Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writing Sample: "Veils and Elephants"

This was a preliminary draft of the re-writing of a manuscript originally written by my grandmother, which has since been re-written completely differently by the wonderful author Thalassa Ali and self-published under the title A Song of Hyderabad. Though my grandmother's spoken English is quite good, the MS from which I was working did not flow and was full of... idiosyncrasies. It was mostly a recitation of facts, with special attention paid to the cuisine and dress of the principal characters.
The following was an attempt at eventually working her story into my own, as well as those of my aunt and female cousins from that side of the family, while staying true to the somewhat rambling style of an older woman telling stories about her youth, and novelizing the result. The stories related here are, to the best of my knowledge, true.



The Memoirs of Mrs. Bilquis Jehan Mohammed Nasiruddin Khan
By Mrs. Khan and her granddaughter, Ayesha Khan


I grew up in and near the royal court of a kingdom that no longer exists, and was raised in a manner that no longer exists. Sometimes I wonder if I still exist.

Today I live in a dusty city with my daughter and her family, in a house my darling husband built when the neighborhood was still a barren waste of reclaimed land and vacant lots. It is now one of the most desirable areas in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest and most prominent city.

I was born before Pakistan. Fewer and fewer people every year remember the vastness and strangeness and beauty of India before Partition. Almost no-one remembers my birthplace as I do: Hyderabad in the days of the Nizams, the absolute rulers of their kingdom of thirty million souls nestled in the Indian heartland.

I am approaching my 75th year. Nowadays I spend much of my time sitting; I have grown increasingly immobile, and walking pains me. I can no longer manage many stairs. I sit mostly in the entryway of our house at 29/B Central Avenue; I see everyone coming and going, and enjoy watching my family’s daily affairs. I sit, and I read, and I think, and I remember.

O, for Hyderabad's splendors and eccentricities!

It is said that a person is the product of his or her upbringing; I am proof that this is both true and a lie. Were I purely a product of the palaces in which I took my first steps, I would never have been able to cope with the life that was given me by God.

* * * * *

The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was one of the most splendid rulers in Indian history. One of his Qazis, or judges, a man of power and influence named Moin-uddin Khan, was my paternal ancestor. Two of my grandchildren still bear his last name.

My ancestors belonged to the Muslim feudal class of Hyderabad, whose subjects were primarily Hindu. My maternal grandfather’s name was Nawab Nasir Nawaz-ud-Daula. The family stories about him tell that when he was nineteen years old, he was driving in a carriage on the banks of a lake, and was spotted by the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Pasha. The Nizam inquired about this young man, and upon being told he was the son of Liaq-ud-Daula, a prominent nobleman and courtier, ordered that he be presented at court. Politics were personal then.

In time, having made himself useful, Nawaz-ud-Daula was given many titles and honours, in accordance with the quid pro quo of court custom. These included a jagir – the legal right to collect the taxes of a large tract of land containing many villages; with part of the income thereof, he was asked to recruit, train, and maintain cavalry and infantry troops. These would be used as household guards, but if the occasion arose, he was expected to make them available to the Nizam – technically speaking, they were irregulars in Hyderabad’s royal army. I grew up amidst luxury, protected by soldiers – two hundred African and Arab mercenaries, recruited from the Persian Gulf, fifty of whom guarded our dwelling at all times.

The feudal system was alive and well, and he had been made part of the nobility. As Nawaz-ud-Daula’s success grew, the Nizam decided that he should marry into the royal family; however, a betrothal had already been arranged by his parents to Fazalunnissa, a girl also descended from Moin-uddin Khan, and the daughter of a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Turab Khan. Despite being a commoner, Dr. Turab had married very well, to the daughter of a rich nawab (senior officials and governors under the Mughal Empire) family. Though the match was below her aristocratic station, it must have been considered advantageous, especially because he had recently performed a successful operation on a member of the Nizam’s family. In those days, that could mean the difference between wealth or death for a doctor, depending on the royal patient’s survival and recovery.

I seem to have come at this story from the wrong end. Listen:

When Dr. Turab’s beautiful thirteen-year-old wife, whom everyone affectionately called “Bi,” got pregnant, it seemed that his life was perfect. Unfortunately, his success made many of the other Hyderabadi doctors jealous. Perhaps emboldened by a not-very-distant tradition of intrigue and assassination among Mughal courtiers, they conspired together and poisoned him. I often imagine how panicked Bi must have been, as she watched her husband sicken, racked with pain. He died during her seventh month of pregnancy.

The baby, a girl, was named Fazalunnissa. According to tradition, her family considered her extremely unlucky – superstition even dictated that she had somehow “eaten up” her father. Bi, a teenage widow, never remarried; she went back to live with her parents (tradition demanded that her in-laws care for her, but the doctor’s parents lived very far away in a frontier province.) She devoted the rest of her life to raising her only child and, later, her grandchildren. I often wonder how many women there are like Bi – forgotten footnotes in genealogies and family tales; politically invisible, historically interesting only as statistics. Did those women know the depth of their own obscurity? Did they despair from helplessness? I somehow think not, or perhaps I just hope not. I like to imagine her life, which seems to have been relatively quiet until her death. Having been married young, and having borne a child, she had fulfilled a woman’s function in her society. She was done.

Bi was, of course, far from free by today’s standards. She lived in strict purdah. The word means “curtain,” and denotes the strict confinement and gender separation observed by all well-brought-up Muslim ruling-class ladies of her time (and still observed today by some). They scarcely left their part of the house, the zenana (woman’s quarters). Once past puberty, they would never have attended a mixed function or meeting, for to do so would have meant forbidden contact with males who were not relations. Ladies of Bi’s class sometimes visited each others’ zenanas, but only within rigid conditions of chaperonage and privacy during transportation.

My four young granddaughters would stage a revolt if they were forced to live in Bi’s “freedom.” They wear what they like when they go abroad – they seem, indeed, to wear nearly nothing at all. Even here in Pakistan, their clothes are tight and often sleeveless. They go to parties attended by boys. I smell cigarettes on their clothing. They talk back to their parents. Their television shows include people with tattoos and women in bikinis. They eat Western food, and watch their father drink beer or wine with indulgence. Only one of them prays with any regularity.

But they smile and laugh a great deal.


As Bi and her female family members spent most of their lives within four walls, in varying states of inactivity, they eagerly looked forward to receiving any news, no matter how trivial, of other noble families, of the city, and of the world. Their informants were the women from social classes not observing purdah, who went from house peddling various things, or working as seamstresses. These women also played the roles of gossips and unofficial matchmakers.

After Dr. Turab Khan’s death, twelve years passed in this way for Bi as she raised her daughter, a bright child who loved to talk. One day, a seamstress was gossiping and sewing with the ladies in the zenana, when eleven-year-old Fazalunnissa interrupted the adults and attracted their attention (unacceptably forward!). All the women hushed and scolded her, telling her she was unlucky and miserable. The visiting seamstress, sensing a good story, asked who this girl was, and was told the whole tragic tale.

Now, this seamstress also regularly tailored for the zenana of my great-grandfather, Liaq-ud-Daula. His wife, known as Begum Liaq-ud-Daula, had a reputation for being extremely decisive and strong-willed. When the seamstress, in the course of her social duties, related the history of the unlucky little doctor’s daughter, the Begum was intrigued. She requested to be taken along on a seemingly casual visit, to see the girl herself.

The Begum was received with honor by Bi’s family, and introduced to all the ladies and girls. She liked the looks of Fazalunnissa so much – the girl was considered to be very plain, but had a dignified air – that she instantly proposed that the girl be married to her only son, the increasingly successful Nawaz-ud-Daula. All the ladies of Bi’s family were stunned! They begged the visiting Begum not to make jokes. But the Begum got her way, as she usually did, and the marriage was arranged.

The Nizam, displeased that his plan to marry Nawaz into his own family had been foiled, withheld his consent, which was required for any noble’s marriage. Bi’s father, a close friend and one of the Nizam’s tutors as a child, interceded on his granddaughter’s behalf and persuaded the ruler to relent.

The marriage between plain, dignified, fourteen-year-old Fazalunnissa and Nawaz-ud-Daula was celebrated with much pomp. Tradition dictates that just before a Muslim wedding ceremony, the groom travel to his intended's house in style... It is said that the lead elephant in this bridegroom’s procession had reached the bride’s house several miles away before the groom’s elephant, at the tail end of the parade, had even left. Several thousand people attended the wedding dinner. The couple moved into Nawaz-ud-Daula’s family’s palace, inside the Old City of Hyderabad.

Fazalunnissa, in keeping with custom, went veiled in the presence of her husband’s family for the first few years. During that time, her life could not have been easy, as she did not bear a child, and the families feared she was barren. She was risking failure as a good daughter-in-law, who then (as in most of human history) held the rank of brood mare.

She made a pilgrimage to Ajmer (which is now in Rajasthan, in the north of India), to visit the tomb of a famous Muslim saint, Hazrat Moin-ud-Din Chishti. She made a solemn vow whose nature was not recorded. The subsequent birth of a daughter led her grateful family to erect a silver door at the saint’s tomb. I often wonder what she promised to do, or not do. I wonder if it was chance or a miracle.

In those days, Hyderabad was subject to seasonal floods, and everyone was used to them; the flood of 1908 was, however, extremely heavy. For years it was used as a landmark by most Hyderabadi families, who dated personal events such as births and weddings as “before the flood” or “after the flood.” My granddaughter Ayesha said that this sounded Biblical and apocalyptic and grand. I don’t think any of those words describe the mud and debris and damage and deaths those floods brought.

Tired of the dangerous yearly flooding, Nawaz-ud-Daula bought a fifty-year-old mansion in the suburbs from an Englishman. He renamed it Nasir Manzil (“Nasir’s Estate”) and the family moved there in about 1910. Fazalunnissa gave birth there to her third baby, my mother, in that house. Seven more children would fill its rooms after that.

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