Sara Danial: Let’s first talk about your book, The Begum and the Dastan. How difficult was documenting the lives of begums, and the lives of women in general, to weave a story across two timelines then and now?
Tarana Hussain Khan: Cisgendered histories bear fleeting mention of some women if they have borne a royal child. Women, especially in olden days, lead undocumented lives and to discover their stories I had to turn to oral histories, chance mention in letters and some historical documents. I was fortunate to come upon a diary which detailed the lives of some of the Nawab’s women and the traditions followed in the royal zenana. The finer details needed a lot of research. For instance, there were several contradictory versions of the circumstances of Feroza Begum’s death. I found a reference to her illness and hospitalisation in letters and telegrams sent back and forth from a sanatorium which untangled the last years of her life.
The Begum and the Dastan is constructed across two timelines––one spanning the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and the second set in contemporary times. There is a mirroring and contrast in the stories of Feroza Begum and that of her great granddaughter, Ameera. It was essential that the two timelines should flow and meld together, that there should be no jarring transitions. Secondly, I wanted to avoid the obvious then-and-now foreshadowing. Achieving this took several rewrites and repositioning of the threads of the narrative. I had to take the help of my editors and digital writing tools as I plaited the two together. Initially, I had Feroza Begum’s story set at the core of the book framed by Ameera’s story, but I think it finally worked better to have the two alternating timelines.
SD: Patriarchy is a reality in South Asian homes even today and young girls live with mental and physical constraints. Do you think that we as women romanticize sacrifice and suffrage?
THK: Stories of sacrifice and suffering have been passed down through oral history and myths to us women. The strongest link in the narration of tales are women themselves. So we hold in our DNA the idea that women are made to endure suffering and accept their fate. It was the same for Feroza Begum. The women’s liberation and women’s suffrage movements were rife in the West, but in the East the women of the late 19 century were taught acceptance and sacrifice as the highest virtue. Feroza rebelled against the physical and mental constraints that her family –– and later the Nawab –– imposed on her. She could have had it all if she had accepted her fate and used the position of being a royal begum to her advantage. But she needed to be true to herself: the sense of right and wrong were strongly ingrained in her and she rose to challenges in an outspoken and fearless manner. Her dignity as a woman and her pride refused to be crushed as she negotiated her life in the harem.
SD: Women stopped observing purda in the 1930s and the elite classes focused on university education for the girls. However, the ambitions of the girls of middle and lower income groups are still constrained. Some girls don’t wear the burqa like their mothers did; some wear scarves but their movement and ambitions are often controlled. Have we, as a nation, progressed at all? Or is this a game of whack-a-mole?
THK: The ladies of the royal family of Rampur stopped observing purda in the traditional sense in 1930s. The change filtered down to the elite classes. For instance, my grandmother wore a burqa, but my mother and her sisters were sent to boarding schools in Lucknow in 1950s and later acquired college education. In modern times, though the girl child got educated and some women took up careers, by and large the girls and women of Rampur–– as several women in small towns––have often found their movements constrained and their ambitions curtailed. So, the character of Ameera comes from my observations as a teacher, where we had to contend with parents who didn’t care much about the education of their girls. If there is a crisis in the family––financial or otherwise––it is the girl child who is supposed to sacrifice her dreams. It is Ameera’s fees which have the lowest priority even when she is on the verge of losing a school year. Several girls and women have emerged out of their veiled existence, but their minds are still constrained with impossibilities.
SD: The Begum and the Dastan is essentially inspired by real life stories that you churned into fictional characters. How did you curate the plot?
THK: The stories of women exist in oral histories, if they find no place in the written histories. The story of Feroza Begum was a well-known cautionary tale that young girls grew up listening to. Then there were other stories––like that of Diwani Begum, of the tawaif who became Her Highness, and many others––passed down the generational memory living on the lips and hearts of people. Behind it was the persona of the despotic Nawab who was at the same time an accomplished person. The whole plot came together when I started delving into the details of these lives. It was a journey that took me to the Regional Archives, to a sanatorium and to the homes of people who were close to my characters. From letters, diaries, oral history and walks through the old city, I could trace the outlines of the story and attempt a narrative. The coming together of various elements––the cultural, the political and actual events––and the sifting out of the falsehoods and exaggerations that has crept in took four years. The real challenge was to make sure that my own sensitivities and attitudes were not projected in the writing; it was tough not to get emotionally involved with Feroza’s story. I had to remember that Feroza was a woman of her time, conventional in some ways and startlingly modern in others and try to reflect all that in her character.
SD: What kind of activities were going on under the guise of purda?
THK: The life of the harem was very vibrant. It was a cultural centre of sorts. Every season was celebrated with festivities, songs and food. It was a deliberate effort to keep the women busy and entertained. They were not allowed to step out of the laal purda, that demarcated their life from the rest of the world. Underneath this exquisite beauty was the sordid ugliness of reality. The women were to make themselves available to the Nawab whenever he asked for them. Sometimes he forgot about them after a brief encounter. The smarter ones knew that their position would become better in the pecking order of they gave birth to a son, and so they tried to attract the Nawab. There was clear differentiation in their ranks and living standards, and the inevitable intense rivalry of survival. I have seen the one-room hovels of concubines and the mahalsara of the nikah wives. It was an intricate world that I had to uncover and lay bare in all its terrifying beauty.
SD: While writing your debut, how did you keep yourself going against all odds?
THK: Writerly life is lonely. You must plod on every day, all alone in front of the blank page. It is daunting especially when there are bad days, when nothing works and when you face rejections. I kept a severe routine. I was on my writing desk at eight in the morning whether I was inspired or not. It is I think a training of the mind that can control the emotions. The point is to pick up the pen come what may. The fight is not over if you get up and carry on.
SD: Please take us through the literary pilgrimages you have gone to, such as the Jaipur Lit Fest, etc.
THK: Jaipur Lit Fest was the high point, a real literary pilgrimage. I had attended JLF several times, listening agog to my writing heroes, lining up to get my copy signed; to be there on stage talking about my book was just surreal. I met the holy trinity of JLF––Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy––they were so warm and big hearted. I connected with many fellow writers. We just sat and talked for hours like old friends. There is an amazing generosity of spirit among the writing fraternity; I had reached out to writers like Namita Gokhale, Ira Mukhauty, Anuradha Roy, Rana Safvi, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and found support and literal handholding. I was just an obscure writer from a small town, yet they listened to my story, read my work, offered suggestions and even wrote words of praise. So JLF was the place I got to meet my e-friends and make new friends. It was so inspiring. I zoom participated in several lit fests in 2021 as the Orange Lit Fest. Then my book received the Fiction Book of the Year at Kalinga Lit Fest. Besides being an encouragement, it also meant meeting and listening to Oriya, Kashmiri, Tamil and Hindi language writers. There is such a wealth of literature and stories in our country. I’m happy that the Booker prize to Tomb of Sand will bring focus to all the richness of regional language literature.