he family home was named Nasir Manzil....my maternal grandfather Nasir Nawaz-ud-Daula moved his family there in about 1912. The house stood on a hill at the end of a long driveway, set in a spacious garden with a pair of tennis courts and many large
The family elephant was kept tied to a great
tree near the small room where the
was quartered. Each day a donkey cart full of
grass was delivered for the elephant, who also received a daily ration of ten kilos of red rice and two pounds of
Fifty Arab and African guards protected the house night and day. I vividly remember how they got together and cooked
and danced around the fire on the night of the full moon.
is a spicy lamb soup, and
is Arabian coffee. To prepare the
they cleaned a large goat and stuffed its stomach with chicken, rice, eggs, salt, pepper, and ginger, and sewed it up and roasted it on an open fire, turning it occasionally until it was well cooked. They were kind to us, and sometimes sent some of their special food in for us to enjoy. When I visited Balochistan in later years, I saw the Balochis preparing
and remembered my childhood days.
Musicians played the
every morning near the gate of Nasir Manzil. We had received permission for this from the Nizam. The four instrumentalists were seated on top of a
The sounds were very sweet.
A wide staircase with fifty steps led from the driveway to a verandah with a mosaic floor and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The main door led into a great hall that was used for both sitting and dining. The hall accommodated a large number of people. Persian carpets covered the floor, and rows of cushions with silver tassels lay along the walls. We ate our meals there, without tables or chairs. The servants spread a
on the floor, and the maids decorated it with rose petals and
The designs they made were as lovely as the food was tempting.
We never used cutlery or porcelain crockery in our home. Instead, we ate with our fingers from silver plates and bowls, and drank from silver cups. As the lady of the house, Amma Jan, my grandmother, served all the children, who were not allowed to complain about the food. Since fifteen children were fed at each meal, it would have been impossible to cater to their individual tastes. A long passage led from the main hall to the kitchen. The kitchen was old-fashioned. All the food was cooked over firewood in huge pots because, by the grace of God, the family was large. There were three cooks, one who prepared all the meat dishes, one who cooked rice and
and one who cooked all the vegetables and Hyderabadi sweets. Two Hindu boys carried the food in on silver trays with silver covers. The cooks, who usually came from the same family, lived in the servants’ quarters near the main house. They were treated as part of our extended family. Their social needs, their wedding parties, and religious observances were funded by my grandparents, who were extremely kindhearted and took good care of their staff.
I had two maids, a Muslim woman called Zainab Bi, and a Hindu girl named Yanka, whose father was carrying on an affair with my grandfather’s driver. I was too small at the time to understand what was going on. Also, as the youngest girl in Nasir Manzil, I was overprotected. My grandfather really spoiled me. I used to go to sleep snuggled into his shoulder, practically until the time I got married. My grandmother used to say that I was getting very spoiled.
My grandparents never slept together in the same room, which was the custom. My grandfather’s bed, a four-poster, had legs of silver. The bed had a mosquito net over it. His bed sheets were made of Chinese silk, and he had a brocade quilt lined with velvet. My grandmother’s bed, also a four-poster, was made of brass. Her sheets and pillowcases were of beautifully handembroidered cotton.
The house was divided into three sections, each one inhabited by different members of the family. My grandparents lived in the centre section. The left wing was occupied by my uncles, and the right wing was mine.
On a broad terrace we had a miniature zoo. Two Hindu men looked after the animals. There were tiger cubs, deer, golden monkeys, pocket monkeys and little baby lambs. I remember the thrill of feeding the tiger cubs and the baby deer with a small milk bottle three times a day.
There was also an aviary housing numerous birds: parrots, cockatoos, lovebirds, ducks, geese, swans, peacocks, pheasants,
or partridge, and red
popular cage birds.
The domestic animals such as horses, cows, buffaloes and elephants were kept in the garden near the tennis courts, and had their own keepers. There were kennels for the dogs: greyhounds, Alsatians, black Retrievers and small Silky Sidney, my younger uncle’s pet, who followed him around all the time. My pet was a lovely Persian cat, given to me by Salar Jang Bahadur, a noble of the Nizam’s court. I took care of it and slept with it, and it followed me wherever I went.
My earliest recollection of Nasir Manzil is from when I was four years and four months old. It was at the time of my
ceremony, a day that’ marks the time when a Muslim child begins learning about Islam, and how to read the Qur’an and say the prayers properly.
Nasir Manzil was decorated as if for a wedding. The facade of the mansion was draped with strings of thousands of tiny softly twinkling electric light bulbs. As I had not been out of the house much, I had never seen a house illuminated that way before. The beauty of the lights made a great impression on me.
According to custom, I was dressed up like a bride. I was allowed to wear my grandmother’s jewellery:
that reached almost to the waist, a
for the middle of my forehead, and
for my ankles. All the jewellery was made of gold, with diamonds, emeralds, and pearls.
My clothes were made especially for the occasion and were modelled on a typical traditional Mughal costume with handembroidered borders. I had a brocade
and a very thin silk ‘tissue’
That is what the old Mughal families in Hyderabad used to wear.
I looked like a big doll. I remember standing in front of the mirror and admiring myself; I couldn’t believe I was the same little girl. As if I were a bride, they smeared henna paste on the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet, to colour them a dark red-orange. Then my elder uncle carried me downstairs to put me on the elephant, to go to the mosque to read my
In the mosque I was made to sit on a little platform with huge
on either side of me. The officiating
of the mosque recited Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, which begins with
‘Bismillah hir Rahman nir Rahim’.
He recited it in Arabic, and I was to repeat it after him. I remember how clearly I recited. My grandfather was very proud of me.
Of course Al-Fatiha is the foundation of the Muslim faith. Learning to recite it properly was especially appropriate for a small child at the beginning of a religious study.
After the reading in the mosque, we all went back to Nasir Manzil where we had a big feast for relations and friends. From then on, the
came over to the house every day, to teach me the Qur’an and prayers. This man was originally from Saudi Arabia, so he had beautiful pronunciation...
Hussain Khan was my grandfather’s valet. He wore a white turban with a yellow emblem and a white coat with a cummerbund. Every morning instead of bed tea-the usual cup of tea that was brought in before one got up in the morning-he brought my grandfather a crystal decanter of whiskey on a silver tray.
Before he got out of bed, Bawa Jan would have his famous ‘Nasir Nawaz-ud-Daula peg of whiskey’-in other words a very large helping. After the whiskey session he would dress up to go to the Nizam’s court or to Azam Jah’s residence, Bella Vista. Sometimes, after a couple of drinks, Bawa Jan would be in a jovial and merrymaking mood and would take us to Secunderabad to buy chocolates and expensive toys.
I have other memories from my early childhood. For example, one morning I heard a lot of noise downstairs near the tennis court and I rushed down to see what was happening. The elephant was frantically swinging his trunk and was trying to run away. I was told that he was in
The servants were pouring buckets of water on him to calm him down. At that time, I didn’t understand what this was and I was left wondering what it all meant.
Born in 1930 in Hyderabad Deccan, India, Bilquis Jehan is the author of two’ cookbooks, Khush Zaiqa (1971) and Mughal Cuisine (1982). She has travelled widely and established a vocational school for underprivileged girls in Karachi, which she continues to supervise.