a conjunction of history and strong circumstances. Difficult times require leadership, to do special things.

Can you not be accused of being selective, singling out a Shia Muslim queen for your book?

Not at all. The Rani of Jhansi had thousands of books written about her. I didn’t choose Hazrat Mahal because she is Muslim or from Lucknow. I would have written about her even if she had been a forgotten Hindu heroine. The character of Hazrat Mahal is an antidote to the ideal of submissive and obedient Muslim women. Western ideas about Muslim women are wrong.

To what extent was Hazrat Mahal a ‘Muslim’?

I don’t know. She came out of the purdah and she was a pious woman. She refused to use the pork and cow fat cartridges introduced by the British, and was intelligent enough to know that Islam doesn’t require women to sit at home; they can also fight against any injustice. It had nothing to do with religion, even when the British tried to make it into a religious war.

What about the issues of class?

Hazrat Mahal was remarkable because when most people from humble origins become rich, they curse the poor. She never forgot her modest origins, and made a lot of enemies among the other wives of the king because she made them give up their jewels to pay for Awadh’s fortifications.

And what if Hazrat Mahal’s resistance had not been defeated?

If she had not been defeated, the whole revolt would have been successfull. There were a lot of betrayals from the taluqdars. She fought the traitors. Had the rajas and the talukdars, especially in Bhopal and Hyderabad, not betrayed her and had central India also risen in rebellion, the British would have been thrown out.

The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.