Here is the long-forgotten story of Begum Hazrat Mahal, queen of Awadh and the soul of the Indian revolt against the British, brought to vivid life by the author of Regards from the Dead Princess, a major bestseller in her native France.
Begum was an orphan and a poetess who captured the attentions of King Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh and became his fourth wife. As his wife, she incited and led a popular uprising that would eventually prove to be the first step toward Indian independence.
Begum was the very incarnation of resistance: As chief of the army and the government in Lucknow, she fought battles on the field for two years; she was a freedom fighter, a misunderstood mother, and an illicit lover. She was a remarkable woman who risked everything only to face the greatest betrayal of all.
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He has insulted the king again!"
Malika Kishwar strides furiously up and down her bedroom surrounded by her terrified servants. She, who is usually so controlled, can barely speak now, suffocated by her indignation. How she hates these Angrez, who behave as if they are the masters here, humiliating her highly respected sovereign, her beloved son, day after day. She, the first lady of the kingdom of Awadh is going to stop these boors ... Stop them? In frustration, she throws off her dupatta revealing her impressive figure, while a young servant hurries to pick it up. What can she do? She had tried so many times to convince the king to oppose his "friends and protectors'" escalating demands, but Wajid Ali Shah, normally so gentle, had finally expressed his irritation:
"I beg you not to keep bringing up this subject, honoured mother. The Company is always looking for reasons to confiscate the state. We must not give them any, but rather show what loyal allies we are."
"Loyal allies? Of these traitors?" she almost retorted, but the look on the king's face forced her to remain silent. His eyes were so sad, his expression so distraught that she realised it would be pointless, cruel even, to insist. No one suffered the indignity of this degrading situation more than he did. The resident, the powerful East India Company's representative, had been the real ruler of the kingdom for years now, while he, her son, the king, held only an empty title. He was really no more than a puppet in the hands of this Company, who for the last century had used influence, threats, and deceitful promises to appropriate all the sovereign states, one after the other.
She does not understand ... How did we get ourselves into this situation?
The heavy drapes at the entrance to her room part. A eunuch wearing a white pyjama with a long prune-coloured velvet kurta announces the arrival of the king's first and second wives. Their silk trains rustle behind them as they enter with haughty smiles and majestic steps; their fair complexions confirm the purity of their lineage. The first wife is about thirty, the second barely younger, but they have grown plump and have aged prematurely due to their idle lifestyle and the vast quantities of sweets they consume. They do not care, their position is assured: they each have a son. According to zenana rules, they should hate each other — power struggles are merciless in this cloistered world — but they are friends, or at least, they seem to be.
Malika Kishwar is no fool. She admires her oldest daughter-in-law's skill. Alam Ara has conquered her rival with an assiduous and demanding affection, never leaving her a moment of freedom, lending her servants and eunuchs who report her every word, and convincing her that their boys cannot do without each other. In short, she has wrapped her in the gossamer web of her unfailing love. What better way to prevent her from plotting? The discreet Raunaq Ara is no match for her opponent Alam Ara. Yet, Raunaq Ara, the daughter of the grand vizier, had long been Wajid Ali Shah's favourite, but gradually he grew tired of her, as he tires of all the beauties who grace his palace, one after the other.
After bowing to the Queen Mother in a respectful adab, Alam Ara straightens up and enquires:
"What is going on, Huzoor? The eunuchs told me the Angrez has surpassed himself with his insolence and has even threatened His Majesty? We must do something!"
Her eyes are ablaze. An insult to her lord and master is an insult to her, and the first wife, who is proud of belonging to one of Delhi's noblest families, is cruelly affected by these constant humiliations.
Malika Kishwar allows an ironic smile to flit over her lips. She is aware of her daughter-in-law's vanity, but she also knows that in order to attain the envied status of the Queen Mother one day, Alam Ara would never risk the slightest gesture against their execrable masters.
"Go to my son, he is very upset. You know how sensitive he is. Stay close to him, comfort him with your respect and admiration and help him forget this painful scene. It is all you can do."
Then with a wave of her hand, she dismisses them. Today, she is not in the mood to listen to their complaints or the impossible plots they spend hours on end hatching. She can feel it; danger is clearly approaching. She needs to consult her astrologer.
* * *
A servant informs the two wives that the king is in the parikhana, the "house of fairies" at the heart of Kaisarbagh, the Emperor's Garden.
Kaisarbagh is a series of palaces built in a quadrangle around an immense park. It is a mixture of baroque exuberance with its pale yellow or turquoise stucco and its balconies festooned with high archways, framed by pilasters reminiscent of Versailles. A multitude of Mughal-style cupolas reminds one of the East. Wajid Ali Shah had chosen this syncretism when as crown prince he had this majestic complex built for his many wives, favourites and dancers. Kaisarbagh is vast, bigger than the Louvre and the Tuileries palaces combined.
Located at one end of the garden, decorated with fountains and white marble Venuses and Cupids, the "house of fairies" is a music, dance and singing school reserved for young girls recruited by the kingdom for their charm and beauty. They constitute the king's artistic troupe, a choir and dance ensemble, essential to the sovereign with his passion for music and verse. He is an excellent poet himself, the author of a collection of a hundred literary booklets and highly respected by both Indian and foreign specialists.
When the two begums enter the parikhana, the "fairies" have just begun to perform a play.
Strange characters wearing crinoline or the British officers' red uniforms hold forth on the stage. They are miming the occupiers to the laughter and applause of a few dozen women reclining on thick carpets strewn with velvet cushions.
"These natives really have no moral sense. They have innumerable wives and concubines!" declares a fat lady wearing an apple green crinoline dress in a piercing voice.
"And the poor things put up with it, how undignified!"
"What can you expect with their slave mentality? If my husband ever dared look elsewhere ..."
As an aside, two "officers" comment:
"I am not criticising their lack of morals, but their lack of practical sense. If one of us were to take a mistress, would we be stupid enough to make an issue of it? When we have had enough, we would just leave her. If, unfortunately, she happens to get pregnant, well, that is not our problem! Here, just because they have slept with one of these beauties, these imbeciles feel obliged to provide her with an allowance and a status, and to recognise all their bastards as legitimate children. Can you imagine the inheritance problems we would have if we were to do the same?"
A pink crinoline with a nasal tone:
"My dear, just imagine, one of my servants had herself chosen a second wife for her husband! She said she was getting old and did not want to share his bed any more, nor did she want to do the housework. The second wife would take care of it all and, on top of that, she would look after her with respect and ... gratitude."
"Really, these Muslims have no morals!"
"The Hindus are no better!"
"Muslim or Hindu, these people's only laws are laziness and sensuality," intervenes a blue crinoline. "Which Christian would dream of refusing to do her wifely duty, even if she does not enjoy it? When my husband is in the mood and wants to ... well, I pray ..."
"We all do, my dear. Only whores enjoy such disgusting things!"
In the parikhana, the audience is in fits of laughter. Jeers erupt from all sides; it takes a while before the actors can continue.
A red uniform advances to the front of the stage:
"Whores or not, these Indians are lucky to have at home what we have to go looking for elsewhere, with all the risks — and expenses — involved!"
"Do you know," his neighbour retorts, "that barely thirty years ago, before our young English girls started coming out to India to get married and thus establishing the rules of decency, every officer had his bibi at home, his native mistress — gentle, devoted, sensual ... It was paradise!"
They both sigh, raising their eyes skywards.
"Maybe these poor Indians deserve to be pitied rather than blamed," dares a thin violet crinoline. "Some adore gods with monkey or elephant heads, others follow a false prophet and call us polytheistic because we believe in the Holy Trinity. Fortunately, over the past few years, more and more of our missionaries have been coming out here. I've heard some Indians have begun to convert ... "
Loud cries from the audience interrupt her midsentence. The women, who had been roaring with laughter until then, now protest indignantly:
"What lies! These deceitful Angrez are spreading slanderous rumours to divide us! Who would possibly want to become one of these cannibals who boast of eating their God in a piece of bread? A God they crucified, a God who ..."
"Calm down, ladies!"
A deep voice resounds. Instantly, the women fall silent and turn towards the gilded divan upon which their beloved master lies.
At the age of thirty-four, Wajid Ali Shah is a handsome man with fair complexion and jet-black hair. His plumpness, a sign of wealth and power, accentuates the dignity of his every gesture. His hands, small and delicate, seem weighed down by heavy rings, but it is his eyes that draw everyone's attention: those immense black eyes full of sadness that not even the sweetness of his smile could deny.
"It is unfortunately true that some have converted, or at least, they pretend they have. Not out of conviction — how could anyone believe this nonsense? The English themselves cannot explain it, so they call them 'mysteries.' In my opinion, these so-called conversions are motivated by utter poverty. They occur amongst the poor, mainly because the missionaries distribute money and educate their children."
"But the converts are despised by everyone around them!" objects a woman.
"That is why I am convinced they are making fools of these foreigners and continue to practice their ancestors' religion in secret."
Then, looking around at the audience, he continues:
"Back to this afternoon's entertainment, I found it very witty. Who is the author?"
A young, slender woman moves forward. Her dark green eyes contrast sharply with her fair complexion. She bows gracefully, raising her hand to her forehead as a sign of respect.
"Hazrat Mahal! I knew you were a poetess, but I was not aware you also had such a keen sense of satire! You have made me laugh on this difficult day. You truly deserve the name I gave you: Iftikhar un Nissa, 'the pride of women.'" He pulls an enormous emerald ring from his finger: "Here, take this as a token of my appreciation."
"The pride of women! That good for nothing!" sneers Alam Ara, who cannot suffer Hazrat Mahal. Around her a murmur of acquiescence spreads, as much to please the first wife — the uncontested queen of the zenana after the Queen Mother — as out of jealousy for all the other women the sovereign honours.
"Forgive me, Huzoor," Alam Ara hazards, "but do you not think it is dangerous to make fun of the Angrez in this manner? If they were ever to hear of it ... "
"If they were to hear of it, it would mean we had spies in this palace, and that I cannot imagine," says the king ironically. "If, however, the echo of our games were to reach their ears, I would not mind their realising that we make as much fun of them as they do of us. They have their cannons, our only weapon is mirth, and I have no intention of depriving myself of it!"
With this, Wajid Ali Shah gets up and takes leave of his "fairies," a smile still hovering on his lips.
* * *
He is too good, too soft, and maybe too ...
Hazrat Mahal tries to banish the words that repeat themselves insistently in her head, words that cannot apply to the man she loves and admires — the sovereign. Words that had shocked her to the core when she had heard them pronounced just a few days ago by Rajah Jai Lal Singh, reputedly her husband's best friend.
She had ventured out onto the northern terrace of the zenana, the one that overlooked the Diwan-i-Khas, the hall of private audience. Hidden behind the high jalis no one could see her, but she could watch the comings and goings of the dignitaries. It made a change from the gossipy company of the women and eunuchs.
A tall man, whose slim elegance stood out among the chubby silhouettes of the members of the Court, was deep in discussion with two other men:
"Under the present circumstances, this is not wise! The more we give in, the more the British think they can control everything. His Majesty should put them in their place. Unfortunately, he is too weak."
Shocked, Hazrat Mahal had leaned forward to identify the speaker. She recognised the rajah, a man reputed for his frankness as well as for his courage and loyalty towards the king.
At Court there were not many like him.
She had felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. She trembled with indignation. Weak, the king? He, who presided over the destiny of his millions of subjects, who led and protected them! She had hurried back to her apartment and dismissed the servants. She longed for peace.
Curled up on her divan, she continues to tremble, no longer out of anger but out of fear. She has a strange feeling, similar to the despondency she had felt when her father died. She was only twelve at the time, and since her mother had died while giving birth to her, his death left her an orphan. She had lost the only person who loved and protected her; she was now defenceless ...
Like today ... But what was she imagining? Today, the king is in power, he is young, in perfect health, she is one of his wives, and most importantly, she has a son who looks exactly like his father.
She remembers the eleven-gun salute that had marked his birth ten years ago. Wajid Ali Shah was crown prince at the time, and the whole palace seemed to rejoice at the arrival of this fat baby, even though he was only fourth in the line of succession. Elevated to the envied position of mother of a boy, she was given the title "Begum Hazrat Mahal", Her Exalted Majesty.
She, the little orphan ... as Allah is her witness, she has come a long way.
Slowly, drawing in the smoke from her crystal hookah, Hazrat Mahal remembers ...CHAPTER 2
Muhammadi was her name at the time. She was born into a family of small artisans from Faizabad, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Awadh. It had been a prosperous town until King Asaf-ud-Daulah chose to move to Lucknow in 1798. His departure led to the ruin of thousands of artisans who supplied the vast and refined court with jewels, rich fabrics and precious ornaments. Muhammadi's grandfather had died of despair, and her father, Mian Amber, survived by doing all kinds of odd jobs until, in 1842, he was finally offered a position as a caretaker in Lucknow?
The whole family had accompanied him to Lucknow, but a few months later, Mian Amber died of tuberculosis. Muhammadi, his youngest daughter, was taken in by her uncle who had a reputation as the city's finest topi embroiderer. His topis were said to be so perfect, they would fit the head of the person they were made for exactly, but if anyone else tried wearing them, they would end up with an unbearable headache!
One day, when the embroiderer was working on a topi for the crown prince, Muhammadi could not resist the temptation. As soon as her uncle left the room, she placed the midnight blue silk marvel, dotted with a constellation of tiny diamonds, on her head. She was stunned by the image she saw reflected in the mirror — a ravishing princess was looking back at her. Regretfully, she laid the topi back on the table. Just in time! Her uncle had come to fetch the hat, which was to be delivered immediately.
The next day, their peaceful lane resounded with raucous cries:
"Where is that rascal of an embroiderer? Beat him up!"
Terrified, the embroiderer had escaped through the backyard while his trembling wife opened the door. Before her stood a huge black eunuch accompanied by two guards. He held out the topi.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In The City Of Gold And Silver"
Copyright © 1987 Editions Robert Laffont, Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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