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Throwing off the veil; Fiction;Books
Navtej Sarna

THE BEGUMS OF BHOPAL. By Shaharyar M. Khan. 276pp. Tauris. £25.TLS £23.1 86064 528 3

In 1819, Nazar Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Bhopal, was killed when his eight-year-old cousin accidentally pulled the trigger of a loaded pistol. As rivals jostled for power, the unexpected happened; at the mourning ceremony three days after the Nawab's death, his nineteen-year-old widow, clutching her baby and pregnant with her second child, threw off her veil and passionately argued that her daughter should be recognized as the rightful ruler and she herself should rule as regent until her daughter reached an age of maturity. In this dramatic fashion, Qudsia Begum started the rule of the four remarkable Begums of Bhopal which lasted for the next 107 years.

Women had political influence in Bhopal from its foundation. The founder, Dost Mohammad Khan, took his cue from the Emperor Akbar, marrying both Muslim and Hindu women. One of the latter, Fateh Bibi, was his constant companion, in court and on horseback, and she played a critical role in helping him establish his reign. Later, Mamola Bai, the Hindu wife of Dost's son, was the de facto ruler for half a century, skilfully steering the fortunes of the fledgling state between the British, the Mahrattas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. She laid the basis of co-operation with the British by extending hospitality to a beleaguered British force led by General Goddard during his historic trek across India. Loyalty to the British Crown, even during the 1857 mutiny, was a mainstay of Bhopal's rulers.

Unlike those before her, who had exercised their influence from behind the scenes, Qudsia ruled in her own right in the face of opposition and at a time when rule by a woman in a Muslim state was unknown. That she succeeded, even when opposed by the British Resident, speaks for her tenacity. Determination also marked the rule of the fearsome and charismatic Sikander Begum who ruled thirteen years as regent for her daughter, Shahjehan, and a further eight years, after Shahjehan abdicated in her mother's favour. When Shahjehan Begum finally came to power, Queen Victoria was Empress and the right of women to rule was accepted. She brought to Bhopal romance, colour and more than a whiff of decadence. She encouraged culture, wrote poetry and, in contrast to the correct lives of the other three Begums, even took lovers.

The last of the Begums was Sultana Jahan, a crusty ruler obsessed by love for her youngest son Hamidullah, for whose right to succeed she fought a protracted and ultimately successful legal battle with the British, causing London to have the Viceroy's decision reversed. Together, the Begums built Bhopal into a powerful state known for its culture, its splendid buildings, its tradition of communal amity and contribution to the education and emancipation of women.

In The Begums of Bhopal, Shaharyar M. Khan traces the reign of each of the four Begums, describing the battles, the court intrigues and the legal entanglements that marked their eventful century. Detailed accounts of their journeys to attend imperial durbars and Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca, accompanied by huge retinues, bring out the pomp and ceremony of princely India. The narrative provides a gripping portrayal of mothers and daughters, torn between the desire to hold on to their power and to ensure that it went to the rightful successor.

Khan's chronicle suffers from the author's urge to summarize at every opportunity. The section on each of the Begums is followed by an assessment, and there is a chapter devoted to a final assessment of all of them together. At times, an otherwise engrossing tale turns into a textbook with quick guides for the lazy student. There is avoidable repetition. Qudsia Begum is more than once described as austere, Sikander as masculine, Shahjehan as feminine and Sultana Jahan as frugal, and so on. We are told several times that Hamidullah played polo with a nine-goal handicap and that Qudsia used to separate state finances and personal finances meticulously.

Shaharyar Khan, a career diplomat, is a descendant of the Begums. His mother, the daughter of Nawab Hamidullah, migrated to Pakistan after she fell out with her father over his second marriage. Other descendants of the ruling family include Mansoor Ali Khan of Pataudi, India's dashing cricket captain of the 1960s. The Begums of Bhopal shows, once again, that history lies like a veil across the countenance of the Indian subcontinent. It will not go away; nor will it part at the edges, neatly.