Tarana Khan’s debut novel, The Begum and the Dastan, ( Tranquebar, Westland Books) is historical fiction set in the late nineteenth century. A fictional recreation based on broad facts known about a Nawab’s family, probably Rampur, although the story is set in a fictional township called Sherpur. ( Here is the backstory: https://www.shethepeople.tv/books/tarana-husain-khan-excerpt-raffat-begum/ “Raffat Begum: How a begum’s emergence from the harem changed the lives of Rampur’s women”, 4 March 2021 )
The novel begins in the twenty-first century, around 2016, when Ameera asks her grandmother to tell her tales about her grandmother, Feroza Begum. Then the story begins set in 1896. Most of the novel is about Ameera’s great-great-grandmother, Feroza Begum, although in the novel she is referred to inaccurately as “great-grandmother”. ( Read an excerpt: https://scroll.in/article/988872/womens-day-fiction-what-a-little-girl-learns-about-her-great-grandmothers-life-in-a-harem) It is about the abduction of a married and pregnant Feroza by the young nawab — Nawab Yunus Ali Khan. The nawab was known for his roving eye and Feroza was known for her beauty. But when the sawani festival organised by the Nawab, Feroza threw a hissy fit insisting she be allowed to join other women in the zenana. Her father gave in to her demands despite his misgivings about the Nawab. He insisted on Feroza being chaperoned by her stepmother and her maids but man proposes, God disposes. The nawab sighted a beautiful Feroza on his grounds and had her whisked away to his harem.
The Begum and the Dastan is about Feroza, her husband giving her talak/ divorce under the impression that she wanted it when it was actually the manipulative Nawab who had set it all up. There are many, many more details. Feroza is initially set up as this headstrong, obstinate, demanding firstborn. A trait that she exhibits even in the Nawab’s harem except that after a while the forces of patriarchy take over. It is demeaning, humiliating and slowly breaks her, although the fire within her continues to smoulder. The novel extends itself by narrating a little more about the next generation and the crumbling of this dynasty.
“The dastan” or the story is narrated by Mirza Ameeruddin Dastango, nicknamed ‘Kallam Mirza’. He is the storyteller whose job is to narrate stories, to the best of his abilities, despite being in an opiate stupor. His brother had been appointed the court dastango upon the demise of their father. But it was Kallam Mirza’s tales spun beautifully twice a week that had the audiences mesmerised.
Kallan’s narrative style, drawing on the witticism and idioms of the Sherpur gullies, had endeared him to his audience who came from all classes, cared little for the Persianised Urdu couplets of his contemporaries, loved his passionate romancing, his tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat oblique irony. His narrative was the tilism, the magic. While his famous brother, Mirza Aleemuddin, had succeeded his father as the court dastango, Kallan, unlettered was of the masses. Most listeners paid any amount depending on their station in life, keeping the annas and paisas at a predetermined place, generally in a taaq or alcove in the wall. The nobleman-host paid much more.
The women folk, prohibited from attending the opium-riddled mehfils, were his invisible audience, peering from behind half-opened doors of darkened rooms, their eyes fixed on the expressions and gestures of the dastango, stifling giggles and sighs.
The story he spun was of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam,where women are confined in underground basements. Slowly Kallan Mirza’s tale intertwines with the one that the dadi narrates to her granddaughter. Lovely premise, to a potentially lovely story. In many parts of the story it is evocative of a particular style of living that is still elusive. Little is known about it. More so, because Tarana Khan attempts to tell the story from the zenana. It is the women’s quarters, a part of the household that is not easily accessed by men and certainly not by the public. It is a perspective that can be easily exploited to share much more than the court settings and the hustle-bustle outside. There is so much potential to enrich a story, particularly historical fiction, via the women’s conversations, the gossip, the manner of running a household, the internal mechanisms and of course the gupshup over cooking or while selecting fabric to make the prettiest of dresses.
The literary device of having three narrative threads — Feroza Begum’s life, Kallan Mirza’s dastango and Ameera listening to her Dadi narrating Feroza Begum’s story — requires a dexterity that is not always evident in The Begum and the Dastan. As a plot it is an enticing thought but its execution needs to be crisp and sharp. A reader should be able to discern from the dialogue that this specific section belongs to the dastan or to Feroza Begum or Ameera. There has to be a shift in the tenor, in the details, in the mannerisms etc. Instead it all seems to blur into one monotonal narrative. There are no variations in the rhythm of storytelling.
Tarana Khan has established her writerly credentials on food history. Her writing style is exquisite for its detailing. Her articles are fabulously absorbing to read for they are a sophisticated blend of the past, her insight, a generous dollop of storytelling, followed by an old recipe, redone for a modern audience. With this expectation in mind, The Begum and the Dastan, has been eagerly awaited for a very long time. It has been whispered about in Indian literary circles for a while now. Tarana’s regular writing shows her acute awareness of the modern sensibilities but it is missing in the patchwork of a novel. There are parts of the novel that are beautifully told but then there are others that are hastily written. The women could be a little more nuanced. The characters built well. The relationships. They are thin. They lack the oomph one associates with well-written historical fiction — richly told, detailed with multiple layers. As for food descriptions, they barely exist! (More on that later.)
Historical fiction is a specialised literary art form. It is not the mere placement of a story in the past that makes it historical fiction. Salman Rushdie speaking to Paul Holdengraber in March 2021 about historical fiction. He said, “history is alway partially legendary, plenty of room for the fabulous imagination to work. What I have always believed about historical novels is that they end up being as much about our time as they are about their own time. We are looking at them with the interests and concerns of our time. and those interests and concerns find their expression in the past. We see them in the past. So to write about the past is also to write about the present.” To a degree this is echoed by Alexander Chee in his interview with Edward Carey where he says, “I think of historical fiction as being an argument with history, and with culture.”
With historical fiction, the author has the creative license to do whatever they please, but within the parameters of historical accuracy to important details. Within the framework, the author can then take leaps of imagination to do whatever they like. It is permissible. But I shake my head in disbelief when I begin to find a slip such as the use of an oxygen mask in 1911 whereas the mask as we know it today was not invented till 1919 and put into medical use till 1941. It is true that Haldane had by 1919 developed a prototype and by the late nineteenth century nasal catheters were being used to administer oxygen, but masks were certainly out of the question. One slip like this and I begin to doubt the entire edifice despite the innumerable footnotes ( a distraction) in the novel. Then there is the acute disappointment at not being entertained by descriptions of food especially when reading fiction by a food writer. Instead to make things worse, food served to Feroza is described as bland that is spiced up by her maid by adding powdered red or yellow chillies. I expected more. I expected richer, sensuous descriptions of food, that added a dimension to the myriad relationships depicted in the pages — British/Indian/Mughlai; Nawab and his wives /harem; the various levels of women who existed and were served food from the court kitchens; the food served to courtiers/ guests; the banquets at celebrations; food served at naming ceremonies of the babies etc. And of course juxtaposed with the food conversations of Ameera and her dadi in the present age. Or the food descriptions of the dastango. None of this exists. Food and food ceremonies are an essential part of our life. To ignore this aspect of life is an inexplicable oversight. Read Jahanara Habibullah’s memoir, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State during the Raj that is also set in Rampur and has terrific descriptions of food.
I continue to have mixed feelings about The Begum and the Dastan even though it has been more than two months since I read the book. The possibilities in this story are immense but fall short of one’s expectations knowing how talented Tarana Khan is as a writer. I look forward to her next novel.
3 May 2021