April issue 2013
Woman of Steel
In the chronicles of empire and kingdoms, rulers and queens, love and passion often influence events to change the course of history. French author Kenize Mourad’s latest French novel La Ville d’Or et d’Argent, recently translated into English, In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal is a historical novel laced with complexities of the heart in late nineteenth century Lucknow, at the waning court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last monarch of Awadh. It details the historic collapse of the Kingdom of Awadh and the palace’s interactions with the ruling Empire during the uprising of 1857. The book is a journey into the world of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the heroine of this narrative, who was the fourth wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah from his harem of many and who led a fierce insurrection against the British in 1857. The story gives credence to this lady leader rarely written about in contemporary historical narratives, who, says Mourad, “was like a dazzling meteor in Indian history.”
Though, born and brought up in France, Mourad’s connections with Lucknow are through her father, the Rajah of Kotwara, a scion of one of the many noble families in the U.P. Her mother Selma was the granddaughter of the Ottoman, Sultan Mourad V, but Kenize Mourad (her pen name is inspired by her Ottoman lineage) was unaware of her parentage until her late teens — she was given up for adoption after her birth and was brought up by a Swiss family and later Catholic nuns and, till today, lives and works in Paris. Her first novel in French, Le Jardin De Badalpur, is autobiographical and details her discovery of her Indian parentage and her second widely-acclaimed novel Regards from a Dead Princess: Novel of a Life, translated from the French, is the story of Princess Selma’s dramatic life, which includes her marriage in India and her subsequent separation and departure for Paris.
Lucknow in the late nineteenth century, the capital of Awadh and now modern-day U.P — which Mourad reiterates was the centre of the “gold and silver or Ganga-Yamuna civilisation” — symbolised a highly-refined culture. It was the centre of sophisticated manners, where music, poetry and dance took root and flourished, where the Urdu language achieved a rare degree of perfection, where fine crafts, embroidery, jewellery, enamel work and perfumes were created and where Islamic scholarship co-existed with a composite culture inspired by multiple faiths during the reigns of the several Nawabs of Awadh — from Shuja ud Daula to Asaf ud Daula and finally, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
“It is through knowledge of one another’s culture that communities learn to appreciate and respect each other,” says the reigning monarch, Wajid Ali Shah, in Mourad’s novel. Simultaneously, by 1856 the East India Company had gained direct or indirect control of all ruling states in India, including this monarch’s silent acquiescence, but Lucknow retained its sovereign status as a buffer state for the British.
In her novel, Mourad takes us behind the scenes to Kaisarbagh, the vast complex of palaces built around an immense park for Lucknow’s ruling family, to its culture and refinement, to palace intrigues and harem politics, to the vast cultural ambit within which Wajid Ali Shah flourished as poet and sovereign. The story begins with the education of young Mohammadi as a courtesan, a parallel culture to the royal decadence of Lucknow’s heyday. Mohammadi enters the royal court to entice and entertain and is soon upgraded to becoming the monarch’s fourth wife, now known as Hazrat Mahal, after the birth of her son, Birjis Qadar. Mourad follows her journey from beautiful wife to gallant war leader — it’s a racy read but the historical information far exceeds that of an ordinary period novel and the flow of the story gets interrupted with detailed information. A fantastic amount of research has gone into the book, but probably since the book has been written primarily for a French audience, the author does not take for granted that they are familiar with the history of the subcontinent.
Although India’s history, especially that of the Muslim ruling elite, is filled with strong women leaders — Razia Sultana in the mid-thirteenth century, Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s wife, in the seventeenth century and in more recent times the Begums of Bhopal, Qudsia Begum and Sikander Begum — women were still considered unfit to run state affairs. Hazrat Mahal entered the political fray after King Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Calcutta in 1856 and in the wake of the British assault on Delhi in 1857 and the subsequent rebellion. Propelling the position of her 11-year-old son Birjis Qadar as ruling monarch, Hazrat Mahal was Regent till her son’s coming of age. She steered the liberation movement against the British in Lucknow, demanded the reinstatement of her husband to the throne of Awadh, welcomed the princes of other states to collaborate with her and fortified Lucknow against British assault with the help of sepoy regiments and taluqdars’ troops. She gave up her jewellery and convinced the Begums of Kaisarbagh to do the same so that they could add the kitty to the war chest.
Mourad’s novel is an enjoyable read about the goings-on inside palace walls, with Hazrat Mahal as the befitting heroine, during a seminal watershed in the subcontinent’s history. The novel displays fidelity to historical fact, except in one instance — Hazrat Mahal’s illicit love-affair with the King’s army chief, Rajah Jai Lal Singh. The relationship described in the book is straight out of a heady romance novel, adding to the titillating read.
Read this book if you want to know how an intelligent and compassionate woman stood up to the destructive forces of the empire, more than a hundred years ago. Fiction is not stranger than fact.
The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline