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A tale of female stratagems: Review of Gold Dust of Begum Sultans

A story of intrigue, murder, and a battle unto death between three women

books Updated: Nov 11, 2016 21:19 IST
Vrinda Nabar
Sunehri Rait
Veiled power: Sultan Kaikhusrau Jahan Begum (09.07.1858-12.05.1930) Begum of Bhopal leaving the Delhi Coronation Durbar, 1911 (representational picture)(Ernest Brooks/Getty Images)

The book under review was originally published as an Urdu novel, Sunehri Rait, in 1989. The acknowledgements indicate that the current version is “not strictly a translation” because the translators “have taken artistic license, adding drama to a narrative which was linear and factually written”, but there is nothing to indicate where the factual ends and license begins. Gold Dust of Begum Sultans was also the title of an exhibition showcasing the lives of the Rohillas who made Rampur their home after being defeated in battle by the Nawab of Awadh. Though the book’s Preface tells us that the story is “about an adjacent riyasat, Mohammadpur”, all signs point to a thinly transformed narrative of the Rohilla Pathans.

A criterion for any successful historical novel, even one which flaunts its artistic license, is how well it combines history and fiction to create an absorbing story line, and the present novel begins on an encouraging note. While the city sleeps, Akbar Ali Khan’s household is humming with activity. Walls are stripped bare of their rare paintings, the floors of Persian carpets. The overwhelming sense of secrecy and stealth suggests that this is no normal occurrence. It is, we learn soon enough, an escape from his nephew Nawab Asad Ali Khan. Unfortunately this initial suspense gives way to a tedious recounting of Akbar Ali Khan’s pedigree before digressing into a long, not particularly interesting enumeration of the Nawab’s sexual escapades. Any potential critique of the exploitation of the women he ravishes gets buried in this never-ending morass, and it requires considerable willpower to overcome one’s gut inclination to shut the book at this point and not read any further.

Perseverance does pay, however, for the story grows into a reasonably engrossing one of intrigue, murder, and a battle unto death between three women. Ali Akbar Khan dies fairly early on at the hands of the Nawab, leaving his household in the care of his widowed spouse Qamar Zamani. As she settles into her role of matriarch, Qamar Zamani’s greed for power grows alarmingly and with it a seeming loss of self-control. Towards the end of the novel we read of her gradual transformation, a “slipping into the persona of Akbar Ali Khan.” She orders everyone to call her Dada instead of Dadi, her voice grows raspy, and she even begins sprouting a beard! Her obsessive love for her grandson Mansoor whom she has brought up as her own child pits her in venomous battles against his real mother Jahanara (her daughter) and his wife Shehzadi. When Jahanara dies Qamar Zamani can only say this of her daughter’s death: “Good for her, she always blamed me for taking her children away, now at least she will have them to herself without my presence. At last, she has scored over me.”

It is the women who in fact score in this tale of female stratagems which ostensibly begins with Akbar Ali Khan’s death but goes back further in time, to his plea that Jahanara’s groom Ammar Ali Khan come and live with them after marriage. Jahanara sees her son and daughter appropriated and brought up by her parents, while Ammar in turn leaves to follow his natural sexual orientation – towards young men, not women. Unfulfilled as both wife and mother, Jahanara’s bitterness and animosity fester within her. In a moving passage she is shown looking through a telescope, almost a Lady of Shallot, at a young couple romancing on a boat, contrasting their joy in each other with her own life: “rudderless, directionless, dull… She had never known this form of abandon, neither as a child nor as a girl, and not even as a young bride and mother.”

Palaces built for intrigue! (Shutterstock)

The same telescope allows Qamar Zamani to home in on Shehzadi as her choice for Mansoor’s bride. Her tenacity in acquiring the girl, spun out through several tiresome comings and goings, is yet another illustration of her lust for domination. From this point on the novel becomes a saga of how each woman grapples with the other two. This could have been fundamentally thought-provoking given the vast hunting-ground offered by contemporary feminism and womanism. Sadly, the “artistic license” claimed by the translators doesn’t venture into those territories, and any forays remain superficial. Events take on a stagey if feebly plausible flavour, with the two older women melodramatically snatching Shehzadi’s first two infants and Shehzadi vowing revenge, first on them and, in a momentary pique, even on the ineffectual Mansoor.

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Mansoor, who eventually dies of cancer, remains a somewhat shadowy figure. His appearances, usually in the company of other wishy-washy men (even his sister’s progressive husband Shahab is not really fleshed out), have little more significance than as indicators of a crumbling world order. He does have moments of sagacity. As he tells Qamar Zamani who is outraged (“Has anyone in our family ever been in any service?”) at his choice of a college lecturer for his brother-in-law: “feudalism is dying; it is the professionals who will rule in the future.” Such moments are however far too fleeting and the men in the novel for the most part remain stereotypical, somewhat superficial, fun-loving dudes.

Gold Dust of Begum Sultans could have been a stronger novel if its focus on the three women had remained its undiluted core. This does not happen, and the long meandering narrative of female manoeuvres fails to sustain more than a few sporadic sparks. It is enormously readable in many parts, but only because we all (or most of us at any rate) love gossip, especially when it is about women vs. women.

Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic, and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University