In the Mulberry Courtesan, Sikeena Karmali weaves the story of a young woman in Bahadur Shah Zafar's crumbling empire
The Mulberry Courtesan is a feminist book and yet Laale’s narrative is overshadowed by the twilight of the Mughal Empire
When there is war, and society crumbles, the men fall apart but the women push through. That is what happened in Europe during the World War II, notes Sikeena Karmali. Out of Karmali's encounters with several incredibly brave and heroic warrior women while on human rights missions to war-torn countries arose Laale Badakhshan, The Mulberry Courtesan.
In her latest work, Karmali pours the resilience and fortitude of these enterprising women into Laale and creates a ‘young gazelle’ who refuses to be a victim despite all her misfortunes.
Abducted from her home in Afghanistan by a sepoy, she is sold away and trained as a courtesan only to be auctioned off again in the court of Delhi to live out her life as a tavaif, a concubine to some nobleman or the other. But fate intervenes. Bahadur Shah Zafar becomes her benefactor thereby preventing her from becoming a courtesan.
Even so, when push comes to shove, Laale is the hero of the book, says Karmali. When Hodson, the commander of the East India Company serves Zafar with the chopped off heads of his sons, it is Laale who kills him and avenges the Mughals.
“Not Zafar, not some son, not the brother, not the prime minister, not some soldier. Laale,” the author emphasises.
Laale Badakshan is an action-taker.
While journeying through the mountains of Afghanistan, the girl is raped by her kidnapper. No matter her ordeals, her integrity is intact, Karmali suggests, and a strong sense of justice empowers her to kill the man who wronged her so gravely. All alone in the middle of nowhere, she is terrified of what might transpire next but an inner conviction compels Laale to trudge forward.
“No man on this big white horse comes and saves her, she saves herself.”
According to the author who has travelled extensively through Central Asia and has researched on the empire of Bahadur Shah Zafar in some detail; many cultural facets of Central Asia have become part of India, from architecture to naan. On the other hand, there are regions in this part of the world where women are kidnapped or sold for a sack of wheat flour. Through the book, the author, therefore, desired to capture both, the essence of the Mughals and the prevalent violence against women.
Of The Mulberry Courtesan, Karmali then says that it is a feminist book. And yet, set against the twilight of the Mughal Empire, Laale’s story is overshadowed by the narrative of the crumbling rule of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the aftermath of the mutiny of 1857, the largest rebellion faced by the British Raj in the country.
“That is why I began by saying that Zafar is not the mulberry courtesan. He is not a courtesan, it’s her and this is not called the Mulberry King,” Karmali says referring to her introductory remarks about the book during its launch at the Crossword Bookstore in Mumbai on 19 September.
Karmali received the Canada Council Grant for The Mulberry Courtesan and a Shastri Institute grant for its research. Additionally, she also received the UNESCO-Aschberg Writer's Residency at Camac Centre d'Art, Marnay-sur-Seine in France for writing the novel.
There, in the chateau just outside Paris, writing profusely in a room for a couple of months, Karmali’s mind was not in France. She was in 1850s Delhi and would see Laale in her dreams. She had a sense of what Laale might look like. And it was only after the research for the novel was underway and Laale had crept out of Karmali’s imagination, that she found out that there was, in fact, an Afghan, a Persian-speaking concubine and courtesan that Zafar married right before he was exiled. Zeenat Mahal was not his last wife.
“I learnt a lot about Zeenat Mahal,” Karmali said, “she was really clever and cunning.” These wives weren’t just sitting there sipping their tea, they were power players. They managed territories, were actively involved in politics and had they a son to push, they were his political managers. The idea that being women, the Mughal wives were confined to the zanana is a complete myth, she adds.
Today, more than two centuries later, women are renegotiating these prescribed social identities. Things are changing, Karmali points out, because where two or three decades ago, the society was not just allowing but also enabling the exploitation of women, today there are many voices out there raising their concerns against gender violence and inequality.
Yet, even as social identities are being challenged, it is the private identity that raises eyebrows.
“In modern life, sexuality has become politicised and public,” Karmali said.
"During Laale’s time homosexuality was everywhere, but it was just a very personal thing.”
When we start to take something as private as one’s sexuality, make it public and expect everyone to accept it, that’s when problems arise, she added.
Karmali, who has trained in Kathak for several years, writes in The Mulberry Courtesan about how Bahadur Shah Zafar’s wife, Begum Taj Mahal takes Laale to the famed Mirza Ghalib and asks him to tutor the ‘young gazelle’ in her quest to groom the girl and make her the most desired royal courtesan.
Zauq is the royal poet at the time, yet the Begum takes Laale to Ghalib. Karmali says she found a way to incorporate the Urdu poet in her novel as he was an integral part of her childhood. “My father was obsessed with Ghalib” and “on Saturdays when everyone else was playing and having fun, I had a Mullah come home to teach me Urdu so I could read Ghalib and Iqbal and Zauq.”
The presence of Ghalib adds another layer to the book, for poetry at the time was considered an invaluable virtue. With a majority of the population being illiterate, poetry was not read, it was recited and Ghalib believed in the eloquence of language.
Stories are how we communicate, be it a narrative through a poem or Kathak or a song or a painting. Stories are incredibly powerful, she concludes, they break down barriers.