In the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kenize Mourad found a story that belied misplaced notions of Muslim women of yore

Kenize Mourad, while researching for her book ‘In the City of Gold and Silver’, came across references to Begum Hazrat Mahal in documents written by the British. They referred to her as the ‘soul of the 1857 War of Independence’. “It is unfortunate and unfair that she has been forgotten in India,” says Kenize Mourad, in Hyderabad to launch her book ‘In The City of Gold and Silver – The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal’ (Full Circle publications; Rs. 350).

Speaking to us in an interview, the author says, “Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, is remembered because she died on the battlefield. She fought for about four or five months. Begum Hazrat Mahal fought the British for two years. It took the British nine months to gain control over Lucknow. The Begum continued her fight for a year after this.”

Kenize Mourad is of Turkish and Indian descent, Awadh to be precise. “I first visited Lucknow when I was 21 and heard about Begum Hazrat Mahal and her valour from my father (Raja Syed Sajid Husain Ali of Kotwara). Years later, I remembered the story and felt the Begum’s story had to be told,” says Kenize.

The author pored over documents and books in libraries of London, New Delhi and Lucknow. “It took me three years to find enough information. In Lucknow, I spoke to families whose ancestors had fought in the battle along with the Begum. Quite a bit of history in India follows an oral tradition,” explains Kenize.

She scouted libraries in London and came across six volumes of ‘Mutiny Papers’ documented by the British. An 1858 edition of The Times had stated ‘The Begum of Awadh shows greater strategic sense and courage than all her generals put together’. Kenize wanted to write about the Begum and dispel notions about Muslim women of yore. “The book is relevant in this time when Islam is misrepresented. The majority of Muslims, 95 to 98 per cent, is also being put in the same bracket as extremists, which is unfair. And these normal people are the first ones to suffer due to extremists,” says Kenize. “I wanted to show how a Muslim woman was strong enough to lead an army. The Begum was an intelligent woman who enforced justice and waived taxes on food for the poor,” says Kenize.

Kenize takes pride in raising her voice for underdogs all through her career as a journalist in France. “I’ve felt like a fighter for justice all my life. In my books, I have often written about the misrepresentation of the Quran,” says Kenize. History, she says, has intriguing accounts of women Muslim rulers. “There are instances of Turkish women holding important positions on their own right, not because they are mothers, sisters of wives of important men.”

Though Kenize was keen to present accurate historical facts in ‘In The City of Gold and Silver’, she took the liberty of weaving in a love story between the Begum and a dashing Hindu Raja. “I felt people will absorb an interesting historical novel than a dry book full of facts. Keeping the sociology of people in that era, I tried to recreate Awadh of those times,” says the author.

Kenize wrote the book in French. “In France, the book sold more than 70,000 copies. The pocket-friendly (abridged) version sold even more copies,” she says. The book has been translated in English by Anne Mathai and Marie-Louise Naville.

Talking about her roots in Lucknow, Kenize says, “During my first visit to Lucknow as a student, I was amused and spent six months there. Had it been a bigger city like Delhi or Mumbai, I might have stayed on. Opportunities for work were limited. And I wasn’t willing to sit at home and get ready to be married off,” she says. The topic of marriage reminds her of Hyderabad. “I was almost married off to a well-known Hyderabadi,” she says. “Through my cousin, Princess Niloufer, I happened to meet a gentleman from the Nizam’s family. He told Niloufer that he hoped for my hand in marriage. I found it odd that he hadn’t asked me directly. I was given to understand that I would be a ‘bird in a golden cage’. I turned down the proposal.”

This is Kenize’s first visit to Hyderabad. “I never visited this city thinking I may not be welcome here since I turned down the marriage proposal,” she laughs.

Next, Kenize wants to write about present-day Pakistan. “The country, as it exists today, is a tragedy. I want to write about Pakistan through fiction. It will take at least three to four years to work on the book,” she signs off.