Historical Fiction Books

The begum and her beast: Anil Menon reviews ‘The Begum and the Dastan’ by Tarana Husain Khan

The Begum and the Dastan could have been titled ‘The Begum & Her Bluebeard’. Bluebeard has many wives — Scheherazade, Jane Eyre, Rebecca — and their stories are a disjointed, inverted version of the classic fairy tale: a hasty marriage, then a wooing, curiosity, secrets, and finally, a husband who’s revealed to be a monster. The Bluebeard in Tarana Husain Khan’s story is Nawab Shams Ali Khan, ruler of the princely state of Sherpur.

Like all the wives in the Bluebeard tales, the Nawab’s begum, Feroza, the beautiful blue-eyed daughter of Miya Jan Khan, a wealthy Rohilla Pathan, is an independent, curious soul. It is her curiosity that seals her doom.

Strange adjustments

At the start of the story, Feroza is happily married to Murtaza Khan, happily pregnant, and she’s at her natal home, happily anticipating the monsoon.

A uniform happiness makes some people all the more restless. She’s curious about the Nawab, and against her father’s wishes, decides to attend the Sawani festival at the Benazir Palace. Her father is unhappy because the Nawab is a known debauch, an aiyaashi.

We know what’s coming, but Feroza doesn’t. Khan skilfully evokes much more than suspense in the reader: exasperation, dread, followed by horrified pity, when the Nawab traps her in the palace. The first 100 pages of the book are utterly absorbing.

Like the heroine in Charles Perrault’s original Bluebeard, initially Feroza finds the Nawab repulsive: “Up close, he had large pores from old acne and a bulbous nose with cavernous nostrils. There was a strange decaying smell on his breath, invading her

The begum and her beast: Anil Menon reviews ‘The Begum and the Dastan’ by Tarana Husain Khan

face…” But when Feroza is abandoned by her father, her husband and her clan, all that she is left with is the will to survive. We tend to valorise this instinct, but perhaps it leads us only to value not-dying over freedom. The mind is led to strange adjustments. In Perrault’s fairy tale, the trapped heroine spends a week at her husband’s estate and is awed by the “dinner services of gold and silver, beautifully upholstered furniture, and carriages covered in gold leaf.” She comes to think that her husband’s beard “was not so blue after all”.

So too with Feroza. She starts enjoying being Feroza Begum, second only to Sultanat Ara in the harem. She changes from victim to semi-willing participant. She overlooks the tortures he inflicts on other wives. She’s possessive about the Nawab’s attention. Had her father and siblings only reconciled with her, Feroza Begum might have fully enjoyed her changed circumstances.

Dadi’s stories

I would have preferred if she’d plunged an attar-bottle’s diamond cap through the Nawab’s throat. However, it is to the author’s credit that she keeps Feroza true to her times. The past’s greater tolerance for injustice presents historical fiction writers with a dilemma. If they depict the past in all its messy authenticity, they’ll probably offend modern sensibilities. But if they cater to the Woke then they’ll get a version of Macaulay’s puppets: a class of persons attired in ghararas and turbans but 21st century in taste, opinions, morals and intellect.

Khan’s other choices are less felicitous. We learn of Feroza through “Dadi”, Feroza’s granddaughter, who narrates the story to her granddaughter, Ameera. Dadi is the quintessential Dadi, full of stories and ancient as snuff. Unfortunately, just as a painting can be ruined by the wrong frame, the frame story here introduces pointless filler material about Ameera’s quarrelling parents, their partiality towards Ameera’s brother, the decay of family wealth, Ameera’s boyfriend who’s not a boyfriend, and so on. Perhaps the intent was to strengthen the melancholic bridge between the past and the present. But Ameera is too thinly characterised for her present to be of interest.

Allegorical version

Indeed, not only are most characters thinly sketched, there are far too many of them. Khan is excellent at describing settings — at anything having to do with material facts. The problem arises when she has to turn history into a story. It’s not a new problem. In the first half of the 20th century, Hervey Allen, while discussing historical fiction, compared it to “a kind of mule-like animal begotten by the ass of fiction on the brood-mare of fact, and hence, a sterile monster.”

The structural problems are compounded by a third storyline, in which dastangoi and afeem-addict Mirza Kallan tediously narrates an allegorical version of the events in earlier chapters, using elements from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba. I’ve always found the Tilism akin to a bad acid trip. I detest allegories. The author could not have found a better way to make me skip pages.

However, since self-contradiction is sanity’s birthright, let me clarify that I am glad to have read the novel. I am glad the writer wrote it. I enjoyed the experience of immersing in a thoroughly Muslim world, one in which every conversation and concern wasn’t driven by Hindu majoritarian needs. I wanted to learn more about this world, not less, and perhaps that is enough of an achievement for any author and any story.

The Begum and the Dastan; Tarana Husain Khan, Tranquebar, ₹499

Author of Half Of What I Say, the writer has a collection of short stories forthcoming from Hachette.

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