Review: Hyderabad: Book 2 of The Partition Trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
A historical novel set in Hyderabad recreates the immediate aftermath of Partition when the Nizam hadn’t yet acceded to India
Set primarily in 1948, a period of much chaos in a newly independent India, Hyderabad is the second part of Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Partition trilogy. At the time, Hyderabad was India’s largest and wealthiest princely State, ruled by the world’s richest man, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, who carried a multitude of oddities within himself. Though unkempt and unassuming in appearance, he was the foremost Indian prince conferred with the ‘Exalted’ title, and had an annual income of about three million pounds a year. A poet in Persian and Urdu, he founded Osmania University and also restored Ajanta.
The novel begins in July 1947 when it wasn’t clear whether princely states could claim independence after 15 August. The Nizam wanted to ensure that Hyderabad remained sovereign and within the British Commonwealth post-independence. He thought of the newly-independent nation’s politicians as “two penny Indians”.
Jinnah had also reportedly said that states were free to join any dominion they wished, or stay independent. The Nizam believed that by remaining an independent Muslim state (even though with a Hindu majority), Hyderabad could give the lead to other princely states. However, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel wanted Hyderabad to accede to India. The Communists felt that Hyderabad should neither join India nor stay under the Nizam become a free state run by its own people. All this resulted in much confusion. Further, an ancient prophecy held that the Asaf Jahi dynasty would last only seven generations so the Nizam kept his jewel-laden trucks ready for flight. The Razakars, his personal militia, organised on the model of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, added to the turmoil.
With independence, came the Partition and its accompanying refugee crisis with much violence between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims. After much strife, the people of Hyderabad state finally became citizens of India in 1955 under the new Indian Citizenship Act.
The book has several subplots. Jaabili, a peasant woman and Communist, who goes on courier missions, finds love with a journalist, Daniyal. Uzma, Princess Nilofer’s maid, who was given up for work when her peasant father couldn’t afford to keep her, is forced to choose between her loyalty for the peasantry and the Nizam. The instances go on to prove the fact that “when men go to war, it’s women’s bodies that form the battlefield” — a sentiment echoed in Someshwar’s earlier novel The Radiance of a Thousand Suns.
According to a local legend, God began creating the world in Hyderabad. The book contains rich descriptions of the city and some of its famous spots, such as Hussein Sagar Lake, Golconda Fort, Charminar (with its “bangles and vials of attar”) and Banjara Hills (“studded with giant slabs of rock that were strewn at such precarious angles”). The author brings out the multiple fissures that existed in Hyderabad during the era including the Nizam and the aristocracy versus the peasant uprisings, Hindus versus Muslims, as well as Mulki versus non-Mulki (locals vs non-locals). She also delves into the idiosyncrasies and defining features of the Hyderabad court and tales of poisoning and anecdotes about the large harem. These include the story of the second Nizam coming to power via a poisoned meal that his mother fed to a rival. Salar Jung collapsed after a meal of canned oysters. One British resident feared that the current Nizam’s sons would out-poison each other. Indeed, Uzma was brought to the Nizam’s palace to be the poison taster for Princess Niloufer. The second Nizam went to battle accompanied by his complete zenana and Mehboob Ali Khan, Nizam VI, had about 10,000 women in his harem.
The historical novel, narrated against the backdrop of true incidents, is an intricate tale. Episodes from the first year of independent India’s existence, such as Gandhi’s death followed by Patel’s demise two months later, are also vividly described. As she wrote the book, Someshwar, who lives in New York, describes the journey of her imagination through the Nizam’s palaces and through boulder-strewn landscape of Hyderabad, where she “witnessed the peasants’ struggle, eavesdropped on the rabid elements, walked through newly independent India’s corridors of power in Delhi.” Hyderabad is more intricate than Lahore, the first part of the author’s Partition series. In the end, its large and complex cast of characters makes this novel a challenging read but also a very interesting one.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel
The views expressed are personal