Lined with grandeur, tragedy and fantasy, Tarana Husain Khan's tale maps the social, political and religious contours of 1897 Sherpur with the fascinating and strong-willed Feroza Begum at the centre of the storm.
On an evening not too many evenings ago, the blue-eyed Feroza, flouting her family's orders, attended Nawab Shams Ali Khan's sawani celebrations at the Benazir Palace. Tragedy coloured the night when she found herself kidnapped and withheld in Nawab's harem – bustling, tantalizing and rife with sinister power play. As tyranny and repression tightened their hold inside the royal walls, at the Bazaar Chowk, dastangoi Kallan Mirza enchanted his listeners with the legend of sorcerer Tareek Jaan and his chimeric city, the Tilism-e-Azam, where women were confined in underground basements.
Here's an excerpt from The Begum And The Dastan
Feroza dressed herself up as the Nawab’s bride with cold brutality. She wore the red and gold dress, strung the teekajhoomar on her head and studded jewels into her thin braid that Gauhar always teased her about. She used to envy Gauhar’s thick long braid that came down to her knees, playfully tugging at it. Gauhar would shout, ‘Ya Allah, make her bald.’ Feroza pulled the chain of the nose ring covering her cheek with the blood-coloured ruby nestled between the begum and the dastan 73 two large diamond beads, and pinned it into her hair. The jerk caused her nose to bleed, the blood congealing around the sharp gold wire of the ring. She weighed down her arms with bangles – gold, glass and diamond, covered her chest with necklaces, the ropes of pearls reaching down to her navel. Finally, she covered her head with the heavy gold work dupatta. Her face was without any makeup. She brushed aside Tabu’s suggestion to put on some surma and lipstick.
The women, festive and garrulous, entered her room. She didn’t touch her forehead in greeting as Daroghan Chhamman wheezed out the introductions, enumerating their levels of closeness to the royal family. Undeterred by her stony look, they bore her out into the veranda with a wave of teasings and compliments. Tabu walked behind her, holding the skirt of her voluminous farshi. She was seated on a red silk-covered takht. A formidable, grey-haired woman, probably some relative of the Nawab, eased herself next to her on the takht and assumed charge of her. She replied to the greetings, extolled Feroza’s bloodline, showed off her jewellery – see this belonged to so and so, the magars are so heavy, specially brought from Lucknow; she went on touching her jewellery and chatting till Feroza felt like screaming at her. She could hear the women whispering behind their fans, gossiping about her. Tabu told her later that they believed Feroza insisted on the marriage because she had fallen in love with the Nawab and the glamour of the court. They all knew about the abortion, tut-tutting over Feroza’s heartlessness in killing her child, some even going on to wonder what punishments awaited such women in hell.
Feroza looked at the red and yellow awnings covering the courtyard strung with flowers in the September sun; the corpulent Begums from various Pathan families, resplendent in jewels and brocades; seated around, masticating paan, sweating in spite of the large cloth ceiling fans pulled by 74 tarana husain khan kaharis, and the swishing handheld fans of their personal maids. Gauhar and Amina Khala didn’t come, probably apprehensive about Miya Jaan Khan’s displeasure. Her trousseau was displayed in silver trays set on the carpet. Daroghan Chhamman and the seamstresses had worked on it through the long afternoons, their continuous humming talk, as they snipped and sewed, driving her mad.
The domni singers sat on the carpet, their full-throated singing set to the rhythm of the dhol.
Khwaja jee sun le hamari jiya ki peerh, ankhiyan se bahe hai neer,
Kahey ko byahin bides arey lakhiyan babul mohey?
Hum to babul torey angney ki churiyan, arey chug piye udh jayen;
Hum to babul torey khoontey ki gayyan…
(Khwaja-ji listen to the pain of my heart, my eyes are filled with tears,
O my wealthy father, why did you marry me off to a foreign land?
We are just birds from your courtyard, pecking at food, we fly away;
We are just your tethered cows; we go where you send us…)
The Begums sighed, sniffed and wiped their tears as Amir Khusrau’s ancient lament sent them back to their own rukhsati with tearful embraces, their fathers and brothers handing over ‘their’ woman to another set of males – the culmination of the wedding. Feroza had heard the song many times, had cried clinging to Gauhar at her rukhsati with her siblings hugging her, Ammi’s stomach shaking with her crying and Abba kissing her forehead. Her three young brothers had self-importantly tied a piece of turmeric, a silver coin and green grass to the corners of her dupatta, the begum and the dastan 75 repeating the customary Pathan blessing, ‘Behen main tujhe neki deta hoon. Sister, I give you goodness.’
There were no males from Feroza’s family to hand her over, as her wali, the male in-charge of her body. Since there could be no nikah without a wali, Zaamin Khan, the Haakim Mahal, the administrator of the mahals, agreed to be her wali. He would pledge her into matrimony.
Someone said, ‘Maulvi Sahib is here!’ Feroza’s face was covered by the sargah, a gauzy white scarf.
‘Bibi, lower your eyes!’ whispered Tabu.
Everyone straightened up, the domnis stopped their poignant songs, the khwajasaras sprang up to hold a long curtain across the veranda to shield the Begums from the lusty stare of the two maulvis (a Shia and a Sunni) and two male witnesses. Feroza became aware of her damp sweaty back and the suffocating tight blouse in the humid September heat. What if she said ‘no’? Nikah was after all based on the free will of both parties. Would they let her go? Or would she be forced still?
Suggested Reading: 11 Authors Talk About The Book That Has Stayed With Them In 2022