Alys was born in 1908 of French parents who owned a hotel near Paris. She grew up in a country under the German occupation during World War I. Her character was marked by a mystic streak and she was given to reflecting about life and even ‘conversing' with God.
Enter the prince charming from Hyderabad called Ali Yar Khan. The inevitable happened and they got married in 1926. They sailed for India to what, for Alys, was an exotic life among the elite in the feudal State of Hyderabad.
Ali was a grandson of Nawab Imad-ul-Mulk, who had been invited to Hyderabad from the Bilgram village of Uttar Pradesh to be the private secretary of Salar Jung I and tutor of Nizam VI. Later, he became the Director of Education and was also appointed to the India Council. He was very influential in the affairs of the State.
He became the paterfamilias of the Bilgramis, the powerful Shia clan in a State under a Sunni ruler. All doors were thus opened to the new couple. Ali started as a lecturer in the Osmania University and rose to be the Minister for Constitutional Affairs of the State.
Life was hunky-dory in their Camelot. An astrologer in France had told Alys that her husband would rise to great heights — which he did. A twist came when Alys became close to the family of Akbar Hydari who had risen from the post of the Accountant-General to that of the Prime Minister of Hyderabad. One of his sons, Ali was a lonesome dipsomaniac.
Alys also shared with the Hydari family its devotion to Aurobindo and the Mother at Pondicherry and together they made many visits to the Aurobindo Ashram. In Alys' company, Ali did not drink and felt better. The result was that Alys divorced her husband and married Ali Hydari.
Presumably, Alys was a person of great compassion and helped many needy persons. Her most notable public achievement was the revival of the dying Nirmal craft and rehabilitation of the artisans involved in it. I met Alys at the Nirmal outlet at Khairatabad in the late 1950s.
The Nirmal industry became a rage for many years and the credit goes entirely to Alys. It was years later that I met the author, Bilkees Latif, and like many others I was struck by the resemblance between her and her mother.
Between a brief prologue and a briefer epilogue, the author narrates the story of Alys. She becomes her mother's amanuensis and so the narrative is in the first person. But the canvas expands and we read a good deal of the history of Hyderabad and also the life of Sarojini Naidu, samples of her poetry and her correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. One wonders whether Alys would have known so much of the history of Hyderabad and so it seems that, at places, the author's own observations have entered the storyline. Numerous legends and anecdotes enliven the story and as it sometimes happens, some of them fall a victim to inaccuracy. For instance, Mohammad Quli was not the first Urdu poet, but the first sahib-e-dewan poet of Urdu (one whose anthology is published). Maharaja Kishen Pershad had four Muslim and three Hindu wives, and not just one from each community.
Alys' story is told well and feelingly. It is written without malice towards anyone, which seems to have been a part of the make-up of Alys' character. The years, the fragrance of which the author speaks about, are not forgotten yet. Their fragrance lingers on and invests the city with the romance of which Alys speaks so appreciatively and which the likes of her brought to Hyderabad. And, the city has retained its spell, despite the consequences of liberalisation. The author and her illustrious husband, Idris Latif, symbolise that more than anyone else. They are among the diminishing number of people who have grown up on stories that need to be committed to writing. Bilkees should not put her facile pen down yet.