Glimpse into a bygone era
Reviewed by Belu Maheshwari

The Begumís Secret
By A. K.†Srikumar.
Penguin. Pages 253. Rs 299.

SET in the late 18th-century Awadh, this work of historical fiction gives the reader a glimpse of an era gone by. The backdrop is Lucknow, the capital of Awadh, a town full of contradictions, hunger and opulence, a Nawab who is liberal and generous with his awam but a bad administrator, intelligent but manipulative begums, discovery of a new culinary preparation which is celebrated as Dum Pukhat even today, but a culture on the wane. It is about love and betrayal, pride and sycophancy, greed and generosity, a huge collage of web and counter web is woven in lucid prose.

The story is set in 1784, when the British had firmly established their superiority in northern India. They were feared to the extent, that the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, plunders the property of his mother Bahu Begum and his grandmother Sadr-i-Jahan to give to the East India Company (EIC) to placate them. Awadh had signed a treaty of friendship and amity with EIC in 1765. Ten years later, Asaf-ud-Daula became the Nawab. The history of Awadh followed the pattern set by its founder. It continued to be an unending tale of intrigue, treachery and ruthless pursuit of money and power. To this was added moral degradation and licentiousness. Though even in the midst of turmoil, there were sparks of greatness, the construction of a Bara Imambara, the largest arched construction of its time, and beautiful poetry written by literary figures like Mirza Rafiq Sauda, Mir Hasan, Muhammad Taqi.

This work of fiction has been firmly located within the framework of historical facts. The tale weaves it way in and out of the harem, hammams (baths), the eunuchs, the court, the wrestling arena, and the chowks of Lucknow, bringing out the layered life of the times which is fascinating. The life in the Zenankhana with its own text of gender biases, intrigues, jealousies, frustrations and insecurities is so well documented that you are transported to the period. The aspirations of the Begums, who are intelligent, educated women, and their love for Awadh are strong as history has documented. Many a time Bahu Begum, the mother of the Nawab, helps the cause of the state, while Bhabhi Begum as unknown poetess shows her love through poetry for Awadh but how their circumstances make them crafty and manipulative is well brought out in Begumís Secret.

The story unfolds when the region is worst hit by famine and starvation, when even zamindars had to do menial work to survive. The Nawab started the food-for-work programme to help feed his raiyat. A Nawab who could not sire an inheritor, the Begumís quest for a waris to the throne, and slowly how these secrets tumble out of the closet is the theme of the novel. This basic story is told through many plots and sub-plots.

With Delhi losing its splendour, arts flourished in Awadh. Architects, engineers, physicians, artisans and poets adorned the court of the Nawab. The novel does full justice to the intricate pattern of life during the reign of Asaf-ud-Daula. However, there are too many characters which can make you lose trail at times, though the leitmotif is well crafted and the secret well guarded till the end.

The novel should be read to understand the reasons for Indiaís abject surrender to the East India Company, as the rulers only desire to ingratiate themselves with the British and continue with their wayward lifestyle. It has a cauldron of historical facts mixed with courtly passion. A couple of lines from the book sums up human nature: "What an incomplete world this is! Everyone who comes here is seeking and so many yearn for love. Maula in this world you illuminate, why is everyone blind."