Malika Shams Tajdar Begum, affectionately called Akka Bi, was born in 1895 in the village of Adh Kata, in the district of Bareilly. She was the first offspring of her father Malik Mohammad Sardar Wali Khan’s three marriages; a child of immense beauty, with piercing blue eyes and glossy golden locks that darkened with age.
Akka Bi immediately became the darling of that erstwhile childless household. Her older stepmother, Rabbani Begum aka Bhabba, took charge of raising her, to the extent that she would make Akka Bi sleep in her room. This suited Majeedunnissa Begum, the young mother and Sardar Wali Khan’s third wife, who, still a teenager herself, was only too glad to be relieved of child rearing duties.
Bhabba, on the other hand, was over the moon; she finally had the baby she’d dreamed of having for so many years. Thus, Akka Bi grew up unchecked, undisciplined, wild as the river Ramganga flowing right in front of her family’s ancestral haveli. Rather than conform to “ladylike” behaviour, she preferred to be outdoors, running about in the vast grounds that surrounded the haveli, climbing trees, chasing cats, dogs, and rabbits, and playing with her younger brother and the local village lads. She refused to sit down to study, to the exasperation of her British tutors. But there was no telling Akka Bi what to do; Bhabba could not bear to see the apple of her eye admonished, and her protectiveness of the young girl made matters worse. Akka Bi knew she could manipulate anyone she liked – and always get away with it.
She was only six years old, when, in 1901, her father, Sardar Wali Khan, the lord of Bareilly, was hanged for a murder he did not commit. Her mother, 22 at the time, remained confined to the walls of the haveli for a period of 4 months and 10 days following her husband’s death. At the expiry of her iddat, she was promptly married off as the fourth wife of a wealthy nawab who was also her grandson through marriage!
She was fiercely possessive of her animals and once got into a hair-yanking scuffle with an English woman who had dared raise a hand at Malika Begum’s pet goat
Bhabba continued looking after Majeedunissa Begum’s two children after she left the village. In other words, she continued doting on Akka Bi and spoiled her thoroughly, with the result that the feisty firstborn of Bareilly’s late lord never received a proper education.
But beauty she had aplenty, and by the time Akka Bi was 14, fame of her blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion had spread far and wide. Proposals for marriage came pouring in, and it was Bhabba who made the final decision: 38-year-old Ali Hasan Khan. The selected suitor was a Yusufzai Pathan, and belonged to the illustrious family of Hafiz Rehmat Khan, ruler of Rohilkhand.
Ali Hasan Khan was a quiet man with a gentle temperament. What he lacked in looks, he made up for in intellect and education; Ali Hasan was one of the first graduates of Aligarh Muslim University. His first job was that of a tehsildar, or tax officer, and he had been promoted to Deputy Collector at the time of his marriage. He preferred to call Akka Bi by her proper name, Malika Begum. Together, the couple had seven children, four boys and three girls. They moved around wherever Ali Hasan was posted, and finally settled in Lucknow.
In the realm of her household, Malika Begum was queen, and had a reputation for volatility – even violence. It is said that she was severe in doling out punishments to her servants. Red chili powder was her favoured method of castigation; according to the nature of the misconduct, she would stuff a handful in the relevant orifice of the offender!
Malika Begum’s beauty belied her sadistic streak, which is why her husband put up with it. She herself was a devoted husn parast, a worshipper of all things beautiful, and was openly biased in the treatment of her children and grandchildren; the attractive ones, like her green-eyed granddaughter Qamar Ara Begum (Razia), were always her favourites. But, like most fiery personalities, Malika Begum was also quick to forgive. Feeling remorse at her harsh actions, she would later soften up and compensate for her injustices with kind words and generosity.
Malika Begum adored animals and even had a little zoo at home. She was fiercely possessive of her animals and once got into a hair-yanking scuffle with an English woman who had dared raise a hand at Malika Begum’s pet goat. When summoned to apologize to the lady, Malika Begum refused, and her accommodating husband was forced to go instead.
She never traveled without her pets; her cat, monkey, and parrot formed part of the retinue, along with her most indispensable servants. Even when she made the long journey to Mecca for Hajj, the whole party went in tow.
Apart from being blessed with uncommon beauty, Malika Begum had spent her life in the lap of luxury, from her parents’ home to her husband’s – and that had made her not a little judgmental. So when her eldest daughter Gohar Ara Begum, or Banno, married Ansaar Harwani, a well-educated though not a terribly rich man, Malika Begum scowled at the jewellery that the groom’s family had gifted as bari: “These trinkets aren’t even worthy of our servants!”
Her second-eldest son, Shahanshah, married a Hindu girl called Nirmal – and this didn’t make her very happy either. Nirmal was never accepted by the family, not only because of her background but also because she had nabbed Malika Begum’s handsomest son. She could never forgive the “Hindni,” as she called her.
Shahanshah was the reason that Malika Begum and Ali Hasan chose to stay in India at the time of the Partition while most of their children migrated to Pakistan. Had they migrated, too, they would have benefitted greatly from the exchange of assets. But Shahanshah proved to be a lost cause; with his high-flying lifestyle and fleet of expensive cars, he squandered his days and the family’s wealth living at the Taj Hotel in Bombay and feasting with Rajas and Maharajas.
Malika Begum was widowed in 1956 when Ali Hasan died at the age of 83. The 59-year-old matriarch left Lucknow and moved back to the village of her birth, Adh Kata, and her youngest daughter Husn Ara, the wife of the Raja of Nanpara came to live with her. She stayed there till her death in 1970, surrounded by the gardens, fields, and trees she had so loved as a child.