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The Begum and the Dastan: Of history and the many tales in its labyrinth

NEW DELHI:  She doesn’t really remember when she heard the story of the woman she named Feroza Begum in her book. Perhaps it was one of those tales her grandmother narrated when the children gathered around in the courtyard of their rambling home. “We loved to listen to the stories of bygone years as they had an immediacy, a reference point – about some relative or friend we knew,” she recalls.

Author Tarana Husain Khan, whose book ‘The Begum and the Dastan’ (Tranquebar) recently hit the shelves goes back to the year 1897 where in the princely state of Sherpur, Feroza Begum, beautiful and wilful, defies her family to attend the sawani celebrations at Nawab Shams Ali Khan’s Benazir Palace. Feroza is kidnapped and detained in the Nawab’s glittering harem, her husband is forced to divorce her, and her family disowns her. Reluctantly, Feroza marries the Nawab, and is compelled to negotiate the glamour and sordidness of the harem.

Khan says that the story her grandmother told stayed with her for years and when she started researching the Rampur culture, it kept coming back to haunt her while she walked through the old settlement of Rampur city.

“I wanted to know how Feroza lived her life, her thoughts and aspirations and her death. I was surprised by my emotional investment in the ancient tale. It made me feel suffocated and vulnerable at the same time maybe because it was a sort of cautionary tale for young girls,” she tells IANS.

Talk to her about the metamorphosis of Feroza’s character — how she starts to ‘accept’ the circumstances with the Nawab, and if a modern reader would be comfortable with that, and Khan asserts that the protagonist’s options were limited by her predicament.

“She was confined in the Nawab’s harem and her family had abandoned her. How did a woman in the late nineteenth century deal with such circumstances? It might be difficult for the ‘modern’ or ‘feminist’ person to understand her actions. I didn’t want Feroza to be a modern woman dressed in ancient clothes. I didn’t want to project these sensibilities to Feroza’s character. In fact, I had to restrain myself from putting my words and thoughts into her persona. She belonged to a certain time in history and her actions and thoughts had to mirror those times.”

The author, who has weaved two timelines in the book, insists that at the core of ‘The Begum and the Dastan’ is the question of patriarchy. “I began with writing Feroza Begum’s story but the question of the state of the girl child in small town India had been troubling me because of my first hand experience teaching young children. Ameera who lives in modern times poses the question — has anything changed for the young girls today. I wanted my readers to think beyond Feroza’s plight. Patriarchy affects young girls in Indian homes by restricting their vision of themselves as well as posing physical constraints. So the life of the veiled Begums and their limited options has a modern counterpoint in Ameera’s life,” she says.

While researching Feroza’s story, Khan realised that there were many women who had disappeared from the pages of history and whose voices inhabited oral history. There were women who left their imprint on political decisions and on cultural developments but rarely found mention in cisgender male histories. “In giving cadence to some of these voices, this book was born,” says Khan, whose previous books include ‘I’m Not a Bimbette’ (2015) and its sequel ‘Cyber Bullied’ (2020).

Currently, Khan is researching on Rampur culinary archives, which is a part of ‘Forgotten Foods: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’, a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that brings together researchers and practitioners.

“So my translation of nineteenth century Persian cookbooks meets the skill set of the khansama and we create something that is workable. The ultimate aim is to expand the repertoire of the local khansamas and enhance their employability. This should also popularize the ‘forgotten’ dishes of Rampur cuisine.The penultimate aim is to publish a cookbook of the forgotten dishes and to showcase the dishes at a cultural fest, the ‘Jashn e Benazir’, which we plan to host in Rampur in 2022.”

Editing a book on Rampur cuisine and culture which is slated for publication in April 2022, Khan is also writing a novel. “It is still in its initial stages. I am essentially a storyteller, a dastango like Mirza Kallan, a character in my book, who spins tales till the boundaries of reality and fiction blur,” she concludes. — IANS

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