Review: Shehnaz, A Tragic True Story of Royalty, Glamour and Heartbreak by Sophia Naz

The tragic story of a mother told by her daughter
The city of gold: Girgaum Chowpatty, Bombay, circa 1950(Getty Images)
The city of gold: Girgaum Chowpatty, Bombay, circa 1950(Getty Images)
Updated on Jul 28, 2020 03:07 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySwati Rai
200pp, ₹599; Penguin
200pp, ₹599; Penguin

The glamour and glitz of 1950s Bombay that hid hypocrisy and injustice is part of the setting of hehnaz, A Tragic True Story of Royalty, Glamour and Heartbreak. The “royalty, glamour and heartbreak”of the title is perfect click bait that sucks the reader right in.

Sophia Naz etches out the history and turbulent life of her mother Shehnaz, who once led a revolt among the women of the royal family of Bhopal for their right to be educated before being married. Beautiful and erudite, she was almost cast to play Anarkali in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam. Naz pieces together her mother’s privileged life in Bhopal, her genteel convent education in Pune, and her glamorous life in Mumbai that hid the reality of an abusive marriage which left her emotionally and physically traumatized. She charts Shehnaz’s journey from naming herself to securing a western education for herself and her sisters, to being the dazzling diva married to a powerful and ambitious man in Bombay, where she oscillated between being ‘a toast of the town in the morning to being in a loveless marriage by night’. The book talks about her painful pregnancies, the physical and mental abuse she endured, and the financial constraints she suffered.

The narrative reaches a crescendo with Shenaz’s divorce, during which she lost custody of both her children to her husband, an eminent intellectual and politician. The story then leads the reader to Shehnaz finding love in her second marriage to an army doctor in Pakistan, and her life thereafter.

Naz’s writing is lyrical when she maps the history of her family and especially when she ruminates on Shehnaz’s lifelong ache -- her pain at being separated from her children from her first marriage and being denied access to them flows like an undercurrent through the text.

The author brings out her mother’s fortitude and tenacity in her attempts to bring up her children in a safe haven even in the face of adversity, her frailty, and her susceptibility to depression between euphoric highs. The author’s tone is endearing and indulgent in parts but also matter-of-fact, that of an observer who understands that her mother was an aesthete who went through traumatic times.

Readers should not look for earth shattering revelations in the peaks and troughs of Shenaz’s life outlined in this book. Read it as is meant to be read -- as a human interest story of an abusive marriage masked as a perfect union. “I believe there are countless other Shehnazes in this world whose stories as yet remain untold,”writes Naz towards the end of her book. Who would disagree with that?

Swati Rai is a communication skills trainer and freelance writer.

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