[Looking at a novel, a few articles and a video, and linking back to a favorite old film review.]
Unexpectedly, in the past month, I ended up treating myself to a crash course in the role of courtesans (aka tawaifs) in the Indian rebellion of 1857.
If you saw my last post and you know a little about Wajid Ali Shah, it probably would not be difficult to figure out how I happened upon this subject. Begum Hazrat Mahal was a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, and she got to that position by being a courtesan. Earlier in her life, when she was just a little orphaned girl named Muhammadi Khanum, an aunt who was supposed to take care of her sold her to some sort of courtesan agent instead. Muhammadi was eventually sent to audition at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, and at some point, at about the age of 14, she overwhelmed everyone with her talents in writing and reciting poetry. And then, soon enough, she was Begum Hazrat Mahal, the second wife of the King of Awadh.
Unfortunately, in 1856, the British chose to annex Awadh, exiling Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was then known), probably in the neighborhood of Metiabruz. (Of course, there was some mention of that that in my last post as well.) There, he apparently was able to build up a mini-Lucknow and continue his pursuit of arts, Kathak, and all such good things. He had at first protested his exile and had sent his mother and some other family members to England to try to persuade Queen Victoria to change these circumstances (which never happened because Victoria never even spoke to them). After that, though, it seemed that he had settled into his circumstances fairly peacefully. He had some unpleasant stays in prison at some point – at least partly because of what his wife Hazrat Mahal was doing at home – but he never became involved in any active battles with the British, and it was probably just as well as far as he was concerned.
Hazrat Mahal did not go with him in his exile, and her fate and inclinations turned out to be very different. Her son, Birjis Qadr, was the apparent heir to the throne at home, but he was only eleven years old, so she was chosen to watch over him for now, officially as the Queen Mother. What she actually became was the Queen, and a warrior queen at that. She led a fierce fight against the British for over a year, overcoming many setbacks (until the last, that is) and defending against many onslaughts.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was not remembered as well as she should have been, but there are a number of good documents about her floating around on the Internet, etc. The first thing that I read about her, though, was a historic novel, In the City of Gold and Silver, which I found three weeks ago on the shelves of the New York Public Library.
The novel that I picked up is actually an English translation of a French novel written by a French war correspondent-turned-novelist named Kenize Mourad. (Reading a little further about her, I see that this author is someone of both Turkish and Indian ancestry whose journalism was focused on the Middle East. She also had some hidden royal heritage of her own, which she wrote about in an autobiographical novel, Regards from the Dead Princess. Maybe that will be another a story worth exploring, at another time.)
While reading In the City of Gold and Silver, I started to think a little about the nature of historic novels in general. Close to a year ago, I reviewed William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (along with his book White Mughals, which I actually liked a bit more). After I posted that review, I got into an interesting conversation with someone off-blog that included some discussion about whether Dalrymple might have fabricated some of his history. But to me, the events in his book seemed so meticulously documented, that if he invented anything, it had to have been far outweighed by all the facts that he related that were backed up with notes, etc. Of course, if this were a historical novel, that question might not have even arisen as a concern. If somebody appears in the novel whom no one has ever heard of, or if a relationship is described that no one knew existed, it doesn’t matter whether we ever find facts to back these things up, because this is a work of fiction anyway. (Right?)
As I understand it, there is no historical evidence for one of the main elements in Ms. Mourad’s novel, the romance between Hazrat Mahal and a certain “Hindu raja” referred to as Jai Lal. The parts of this novel that deal with the romance are also the most highly dramatic, and they sometimes made me feel as though I was reading…well, a romance novel. At a lot of other times, though, I felt as though I was reading something very similar to Dalrymple’s book; that is, a long chronicle of a war, replete with a long list of atrocities committed by the both the British and the Sepoys (and other rebels too). Dalrymple goes into the atrocities for longer and in more detail, but Mourad is pretty good at this stuff also, which is not surprising – after all, she was once a war correspondent.
It is a bit difficult to label In the City of Gold and Silver. Even we accept that it is fiction and not just slightly embellished history, what kind of fiction is this really? I think a review that I found in The Hindu sums it up clearly with the statement, “Mourad straddles multiple genres.” The author of this article, Suneetha Balakrishnan, makes a few other good points about the novel, too. One is that it’s strange for Mourad to have written the novel in the perspective that she did – which was third-person and present tense. As Balakrishnan points out, this is a style of writing that, at least sometimes, “limits engagement.” And it’s probably because of this lack of engagement in the narrative that I did find myself drifting sometimes, wondering if I would ever finish this book. But at the end of the 400 pages, I realized that it had been pretty moving overall. Of course, there’s a lot of tragedy near the end, and most of the people are killed. What else would we expect from a novel about the rebellion of 1857? Hazrat Mahal was not killed but was allowed to spend some time in exile in Nepal. Unfortunately, she did end up leading a very confined and heartbreaking sort of existence and died at a much younger age than the exiled kings. Strangely, though, the novel gets that age wrong, saying she died at the age of 48. I saw several other documents that said that she was born in 1820 and died in 1879, so she was 58 or 59. How could the author and her publishers have let such a big error through? It’s a bit distracting. Nonetheless, this and other minor faults notwithstanding, I do think this was a worthwhile read overall, and I’m glad that I pushed myself to finish it.
Of course, sometimes you can be up for getting information from a complicated 400-page novel and sometimes you’d prefer something shorter and more direct. It’s with that in mind that I’d also like to recommend a nice video that I found on YouTube, from a source called CIC DU (which apparently stands for the Cluster Innovation Center at the University of Delhi). It’s one of five videos that they made about 1857 (and maybe I will get to the others sometime). It’s just 9:57 long, yet it sums up the basic points about Begum Hazrat Mahal in a good way (via a pretty good narrator) and is moving in its own way as well as informative.
One curious thing that I found after learning all about Begum Hazrat Mahal is that she was far from the only former courtesan who ended up being an 1857 freedom fighter. Via a nice coincidence in timing, I found an article about this subject just as I was finishing In the City of Gold and Silver. The article, posted at Scroll.in, is: Tawaifs: The unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle. The 1857 rebellion is far from the article’s only focus, since it discusses the role of courtesans right up to 1947. (For instance, it delves into an interesting exchange in the early 20th century between Gandhi and the great singer Gauhar Jaan.) But there is a part near the beginning of the article where we are introduced to a couple of tawaif rebels from 1857 in addition to Hazrat Mahal.
One of the two relatively lesser-known rebel courtesans that the article mentions is Azeezunbai, a resident of Kanpur (then known as Cawnpore, in the state of Uttar Pradesh). She was frequently spotted dressed in men’s clothes, packing pistols, and riding with the Sepoys. The other is Hussaini, who was speculated to have participated in an infamous massacre of captive British women and children (the Bibighar Massacre), which also took place in Kanpur. Curiously, Hussaini did not even have political status; she was speculated to be “a courtesan lower in the hierarchy of tawaifs.”
The Scroll.in article cites an interesting, somewhat more detailed article as the source of information about Azeezunbai, Making The ‘Margin’ Visible: Courtesans and the Rebellion of 1857, which was written by Lata Singh and posted to a site from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) called People’s Democracy.
Ms. Singh does provide some interesting facts and speculation regarding Azzezunbai (or Azizun, as she writes her name here). For instance, she points out that this tawaif had left the far more central town of Lucknow in order to live in Kanpur. Speculating about the reason for that, she cites the famous novel Umrao Jaan Ada, by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (which many of us know first as a famous Bollywood film), in which the title character talks about being able to earn more money and be more independent in Kanpur. Singh guesses that Azizun may have been driven to move to Kanpur out of the same “passion for independence” that inspired her involvement in the 1857 rebellion. This seems like a lot of speculation, but it does make some sense.
The most interesting part of this article, though, is the part that alludes to all the courtesan freedom fighters that it hasn’t named. I was taken aback when I read the claim that “There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded.”
Wow, hundreds?! This looks like a subject worth returning to sometime. For now, though, I’ll just savor my newly found knowledge about the three above.
P.S. Before this past month, the only female freedom fighter from 1857 whom I knew about was Laskhmibai aka the Rani of Jhansi or Jhansi Ki Rani. I greatly enjoyed the Sohrab Modi film Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), starring the director’s wife, Mehtab. I wrote a review of that film in June of 2014, and it remains one of my favorite posts. More recently (at the beginning of the present year), a new film about the same subject came out, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. I was curious about this one at first, but I saw soon enough, from quite a few writeups, that nobody who saw it thought it was very good. So, I did not feel compelled to see it right away, though maybe someday I will.
The Rani of Jhansi was not a courtesan, but like Hazrat Mahal, she was a warrior queen of 1857, and the far better-known one as well. So naturally, as I have seen so far, when people write about Hazrat Mahal, they mention the Rani of Jhansi. The Rani of Jhansi does get mentioned in Kenize Mourad’s novel. She does not exactly make an appearance, but at one point, we learn that Hazrat Mahal is very disturbed by the Rani’s death because they had been corresponding and Hazrat Mahal had identified with her a lot. We also are provided the contents of a letter that the Rani of Jhansi wrote to Hazrat Mahal shortly before her death, encouraging Hazrat Mahal to keep fighting and never give up. (By the way, I don’t know if we can know for certain whether such a letter was ever really written, but that’s all right because this is a work of fiction. Right?)
In her review for The Hindu, Suneetha Balakrishnan compares In the City of Gold and Silver to a relatively recent novel about the Rani of Jhansi, Rani by Jaishree Misra. Balakarishnan claims that Misra’s Rani contains the kind of “engagement” for the reader that she found lacking in Mourad’s novel. After reading her recommendation, I am going to have to find this book as well and maybe post about it here someday too.