Kenizé Mourad tells BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA about the “detective work” she undertook to write her historical novel, “In the City of Gold and Silver”, and her unique position vis-à-vis India

From the obligatory chapter on the first war of Indian independence in history textbooks, it is the images one remembers best. Before our eyes could run through the text, they were seized by illustrations of either the impressively moustachioed Nana Sahib, or the heroic Rani Lakshmibai astride her horse. Alongside them sat the forlorn looking Begum Hazrat Mahal, smoking a hookah.

While the documentation of the events of 1857 is impressive, there are several gaps in our knowledge of the woman who rose from humble beginnings to fight one of the longest battles in the first war of independence. In her novel Dans la ville d’or et d’argent, published recently in an English translation by Full Circle as In the City of Gold and Silver, Kenizé Mourad uses the known and the unknown to tell the story of this enigmatic ruler of Awadh and the times she lived in.

“To me she is the greatest hero of the first war of independence because she was the leader in Lucknow which was the centre of this war. Of course there was Tatya Tope and Rani of Jhansi but she fought the British the longest — for two years. She is one of the forgotten of history,” says Kenizé.

Her introduction to Begum Hazrat Mahal came in the form of a visit from her great grandson at her father’s home in Lucknow. Years later, when she decided to write this novel, she was confronted on the one hand by an abundance of stories, often conflicting, about her and a lack of reliable sources on the other. Kenizé navigated this conundrum through “detective work” — a legacy, according to her, of her long career as a political journalist.

It is for the same reason she doesn’t like using the word ‘invent’. “I don’t invent. It means something from your own imagination. I recreate. And what I recreate could be true, absolutely true. One thing I did make up (but it may have happened) was a love story. As her husband was in exile in Calcutta having a good time, she was fighting and governing. She was meeting her general every day. So I imagined that they fell in love with each other and there was a secret romance. This is the only liberty I took.”

“I don’t know India very well, but I know Lucknow very well. I knew the society, habits and psychology so it was easy for me to put myself in the skin of the Begum, because the Lucknow I have known has not changed so much.”

Although born and brought up in France, Kenizé doesn’t have happy memories of growing up there. “I grew up with religious prejudice. The Catholic nuns hid me from my father and didn’t give me back to him, pretending I wasn’t there. I was kept in France till I was 21. I understood all this when I was 15 and I was revolted. I hated France and I wanted to go to India to my father and understand my roots,” she says.

This gave her a unique perspective, not really an insider’s but not quite the outsider’s either. “If you are used to India you don’t see things anymore, you don’t see what’s different. Having a French outside eye, I could see better. At the same time I was not like a tourist going to see India. Most tourists know India much better than me, but superficially. I was lucky to have both approaches.”

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