In the last week of February, when spring flowers were budding in Lahore, there was a book reading in a private house to introduce Gold Dust of Begum Sultans. The very name evokes such rich images! The event had been scheduled originally for the Lahore Literature Festival 2017. Alas, it was one of the many sessions that had to be cancelled when the festival was pared down to a single day instead of the planned three days. However, one of the book’s authors Syeda Hameed (a writer and former member of the Indian Planning Commission) was given a slot at the LLF. She lent great depth to the session on Urdu Marsias by reciting some moving and, to us, unknown compositions by Hindu devotees on the sacrifice of Imam Hussain.
When Gold Dust of Begum Sultans was launched in New Delhi last year, it was supported by an exhibition held at the Indira Gandhi Centre. At the private book reading in Lahore, Syeda Hameed repeated an audiovisual presentation of the exhibition. The presentation featured images of many interesting items belonging to the Rampur state, such as the rich collection of dolls belonging to the granddaughter of the household and the Fatimi trousseau she was given by her grandmother when she married a commoner. The trousseau consisting of a chakki (stone grinder), mashkeeza (leather water carrier), clay pots, a spindle, coarse garments and a Quran – items believed to have been given by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to his daughter Hazrat Fatima when she married his cousin Hazrat Ali. There were visuals of the doll collection belonging to Syeda’s maternal grandmother and the small utensils that were made for the doll’s trousseau.
It remains a sensitively written, absorbing story, narrated by an insider looking into the complex world of Nawabs and Begums
Syeda Hameed co-authored Gold Dust with her sister Zakia Zaheer who is also a writer. They state in their foreword that their book is a translation of the Urdu novel Sunehri Reit by Zubaida Sultan, published in 1989. Zubaida Sultan was a beautiful woman of many parts, best known for her foray into Hindi cinema when very few women of good families dared to act. The late Khurshid Jehan whose screen name was Renuka Devi, and Nina (the late wife of the filmmaker W Z Ahmed),come to mind as other women from conservative Muslim backgrounds who made films their career choice. Zubaida Sultan was closely related to the authors and had extracted a promise from Zakia Zaheer to translate her novel into English. Personally, I would have liked to have read the original novel written in Urdu by Zubaida Sultan, but even in translation, after gleaning a few pages into Gold Dust, I was hooked. I did not want to put it down until I had finished it. Whatever license was taken by the translators/authors (they admit they did) does not diminish its essential qualities. It remains a sensitively written, absorbing story, made all the richer for being narrated by an insider looking into the complex world of Nawabs and their Begums.
Gold Dust is the story of the family of Akbar Ali Khan, a close relative of the profligate Nawab of a fictional state called Mohammadpur (modeled clearly on Rampur). Akbar Ali flees from his jagir in the dead of night in fear of death at the hands of his cousin, the unpredictable Nawab. Akbar Ali makes a home in his summer house in Nainital, a hill station developed by the British. After he dies an unnatural death on the orders of the Nawab, his widow Qamar Zamani Begum becomes the head of their household. In a way this book is her story, of her complete and utter dominance over her married daughter and two grandchildren, and in time over their spouses and children. It is also the story of her daughter Jahanara Begum, the only child of her parents who is married to Nawab Asad’suncle, the handsome blue-eyed Ammar Ali Khan. At first a devoted husband, Ammar feels gradually stifled by the domineering attitude of his parents-in-law. Eventually he walks out, leaving his young wife and two children.
The recurring theme in this melodrama is the waning influence of Muslim aristocratic families in India
The third major character in the story is Mansoor, Qamar Zamani’s grandson. He finds it easier to yield to the dominance of his mother and grandmother, whether it is in the management of his estates or his marriage to a young woman named Shehzadi. He watches helplessly as his mother plucks his first born from Shehzadi almost as soon as an infant girl is born. Then, the grandmother does the same again when his son is born. Finally, he finds the courage to assert himself, not over his own abducted children but by insisting that his noble sister should marry a commoner colleague from Aligarh university rather than an aristocrat. It is the story of the young thirteen-year-old Shehzadi who is chosen for Mansoor by his grandmother Qamar Zamani Begum, and until they agree on a truce much later in the book, play out the ultimate saas/bahu scenario.
The recurring theme in this melodrama is the waning influence of Muslim aristocratic families in India over three decades. Ultimately the politics of 1947 overtakes fiction, and the House of Mohammadpur collapses into insignificance but not interest. Its epitaph is movingly expressed in the opening page of Gold Dust:
Hum wajd mein baithay rahay aur rait ki manind
muththi say sarakti rahi taqdeer hamari…
[We sat in a trance and like trails of sand
From our fist, our destiny slipped away…]
A passage from Gold Dust of Begum Sultans
After having his fill of Kaharins and Domnis, the nawab looked for new diversions. This time he fancied a proper nikah and that too, with a poor girl who was a Saidani. No one in Mohammadpur was prepared to offer their daughter, so word was sent to nearby towns and a Syed family of Lucknow was finally located. For the 39th time, the nawab wore his wedding clothes and with a grand baraat, the aged dulha arrived in Lucknow. It was a solemn ceremony. Afterwards, the bridegroom was felicitated by a line of small talukdars and representatives of the elites of the city. An old man bowed his head, touching it to the royal feet of the bridegroom. ‘Sarkar, I am a very poor man but of pure Syed lineage. I have seven unmarried daughters at home. May Allah make you flourish until the day of qayamat; please save me, an old man, from a sharif gharana. Take one of my daughters as your kaneez. Let the very maulana who has performed your nikah, perform the ceremony for my oldest child, Masuma.”
Copious tears flowed on to the zari of the nawab’s golden sandals. The nawab was in a generous mood – if he could marry one Saidani, why not marry two? He issued his orders, the maulana sat down again and in one sitting, Saidanis became the nawab’s 39th and 40th wives.
At the Mehtab Bagh Palace, the two brides alighted from their respective dolis. And the night’s revelry began!
Nobility from the town and nearby qasbas had assembled for the lavish feast, singers and musicians sang and played late into the night – it was dawn when the party ended. The bridal chamber was ready…Maids brought one of the brides to the room and placed her under the canopy of flowers to wait for her royal husband; the other bride waited for her turn in the adjoining room. Alas, she was forgotten in the fun and the frolic. And in the morning, the maids saw her lying in a heap among her bridal flowers and finery…She had entered the palace a sixteen-year-old virgin, as the wife of the nawab, and seven years later, when the nawab died, she was the only one of the forty wives who became a virgin widow. During those years, Masuma Begum never once asked to be taken into his presence. Strangely, she felt a strange contentment at being forgotten. She would send parcels of clothes for her sisters and small gifts from the overflowing stores of the palace for her father and mother. She made friends with the other wives, who harboured no jealousy towards her. She was known as the Siyani Begum – wise lady, who lived her life with dignity and contentment.
The mehfils of the palace were an all-night affair. The best singers were brought to entertain guests. The royal ladies sat behind the jharoka to watch the dance and catch occasional glimpses of their husbands. With the first light of day, the nawab would rise from his royal seat and with him, the entire mehfil stood and bent over to bow to him. No one stood upright from the moment of salaam until the nawab reached is bedroom. Once the door was shut, the nawab’s subjects dispersed to the comforts of their chambers to sleep off a hard night’s toil.
These heady days seemed like they would never end but suddenly something happened that shook the entire durbar out of this splendid reverie. The nawab, ever the gamester, took a fancy to a memsahib! Stories of the royal carriage being seen at dead of the night near the British Cantonment, made the rounds. The sounds of shots were said to have been heard and some swore that they had heard a woman scream. The upshot was that the nawab was held responsible for the abortive attempt to abduct the daughter of the British Governor. Company Bahadur’s wrath was aroused; British honour was at stake! All hell broke loose! Nawab sahib tried his best to save himself, but the stakes were too high and he paid a heavy and secret price for his philandering ways – several small towns in the riyasat, all the way from the foot of the Himalayas, were stripped from his estate; only a few small towns remained in his control – even the beautiful hill station Nainital, the summer resort of the British, was not only taken away, even entry into this ‘Queen of Hills’ was forbidden to the nawab on pain of arrest. Overnight, it seemed, the grand Mohammadpur State had shrunk to one third.