Apart from her name, everything about Kenize Mourad is unmistakably French: her looks and gestures, her style and temperament, her mannerisms and speech (including her Gallic-accented English). She had indeed no reason to doubt her quintessentially French origins until she was about twenty. She knew that her mother had died soon after she was born in an upscale Paris maternity clinic and she was given in adoption to a well-to-do French family.
At an early age, Mourad enrolled in a residential school run by Catholic nuns. Like her peers, she not only received a fine education, but was also groomed to observe the etiquette that someone of her class was expected to observe. Families of that class frowned at the slightest hint of rebelliousness in girls, though they were also indulgent towards it after a point. A spirited girl from the upper bourgeoisie could always be trusted to add some spice to an otherwise dull and predictable lifestyle.
Mourad became aware of her connection with spices—authentic ones—in her late teens. Her mother, she learnt, was the daughter of Murad V, the last Ottoman ruler. And her father, Hussain Ali, was the raja of Kotwara in Uttar Pradesh. The knowledge of her true origins—Indo-Turkish—compelled her to revise the idea of her identity inculcated in her since childhood.
Following her studies in sociology and psychology at the Sorbonne, she worked for a few years as a freelance journalist before joining the left-wing magazine Le Nouvel Observateur as a correspondent. In that capacity, she covered developments in West Asia and South Asia, as well as Ethiopia. Her reportage on the liberation of Bangladesh and on the Islamic revolution in Iran sparkled with passion and professional rigour—a rare mix in the French press at that time. She chose to ignore political manifestos and speeches—so redolent with self-serving rhetoric—and focused instead on how ordinary men and women coped with the hopes and cruelties of regime change.
But Mourad soon tired of journalism. She turned to fiction. However, the word ‘fiction’ does not quite convey the flavour of her works. She drew on her own experiences and on research she conducted in libraries and archives in India, Turkey and the UK, among other countries. Her first work of fiction traced the trajectory of her mother; the second, her own trajectory; and the third, the book under review, the life and times of Hazrat Mahal, who, along with the Rani of Jhansi, played a crucial role in the first war of independence in 1857.
Like Mourad, Hazrat Mahal was orphaned at an early age. But unlike Mourad, she was adopted by an uncle of modest means. He was an artisan. The life of young Mohammadi, as she was then known, took a dramatic turn when she defied protocol and refused to dance at one of Wajid Ali Shah’s theatrical performances, where he often played the role of Lord Krishna. Intrigued more than offended, the ruler of Oudh asked her to explain her reluctance. She told him that she wrote poetry. The nawab then invited her to recite one of her compositions. She complied without hesitation. He was so wonder-struck that she was soon invited to be his concubine. And once she bore him a son, Birjis Qudar, he took her as his fourth wife.
After the East India Company exiled Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta, allegedly for spending too much of his time and resources in pursuit of earthly pleasures, Hazrat Mahal steeled herself to combat foreign rule with a courage and determination that commands respect. It was a daunting task, what with court intrigues and rivalries, the shifting loyalties of talukdars and zamindars she had recruited in her enterprise, and, not least, the superior firepower of the British. She met with defeat in the end but not before she demonstrated her valour, patriotism and unflinching commitment to Oudh’s composite culture.
Mourad’s novel evokes all of this with exquisite detail. The only liberty she takes is when she speaks about a ‘relationship’ between Hazrat Mahal and one of her key collaborators, Raja Jai Lal Singh, but that ‘transgression’, if it is one, only testifies to the shared resolve of Hindus and Muslims to make common cause against an alien power!
This novel needs to be read if only to understand that Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the subcontinent was an accident, a grievous one, and not an inevitability. It breathes as much despair as hope. But the novel also seeks, quite justifiably, to argue that Hazrat Mahal hasn’t got her due for her remarkable role in the 1857 revolt. Belated attempts by the government to make amends are clearly few and short of expectations. At a time when extremist elements of both faiths are attempting to hijack the idea of India, Kenize Mourad’s novel comes as a welcome call to revisit an era when patriotism cut across the fault-lines of caste, religion, gender and region.
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