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‘A Begum & A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857’ review: Giving an obscure figure of the 1857 revolt her rightful place

The villain in Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s A Begum & A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857 is certainly the British, but it is also time and memory. Mukherjee places Begum Hazrat Mahal, an obscure figure who was integral to the mobilisation of the 1857 revolt — taught to students as “India’s first war of independence” — alongside Rani Lakshmibai, whose life has spurred not just biographies but hagiographies, calcified by myth and movies, the 2019 Kangana Ranaut shriek-historical, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, notwithstanding.

The book, divided into four parts — Origins, Rebellion, Leadership, Afterlife — is attempting two important correctives.

The first is to give Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh her rightful place in history. Daughter of an African slave, she was briefly married to Awadh’s king Wajid Ali Shah, then divorced and left behind in Awadh, as Shah moved to Calcutta after the British annexed Awadh in 1856. She helped mobilise the military and administration of Awadh, which became the war theatre’s centrepiece after Delhi was vanquished by the British. This story is also important to counter the narrative that the 1857 revolt was a pastiche of mindless and uncoordinated violence, because it was meticulously planned. Mukherjee quotes generously, indulgently, with page-long historical anecdotes which could have been paraphrased or woven into the narrative. There are too many anecdotal jolts for a seamless read.

Eventual move

The second objective is to inject some history into the hagiography of Rani Lakshmibai. Mukherjee notes how she wasn’t the ready rebel we think of today. That she even wrote to British officials asking for help, declaring her support to their regime, and it was only when she was pushed against circumstances that she eventually took to the battlefield with vigour, dying in it, memorialised by it.

This is a clever framing here that Mukherjee employs, because there isn’t enough information on Hazrat Mahal to carry an entire book by itself. There isn’t even an available description of how she looked. Her role in the rebellion is behind-the-scenes, and her obscurity is thus, double.

To resurrect her, by pairing her with the most coveted figure of the rebellion — Rani Lakshmibai — is thus necessary, because Mukherjee gets to not just tell their stories, demystified or dusted, but to speak to the larger villainy of historic memory — who gets written about and why?

Putting it in context

Mukherjee is a master of context, providing a sense of the time, even as he is hazy on the details of main events, recounting them as historical facts and not narrations, preferring a depth of detailing around the event over the grip of a historical plot. That said, a map would have been helpful to make sense of the geographic dump of names.

It must be noted, though, that Lakshmibai and Hazrat Mahal never met, and in the 140-page book, their paths, and the paths of their rebellion also don’t cross, as if they were happening in different times, different places.

Sometimes, as a result, the book feels disjointed — that the only reason for having these two stories together is not that they will tangle, but that through comparison, each one’s story deepens, darkens.

Placing these figures side by side, the urge to compare them comes but naturally. Mukherjee’s insistence on Hazrat Mahal’s oblivion comes short of calling her more important and interesting than Rani Lakshmibai. That Rani Lakshmibai fought on the battlefield while Hazrat Mahal fled to Nepal is enough to deify the former, and forget the latter, he finds unfair. That Lakshmibai and her son were receiving pensions from the British government, while Hazrat Mahal who died in obscurity and her son, both refused it, he finds telling. That history is besotted with blood, he finds tragic. That historians can puncture history’s myopia, he finds hopeful. Thus, this book.

A Begum & A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin Random House India, ₹699.

The writer is a critic with a weekly online newsletter titled prathyush.substack.com

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:33:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/a-begum-a-rani-hazrat-mahal-and-lakshmibai-in-1857-review-giving-an-obscure-figure-of-the-1857-revolt-her-rightful-place/article36771070.ece

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