A fitting tribute to an unsung heroine from Indian history.
The ways of history are strange. It gifts some people bouquets, hands others brickbats, and yet others are left out, entirely. When the chronicles of the First Independence War of India were documented for the layman, names like Mangal Pandey, Lakshmi Bai, Tantia Tope, Nana Sahib and Bahadur Shah Zafar, and places like Lucknow, Jhansi, Delhi and Kanpur entered history books. But the brave woman ruler of Awadh, the last free leader of the rebellion who held out for two whole years, does not appear in the compelling narratives of the 1857 rising, except in isolated pictures of a hookah-smoking rebel queen, with less than a line in description. In the records of the British, she is referred to as the ‘soul of the 1857 War of Independence’.
History but has a way of correcting its anomalies, and perhaps that’s why total strangers take up these untold narratives. Kenize Mourad is an acclaimed best-selling and much-translated French author of Turkish-Indian origin. She is also Kenize de Kotwara, a journalist reporting on Indian and Middle-East issues. Her pen name Mourad comes from her great-grandfather on the maternal side, the Ottoman Sultan Mourad V, and her surname is derived from Rajah Syed Sajid Hasain Ali of Kotwara, her own father.
Mourad straddles multiple genres in In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal (translated by Anne Mathai in collaboration with Marie-Louise Naville). This work of historical fiction is a fitting tribute to an unsung heroine and based on solid and impressive research, and the author takes some liberties with facts to relieve the narrative from turning into dry history.
The book winds in and out of important periods of Indian history and introduces a multitude of characters, including real-life ones like Nana Sahib, General Havelock and the Rani of Jhansi, and, for romantic relief, sketches an imaginary account of a relationship between the Begum and a Hindu Raja. The narrative sticks to the known story: Begum Hazrat Mahal’s humble beginnings as a courtesan, her accomplishments that lead her to the palace of King Wajid Ali Shah, her subsequent ascent to the status of wife and mother, the annexing of Awadh, the exile of the king and the declaration of the Begum’s son as the new King, the regency that brings the Begum to absolute power, the subsequent betrayal. The translated text does not falter in nuances or subtleties and the canvas Mourad has chosen to lay it out on is large. She uses every bit of her research to fill the tapestry with the right combination of background and story.
The narrative is in the third person and the present tense, which limits the reader’s engagement with the characters’ internal monologues. One tends to stand outside and listen rather than be with the thoughts of the protagonist. This dilutes the impact of historical fiction. I cannot help comparing the text to that of Jaishree Misra’s Rani, on the Lakshmi Bai. The same period, same events, same mix of facts and fiction and even similar protagonists and, above all, a woman heroine, but the reader’s engagement with the narrative was much more.