Magical realism in modern Indian English literature seems to have come into its own in Tarana Husain Khan’s wonderful novel built around the crumbling reminders of Sherpur’s misleading past opulence. The Begum and the Dastan presents a rich mosaic and embroidered splendour of the world of nawabs and feudal sardars of royal states of the past.
Told by the granddaughter of Feroza Begum to the great-granddaughter, Ameera, the story weaves enchantingly two ages and myriad actors. But no glitter and grand protocol can hide the dark side of human exploitation and sheer oppression inflicted on the lesser mortals of the times.
Tarana Khan, the author, clearly has considerable empathy for the lost empire yet by no means is she an apologist for the unforgivable dimensions of a system that treated women variously as objects of unregulated desire and dictation.
At the centre of the tale is Feroza, daughter of Miya Jan Khan – named for her blue eyes, somewhat of a rebel in a patriarchal world – whose one dramatic indiscretion was sought to be erased from the family even while alive and buried in an unmarked grave upon death. For her father, the rebellion was that she insisted on attending the Nawab’s swami known as the Jash-e-Benazir because Pathan ladies kept away from the court; and for the Nawab who kidnapped her for forced nikah, that she remained determined to resist his whims and self-obsessed commands.
She may not have succeeded in the end, but she passed down some rebellion to her daughter, Nanhi.
The tyranny of the Nawab Shams Ali Khan was ultimately laid to rest with his shattered body and mind unable to withstand the rejection by Nanhi. For readers not familiar with the age and character of the Nawabs of yore, it would be a discovery to figure out how consuming love for a child could manifest itself into a destructive force as we see in the relationship between Feroza and her Abba, Miya Jan Khan, mirrored in that of Nanhi and the Nawab. Feroza, not having been able to see her Abba even at his death, saw him in her dreams as her own life surrender to the burden of disappointments and physical pain exacerbated by tuberculosis.
“She was comforted by his presence and spoke to him about her worries for Nanhi and how she had to ensure her escape before she died. Abba never replied, just looked at her thoughtfully. His expression only softened into a smile when she told him of Nanhi’s sons. She knew he had forgiven her but was too proud to say so,” Tarana Khan writes.
That passage just sums up the complicated filial feelings as indeed the constant urge to escape: from homes that became virtual prisons, relationships that became constant torture, positions of eminence that became surreal, hopes and dreams that soured, life that became hopeless and meaningless. It is amazing how accurately and precisely the author has reproduced the world whose stories fascinate and distress the modern-day mind. How and why did humans contort humanity thus? Was the moral degradation all special and unique to the Muslim feudal culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries or a feature of Indian society?
The stark contrast between the oppressive opulence of the Nawabi era with its political constraints of balancing the Pathan Sardars as indeed the tensions of uneasy relations between Shia rulers and Sunni subjects, with the modern-day middle class issues like payment of school fees and money to buy motorcycles for demanding sons, is one interesting dimension of the novel.
Fascinating as the challenges and opportunities, if you please, of life were at Benazir palace, the narrative is remarkably enriched by the accompanying allegory presented at crucial moments by Mirza Ameeruddin Dastango, nick named ‘Kallan Mirza’, with a pedigree that went back to the court of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.
He was no ordinary teller of tales like other Dastangos and despite his obsessive indulgence with afeem or opium, produces a masterpiece that begins the first daftar or sequence around Saad bin Ameer Hamza, son of the great warrior of Islam and his marriage to Lalarukh of Koh Kaaf, half pari (fairy), half human.
One Tareek Jaan, the greatest sorcerer of the time created a grand magical illusion, the Tilism-e-Azam, with the help of Kitab-e-Sifl, the original book of magic written by King Sulaiman, the flying takht-e-Sulaimani and the sheesha-e-Samri, the ocular mirror of the first magician. Lalarukh was predictably captured by Tareek Jaan and thus began the epic struggle of her beloved Saad to destroy the evil tilism that shares the struggle of good and evil in a sense with the Benazir palace but more than that the darya-e-surkh that flows there and is red by the blood of victims of crocodiles and djinns that live there, is also the very Ramganga on whose banks brave Rohilla Pathans have lived for more than a hundred years.
Tareek Jaan too has a harem like the Nawab and Zulmat where thousands of rebellious djinns, men, women, kings, sorcerers, and parizads live in agonising captivity. The revolt against the evil and oppressive regime comes from within. Husnara Jadu, the chief queen of the evil-hearted monster who presided over the tilism discovers that she is destined to be the Tilism Kusha or the destroyer. She was of course supported from beyond by the forces of Koh Kaaf and Saad bin Ameer Hamza.
The grand battle is joined but not before Tareek Jaan’s supreme sacrifice of his son, Bemisal, to feed the evil Goshtkhor to get his help. But to no avail against the legendary lauh-e-tilism procured for her that had the magical power to destroy the tilism if armed with the blood of an unborn child. Lalarukh bearing Tareek Jaan’s child willingly aborted it to ‘rid her body and earth of [the] terrible burden.’ But the ultimate destruction of the tilism is recited by Waliuddin Mirza in Mirza Kallan’s place whose failing health over dependence on afeem made him give up the quest for triumph. The tilism went with bang even as Benazir Palace succumbed with a whimper.
The power of the novel is the numbness and sadness it leaves the reader with at helplessly watching the multiple personal tragedies of Sherpur unfold leaving maladjusted succeeding generations good at reciting tales about the past. There is little sense of celebration on the fall of Zulmat and the Zalim but then that was but a magic display exaggerating our real lives.
The ease with which the reader transcends from one level to another, vacillates between hope and despair, sordid real life to magic perversions, the story-telling of Dadi, the inspired rendering of dastans, the carefully superimposed letters to Sara in another real world and another language, turns the novel into a virtual dastan itself and the author into an accomplished modern day dastango. The magic of the novel will surely survive for long and the pain remain a reminder of the past best put behind.