Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Kim's Review: In the City of Gold & Silver - The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal

Little is known and written about 1857 (the First War of Indian Independence) from the Indian perspective. Most easily available accounts today are from the British perspective and the British press of the time. So in their language, 1857 was a mutiny, a revolt by the armed forces, not a mass uprising against them and their practices in India.

Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar's 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising is one of the few personal accounts from an Indian perspective that has been published in English. Mahmoood Farooqui's Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857 is a unique perspective in which Mahmood has translated correspondence between aam aadmi - common people - during the run up to 1857. Sangeeta Bhargava's - The World Beyond is set in Lucknow, during 1857, but its more about an impossible love story than history. But neither of these books speak about the strategy and the planning that went into this First War of Indian Independence and how it was scuttled by an untimely revolt in Meerut.

Kenize Mourad's "In the City of Gold and Silver" fills in this gap very well. While it is a book of Historical Fiction, the facts haven't been altered.

In the City of Gold and Silver revolves around Begum Hazrat Mahal - one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah the ill fated Nawab of Oudh (Awadh). After facing multiple ignominies by the East India Company, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is unceremoniously deposed and deported to Calcutta. He takes some of his wives and children with him, while his Queen Mother Malika Kishwar heads to England to petition the British Queen to restore her son's kingdom to him.

Begum Hazrat Mahal is left behind in Lucknow, with her son Birjis Qadar. With the help of a few loyalists like Raja Jai Lal, the endorsement by Bahadur Shah Zafar, and allies like the Rani of Jhansi, Nana Saheb and Maulvi of Faizabad she launched a formidable defense and attack against the British.

In the City of Gold and Silver is the tale of a dancing girl who grew up to become one of the most powerful women in India in the 19th century and one of the few people who actually threatened the might of the East India Company. Politically astute and a leader of the masses, she successfully unites the masses and the gentry to repel the invaders. However, in the long run, the First War of Indian Independence did not succeed in driving out the British and Begum Hazrat Mahal and her son were finally exiled into Nepal.

Kenize Mourad has researched this book, very thoroughly, quoting both British and Indian sources. But the tale she spins, is so masterfully crafted, that while it brings history alive, it also keeps the reader hooked into the story. The present continuous style of writing is a little tedious at first, but I soon learned to ignore it as the story was so gripping and captivating.

The success of a book for me is in how emotionally involved it makes me and this was a book I got very emotional when reading. I am not easily prone to anger, but some of the facts and the callous nature of the East India Company when it came to dealing with the "natives" quite enraged me. I was completely unaware of the role of the Nepali Prime Minister and the Sikh regiments during 1857 and it was quite a shocking revelation for me. I always thought of the Salar Jungs as wealthy philanthropists who gifted their collection to the country in the form of Hyderabad's Salar Jung Museum, so it was equally shocking to learn that Salar Jung I - Prime Minister of the Nawab of Hyderabad in 1857 was an Anglophile and prevented the Nawab from joining the war.

I just wish history in schools was taught with details like these that make characters come alive rather than just rote memorisation of names and dates.

This book in the wrong hands could be quite incendiary, but what the reader needs to realise is that this is history, its time has passed. The generations of today cannot be held responsible/accountable/liable for what happened 150 years ago or what their predecessors did. The only thing that we can learn from history is how not to repeat the mistakes from our past.

This is a definitely a book worth reading.

Rating : 4 / 5

In a Stirrup For a Begum, Dileep Padgaonkar reveals more about Kenize Mourad's background and her relationship with Begum Hazrat Mahal.

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