From the depths of Shahjahanabad | Review of ‘A Firestorm in Paradise’, debut novel by historian Rana Safvi

Through the fictional character of a daughter of Bahadur Shah Zafar, historian Rana Safvi tells a compelling tale of events leading up to the 1857 uprising

Updated - July 05, 2024 09:54 am IST

Published - July 05, 2024 09:35 am IST

The author introduces Falak Ara, a fictional daughter of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the central character of her novel. 

The author introduces Falak Ara, a fictional daughter of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the central character of her novel.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

The American Civil War was a defining moment in the history of the United States. It has inspired numerous novels by American authors, Gone with the Wind being one example. Similarly, India’s First War of Independence in 1857 holds great historical importance. However, the literary exploration of this period, particularly in English fiction by Indian authors, remains limited. While Ruskin Bond’s The Flight of Pigeons provides an Indian perspective, other notable narratives such as J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapurpredominantly reflect British viewpoints.

Recent years have seen Indian writers try their hand at fiction set against the backdrop of the 1857 uprising. In 2021, Raza Mir captivated readers with Murder at the Mushaira, a period thriller offering a detailed portrayal of Shahjahanabad (modern-day Old Delhi). And now, renowned historian Rana Safvi makes her fiction debut with A Firestorm in Paradise, set in the period leading up to 1857. 

Safvi introduces Falak Ara, a fictional daughter of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the central character of her novel. While some characters are real historical figures, most of the minor characters are products of the author’s imagination. As for other details, the novel intricately weaves major events and developments of the time into its narrative, providing an authentic backdrop to this historical tale.

Falak, distinguished from other princesses, finds herself in a unique position due to her late mother’s status as a concubine to the emperor rather than a queen. She does not command the respect and attention that other princesses typically do. Raised by a devoted maid, Falak navigates a complex existence within the fort walls, hidden from her father until a dramatic incident gives her the opportunity to meet him for the first time. Emotions run high during their encounter. Later, her life takes a pleasant turn when she meets a prince and falls in love, promising a brighter future. However, the escalating rebellion against the East India Company and subsequent violence shatter her dream of a happily-ever-after.

Historian and author Rana Safvi

Historian and author Rana Safvi

Life before breakfast

As we follow Falak’s life and delve into her backstory, we encounter numerous characters with their own narratives. Through them, we gain insight into the events unfolding beyond the fort walls, including the brutal suppression of rebellion by the British. The First War of Independence itself becomes a major character in the novel, occupying a significant portion of the book. Additionally, the author meticulously details the social customs, traditions, food, clothing, political administration, social classes, and royal behaviour of the times in an authentic manner. 

We thus discover some interesting facts about Indian society back then. For instance, there was no concept of breakfast, and people ate only twice in 24 hours. They believed that breakfast was an alien tradition brought by the British, and this practice continued well into the middle of the 20th century. If you’ve watched Rajesh Khanna’s Bawarchi, you might recall one of his dialogues in the movie: “Hum Angrez thode hain ki breakfast karenge. (We are not English people to indulge in breakfast.)” This is why Hindi/ Urdu has idiomatic phrases like ‘do joon ki roti’ or ‘two square meals’. Even the emperors followed the two-meal formula. Another interesting piece of information is that transpersons were treated with great respect by the Mughals and referred to as ‘Khwajasarah’, often employed as guards in women’s quarters. 

More of Falak, please

In contrast to today’s Delhi, the novel heartwarmingly portrays Shahjahanabad of 1857 as an oasis of communal harmony. People from different communities worked together for the Badshah, and princes and princesses took pride in their Rajput ancestry passed down through their mothers and grandmothers. The author adeptly handles dialogue, capturing the lilt and melody of the language spoken at the time. One wishes the author had allocated more space to Falak and her stories because she is a lovely character; her innocence is infectious, yet at times, she fades into the backdrop of the political upheaval of the period. We hope Safvi will consider writing another novel that delves deeper into Falak and her mother’s stories, possibly a prequel.

The novel makes for a compelling read, and there is abundant source material for a screen adaptation, though that would be a significant undertaking, to authentically capture 19th-century Delhi for modern-day viewers.

The reviewer is an author, most recently of ‘A Man from Motihari’.

A Firestorm in Paradise
Rana Safvi
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