In Tarana Husain Khan's new novel, a haunting story of a Begum trapped in a Nawab's harem
With Feroza Begum, Khan seeks to examine how women thrust into this life of purdah, filled as much with glamour as with subversion, found the will to love and rebel, and sharply questions how far we have stepped out of similar oppressive structures in the present context.
"The Begum and the Dastan is my first historical fiction and by its very nature, straddles two divergent aspects – history and fiction. The challenge for the writer is to create something which is rooted in historical milieu but cannot be strictly classified as history," says cultural historian and author Tarana Husain Khan about the process of writing her latest novel that tells the story of Feroza Begum (name changed), one of the wives of Nawab Shams Ali Khan of Sherpur.
Through the book, she weaves a grim and heartbreaking narrative of the 19th century noblewoman who is torn away from her husband and family and is kidnapped and forced into marrying the Nawab of Sherpur. In the present day, Feroza Begum's great granddaughter listens to her grandmother narrate this dastan as 'a cautionary tale' about the recklessness of women. The author pulls the reader into a haunting prose that oscillates between fiction and history, fantasy and reality, as she dives into the complex web of the Nawab's harem at Benazir Palace and the darkness that shrouded the lives of women caught in the zenana.
With Feroza Begum, Khan seeks to examine how women thrust into this life of purdah, filled as much with glamour as with subversion, found the will to love and rebel, and sharply questions how far we have stepped out of similar oppressive structures in the present context. From the 19th century she borrows the exquisiteness of court life and from the contemporary age, the policies of modern governance to comment on the patriarchy that underscores the ever changing veneers of prosperity and nationhood.
Amidst it all, Kallan Mirza, her dastango – one who practices the Urdu art of dastangoi or storytelling – emerges as a powerful figure whose opium-induced fantastical tales of a despotic sorcerer in the illusory city of Tilism-e-Azam become a stirring account of the oppression and debauchery in a sinking paradise.
In an interview with Firstpost, Khan shares her insights on how the character of Kallan Mirza came to life, the intersections of the past and the present in her novel and why Feroza Begum's story has intrigued her for the longest time.
You were introduced to Feroza Begum through an ‘aap beeti jag beeti’ story that you heard as a child. Could you describe why she has been such a figure of intrigue in your life?
Feroza Begum’s tale was different to the usual harem stories because everybody said that she didn’t lose her spirit, her dignity and was somehow able to wreak revenge on her captor. Moreover, Feroza’s relationship with the Nawab was complicated and intriguing. I believe it was love and hate in a very primordial form. She was fearless, a woman who never held back her feelings; they said she was the only woman in the harem who would curse and shout at the Nawab and he would listen in silence. She wanted an equal relationship and demanded respect because she felt she and other women deserved to be treated better. Another aspect was her abandonment by her family – justified by the elders – which made me feel desolate as a young person. I would turn the story inwards and think would my parents leave me if I did something wrong or got involved in an inappropriate relationship. I felt vulnerable and poised on an edge. So, in a sense Ameera’s involvement with the story narrated by her grandmother reflects my feelings.
You have mentioned that there was a lot of research involved in piecing this narrative together. Where did your research begin and how did you sift through all the material you had collected to weave the pertinent bits into your historical fiction?
I researched and wrote this book over four years. A large part of the research was not directly related to the book but began as a study of cultural moorings of Rampur princely state. This etched the backdrop of my story. For instance, when I was researching the culinary history of Rampur, I wanted to know what was the food line to the harem women. Did they eat what Nawab ate? Where were the women buried? Thus, each aspect made me delve deeper. I met old timers, read written histories and sifted through the archives at Allahabad and Delhi.
I think the toughest element was decoding oral history. One had to understand the subtext, the truths and half-truths; each fragment had to be examined and reflected upon.
The narrative of the novel oscillates between Sherpur’s history and its present. How does this literary structure enable you to draw parallels between the patriarchal systems of the past and the social structures of the present?
There is an uneasy negotiation between the past and the present in The Begum and the Dastan which I want my readers to respond to. The story of Ameera, the great granddaughter of Feroza, as a counterpoint to Feroza’s tale has at its heart the question – has anything changed for the women of small town India? Ameera was drawn out of my personal experiences as a secondary school teacher in Rampur where I saw my young students, particularly girl students, struggling with issues beyond their power. Some of them could vocalise their powerlessness and anger against patriarchy in various forms while others just accepted it as normal. There were students whose fees wasn’t paid because it was the last priority, they were not allowed to take up college admissions outside Rampur, they were asked to curtail their aspirations in several overt and covert ways and stay quiet when they were harassed or sexually abused. All these events affected me deeply and Ameera was born out of my hopelessness.
Why does it become crucial to look at our provincial histories, not as rural idylls with glorious pasts, but as spaces of despotism and subversion that have continued to shape socio-political identities?
I’m glad you asked this question. In The Begum and the Dastan the town is itself a character in a constant state of destruction and reincarnation as each despot, real and mythical, reinvents the city in his own reflection, wiping out the vestiges of his predecessor.
A young Nawab Shams creates a Model State of Sherpur under the benign eye of the British Raj; in the dastan, Tareek Jan, the fictional King of Samris (magicians) fashions the Tilism e Azam, a magical illusion of a city, and in modern times the Leader shapes a city on the ruins of the princely state. Against this backdrop, the women negotiate the rigid confines of patriarchy and social norms to confront their own realities with courage.
Thus, the town is not a glorified idyll with grand Raj-era memories but a reflection of despotism and patriarchy which hides the savagery meted out to the women. Now the glamour and dazzle of princely past has crumbled but the political leaders call out for Smart Cities rather than Smart men and women who can live fulfilling lives. Once again, the garb of ‘Smart’ will mask the stench of destroyed lives.
How did the character of Kallan Mirza came to life? The dastango spins a tale which fosters our understanding of the feudal system in Sherpur. How does storytelling then act as a powerful medium for providing insight into cultural history, even as it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality?
I had written Feroza’s story first. Around that time, I was also researching on the dastan genre and dastangos (storytellers) of Rampur. Raza Library has several manuscripts of dastans.
Narrating dastans in courtyards was a cultural practice which disappeared by the end of 1960s. It was a part of living memory of old timers. I read about a dastango who lived and narrated dastans in my in laws mohalla till possibly the 1960s. So Kallan Mirza dastango was born out of this delving into the lives of dastangos through oral and written histories.
Kallan came to me fully formed. I mean, he literally walked into the novel, and I knew he would become essential to the story – his belief in the power of storytelling, his desire to tell the people the reality, and his loss of hope – because his narrative was a metaphor for the oppressive times he lived in. The dastan strand of the novel also portrayed the subaltern life as a counterpoint to the glamourous court life. The blending of the fantasy into reality, the mirroring between the two where one informs and inspires the other, brought certain hope and colour to the unrelieved darkness.
Through your research, what insight were you able to gather about the lives of the women who were trapped in the vortex of the zenana?
I was obsessed by Feroza and the harem women. What were their dreams and aspirations, their desires; did they accept the zenana life or did they rebel against it; did they even have a vocabulary to express their angst. Oral history echoed stories of rebellious begums who were tortured, made to live the life of kawwa hakni (scarecrow) their hair shaven off, dressed in rags and starved. They treaded that thin line every single day. On the other hand, the women were supposed to keep the Nawab entertained to be relevant; there was an aura of forced gaiety – festivals, celebrating seasons, durbars, performances by artists – a coping mechanism to deal with the underlying brutality of their existence.
What lessons do we stand to learn from the courage of women like Feroza Begum who suffered exploitation and injustice in her struggle for survival, and the role that countless individual battles like hers played in empowering women of the future?
We tend to view everything from the modern lens, and at times I found myself projecting these feelings on Feroza Begum. What was significant about Feroza’s story was her voice within the limited opportunity she had of expressing herself, her fearlessness and her desire to avenge the wrong done to her. It marked her out as a rebel as she rejected a position she could have had if she were more pliable – though even that was no guarantee for success in her world. She saw women like Shahana Begum gaining power over her and other members of the harem. Most significantly, she was able to battle the seduction of power to be generous towards others. I think these are important lessons even today where women need to be sensitive to individual battles of other women and have that generosity of spirit.
Tarana Husain Khan's The Begum and the Dastan has been published by Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Publications
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