In 1897 in the princely state of Sherpur, Feroza Begum, beautiful and wilful, defies her family to attend the sawani celebrations at Nawab Shams Ali Khan’s Benazir Palace. Feroza is kidnapped and detained in the Nawab’s glittering harem, her husband is forced to divorce her, and her family disowns her. In the bazaar chowk, Kallan Mirza, a skilled dastango, spins a hauntingly familiar tale of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam, where women are confined in underground basements. And in the present day, Ameera listens to Dadi narrating the tale of Feroza Begum, Ameera’s great-grandmother.
Inspired by real-life characters and events, Tarana Husain Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan is a haunting tale of a grand city and its women.
The following are excerpts from the book.
‘Kallan Bhai! What kind of a story is this? How can a woman be the Tilism Kusha?’ Waliuddin confronted him once they reached home.
‘Why not? It is the women who are suffering the most. Look around you. Nigar tells me such things of the Nawab’s harem that my blood boils. What kind of men are these who let their women be kidnapped and raped? They call themselves Pathans!’
Kallan sat up on his charpai, his eyes glittering with anger. The frustration and grief of Tabu’s narratives had become a sore canker in his sensitive heart.
‘There is no Tilism Kusha to break the tilism of Nawab Shams Ali Khan. We shall die under this tyrant,’ he sighed and reclined back on the bolster.
‘Bhai, what about Amir Hamza and Saad bin Ameer Hamza? Won’t they do anything to rescue Lalarukh?’
‘Ah, Saad never came for Feroza Begum. He divorced her.’ ‘Who is Feroza Begum?’
‘Tareek Jaan has taken away her soul, her body is being abused,’ Kallan closed his eyes.
‘Kallan Bhai, you are taking too much afeem. Your mind is getting confused. Tilism Kusha has to be from among the descendants of the prophets in the Amir Hamza tale. He has to be a follower of Islam. Not a heathen sorceress! Besides, your story is too rebellious. If the Nawab gets to hear about it, he will destroy the dastan and you will be put in the stinking jailkhana and your nails pulled out.’
‘The dastan remains the same all through the ages. Names and faces change. Didn’t you see how many people came to hear my dastan yesterday? They love it because they hate the Nawab. In times of great stress, people turn to storytellers and poets to give them words.’
‘You are courting disaster for all of us.’
‘It’s just a dastan. You write it down. I wish I could.’ ‘But who would buy it, Kallan Bhai? The Nawab?’
‘It would be such a tale that the Nawab would not be able to guess,’ smiled Kallan, stirring his afeem.
Nanhi listened daily to Mehdi’s accounts of injustices meted out to the people and became aware of the excessive cruelty of the Nawab’s despotic rule. Mehdi said that the Nawab could get away with anything because he had supported the British Empire by sending troops, horses and the Sherpur Lancers contingent to Egypt during the World War. Moreover, he was helping the British in reining in the nationalist movement among Muslims.
The Nawab, according to him, cared little for Rohilla sardars. He had changed the Nawabi covenant in 1917 to give more powers to the crown, curtailing the rights of the Sardars. The stipends to family members were subject to the pleasure of the Nawab. A spate of letters to the British Agent protesting against the withdrawal of pensions were disregarded by the British Agent. Mehdi riled about the offhanded way the Nawab spoke to him at times and lived in daily fear of public humiliation. He was bound to the court because of his marriage and the position granted to his father and brother. At times, it took everything to quell the urge to storm out of the durbar. The withheld rage would then burst out at home and poison his family life.
Nanhi kept herself busy with her two sons, the expanding household and her official duties. In the quiet afternoons, she would speak her mind to Rani and ponder over her advice. She felt she was balanced over a precipice.