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The Begum and the Dastan: Chronicling Women Who Challenged History

Feroza Begum

Benazir Palace, Sherpur, 1896

When Feroza Begum laid eyes on the Nawab, she was struck dumb with awe at his wondrous persona. When the time came for her to depart, she fell at the Begum’s feet, imploring her to let her stay for some more time. It became obvious to all that she was unhappy with her husband and in love with the Nawab. Feroza Begum promised to spend her life as the Nawab’s servant girl. The Nawab said, ‘This is your household matter and the solution should also come from you.’ They conferred and persuaded her
husband to give talaq to Feroza. It is possible that at the time of the divorce some amount was made over to the groom by the Nawab.

Darbar-e-Sherpur, Bilquis Begum

There are stories, whispers and then there is the truth. My story can draw from any of these or from all of these. That evening, Feroza Begum and her family entered through the ladies’ entrance to the durbar hall of the Benazir Palace. It led to a gallery that ran around the hall, shuttered with split bamboo curtains hanging on elaborate arches to shield the ladies from male eyes.

A khwajasara servants ushered them to their seats to the right of the royal throne where they had a good view of the proceedings. The lights in the viewing gallery were low such that only the silhouettes of the ladies with a gleam of colour could be discerned by an attentive male eye.

Feroza sat close to the frieze, peering at the hall resplendent with glittering chandeliers, turbanned kings, bejewelled in their long jama-kurtas, the noblemen and British officers in their smart trousers and red coats with badges and insignia. The musicians were seated at the centre on a platform with Moonga Jan, glamorous in her red and gold dancing costume, lithe and ready, her tinkling feet beating a rhythm.

The chobdars (mace-bearers) entered the hall and announced the arrival of the Nawab, reciting his high-sounding titles—Ameer- ul-Umara, Farzand-e-Aala, Daulat-i-Inglishiya.

Everybody rose from their seats and the British officers tucked their black hats under their arms. Moonga Jan bent double with her salaam. Zubeida Begum asked Feroza to get back to her seat.

‘Ammi, no one can see us from outside. Let me just look at the Nawab once.’ The Nawab entered with quick, impatient steps, his head surging ahead of his body, flanked by the British Agent and the Chief Minister. The British and Pathan officers followed. By any standards, his frame was unimpressive and puny, but clothed in a cleverly padded, flesh-coloured brocade shervani. The ruby gleaming in his sarpech (aigrette) and the pearl and diamond strings covering the pigeon chest created a dazzling aura of royalty. The Nawab turned to speak to his Chief Minister, the immaculately clipped moustaches quivering with his smile. It was an unremarkable face, imprinted with an arrogance that befitted all the tales of despotism she had heard whispered about him.

‘Bibi, it’s him!’ Tabu clutched her hand and whispered.
He knew her. She had insulted the Nawab and identified herself as the daughter of Miya Jan Khan. She watched as he sat down on his brocade takht with a swish of his coat and motioned the gathering to take their seats with a whisk of his hand. He was vindictive, Abba often said, and he never forgot or forgave a rebuff. Fear pricked at the roots of her hair and dripped down her back.

Moonga Jan stood up and began her recital, her feet synchronising with the thaap of the tabla, commanding the orchestra with a beat of her hand and the twirl of her skirts. The Nawab leaned forward as though his whole being depended on the words of the todi. ‘Moonga Jan sold off all her jewellery and came to Sherpur to learn from the great Ameer Khan, from the family of Tansen,’ Asiya whispered. Feroza barely listened to her. The Nawab was known for his lechery but maybe she had gone overboard in her anger. But if she hadn’t resisted, he would have molested her. He could destroy their lives and condemn even their future generations.

She had to tell Abba everything. Miya Jan would be in a towering rage and blame Zubeida—all that had to be endured. The only way out was for Abba to apologise on her behalf. Knowing his loathing for the Nawab, she felt sure that he would never do so—not even out of his love for her. She would cause the downfall of her family. Maybe she was making too much out of a small incident of mistaken identity. The Nawab might already be embarrassed about flirting with a Pathan Sardar’s daughter.

The recital ended and the Nawab took off a long string of pearls and gave it to a salaaming Moonga Jan. A flickering red glass lamp was placed before the Nawab, indicating that he would now recite his ghazal.

The Nawab began with salutations to his teachers and then paused, his gaze concentrated on the quivering red shadow of the lamp, looked up and said, ‘This afternoon I composed a ghazal in honour of a chance meeting that left me yearning:

Kiya us ne qatl aur mai ney muaaf,
Abas ahl-e-shahar uska charcha karein.
(She slew me and I forgave her,
Needlessly the townfolk speak of us.)’
The Nawab touched his forehead, acknowledging the appreciative ‘wah, wah’, and turned towards the enclosure where Feroza sat and continued reciting his ghazal.
‘Wo jab aap se apna parda karein,
To band-e-qaba kis tara vaa karein.
(When she keeps herself veiled from me
How can I unknot her tunic.)’

He finally stood up, the eyelids half-closed and said, ‘These last lines in honour of her anger:

‘Unhein kyon ho “Nazim” qayamat ka dar,
Jo har roz ik fitna barpa karein.8
(She fears not the apocalypse, o Nazim,
For she construes anarchy every day.)’

The listeners broke out into cries of ‘wah, wah, kya khoob’ requesting an encore. With a bashful boyish smile, he touched his forehead and turned his face slightly towards Feroza’s enclosure. Feroza walked out of the enclosure to the veranda.

‘What happened? Are you all right?’ Asiya had followed her. ‘Asiya, help me!’ Feroza pulled Asiya into a side room and briefly narrated the whole episode.

‘Asiya, tell me what should I do? Tell Abba? Apologize?’ ‘The ghazal was for you, Feroza? The Nawab is besotted…’ All the frightening possibilities lay unsaid between them. ‘But I’m married. Maybe he doesn’t know…’

Of course, the Nawab knew of her marriage. He had even attended the function and given a gift. There was little that escaped his notice in the lives of his prominent subjects. Some said he even paid the house servants to spy on the families.

‘Abba knows him so well. Oh, what a fool I have been! I can’t stay here. I’m scared … Tabu, go, call Ammi. We’ll leave right now.’ They had all heard tales of the so-called bashata women who lured young girls into the harem with false promises. Even Miya Jan Khan would be powerless if the Nawab trapped her in his harem. ‘No, wait, I will go back with Tabu in your tonga, Asiya. You explain to Ammi. Tabu, quickly get our burqa from the zenana.’

The Nawab must have sensed that she had left the gathering and if he intended to stop her, he would act fast. Ammi was always so slow and they would have to explain everything to her first. Asiya went off to summon the tonga.

Within minutes Feroza and Tabu were out on the side veranda waiting for the tonga. The stables were right under the high plinth of the palace and the tongas were lining up for the ladies as the programme ended. A dilapidated tonga with a scrawny horse came up to them. No one was approaching it—that must be the one. She and Tabu settled into it and the driver pulled down the thick curtains attached to the hatch. He probably had no idea that the veiled women were not his mistresses. The path to the gate was alive with spasmodic fireflies under the grim mango trees. The driver got down at the gates reporting to the guards who logged the departure in the register.

Finally, they were out of the gates of Benazir Palace and Feroza relaxed as the tonga clip-clopped back to the town. A twinge in her abdomen reminded her of her baby. She longed for her bed at home and for Murtaza’s arms around her. She would go back to Murtaza tomorrow. But how would she explain her sudden departure from her father’s place? Should she tell him everything?

The buggy came to a halt. Tabu peeped out.

‘Bibi, we’re at the qila gates. Where is he taking us?’ The driver was talking to a soldier on horseback. ‘Give him the address. Maybe he’s mistaken.’ The buggy pulled into the fort gates and the huge wooden gates closed behind them. ‘O tonga driver, stop! Where are you taking us? We have to go to Nasrullah Khan Bazaar, to the kothi of Miya Jan Khan,’ yelled Tabu, leaning out of the curtain.

A soldier rode up to them and said, ‘It is the order of the Nawab that the daughter of Miya Jan Khan shall be escorted to the mehman khana (guest house) near the Durbar Hall.’

The Begum and the Dastan is a novel by Tarana Husain Khan. You can purchase it here.

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