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Storyboard18 | Bookstrapping: Tears of the Begums - Stories of Survivors of the 1857 War

August 06, 2022 / 04:53 PM IST
An 1859 hand-coloured lithographed plate depicting the Indian war of Independence of 1857-58, from the book 'Campaign in India 1857-58'. (Image by
George Frank Lin Atkison via Wikimedia Commons)

An 1859 hand-coloured lithographed plate depicting the Indian war of Independence of 1857-58, from the book 'Campaign in India 1857-58'. (Image by George Frank Lin Atkison via Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, August does have the curious effect of stirring up our latent patriotism. We at Bookstrapping are no exception to the rule. We were scouring bookshelves for those works that shine a new light on our freedom struggle, when we encountered Tears of the Begums.

Author Khwaja Hasan Nizami wrote 12 books on the events that unfolded in 1857, all based on eyewitness accounts of survivors. Priceless! Of these, the most popular collection of stories was Begumat ke Aansoo, which was first published in 1922. It went into 13 re-prints by 1946 and was also published bookstrapping 280x198in Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bangla, and Marathi. Tears of the Begums is probably the first complete English translation! The value of translations in literature is too great to be estimated and I will repeat this ad nauseam.

Bear in mind that Khwaja Hasan Nizami was living at a time when the British were ruling India. The very fact that he was able to collect and publish these stories at all, is noteworthy! Apparently, this book was banned during World War 1 by the British government. Later, Sir Malcolm Hailey who served as Chief commissioner of Delhi from 1912 to 1918 allowed its publication.

Here are a few reasons why this book deserves a read:

The ‘spoils of war’ are often referred to in terms of the destruction of lives and erosion of economies. But what about human dignity? For eg; what happened to the Mughal Queens after 1857, when the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar was deposed and exiled to Rangoon by the British East India Company? The stories are nothing short of horrifying.

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Bahadur Shah Zafar’s granddaughter, Gauhar Begum, was 13 years old when her mother passed away at the time of the war. Gauhar moved from pillar to post and eventually landed up as a cook in some house, only to be met with lecherous intentions time and again. Relegated to begging, she met an employee at a dispensary, who agreed to employ her in his house as a cook. He asked her, “Do you have any guaranteer?” She replied, “I don’t have anyone except for Khuda, please don’t ask me anything more as I don’t have the strength to answer.” She married the man eventually, but this fall from emperor’s grandchild to commoner’s wife, was a more respectable fate than most people met.

A line in the book quotes a mystic talking to Bahadur Shah Zafar. He says, “I think your ancestors have committed some grave mistakes, of which the gravest is that they have put up a barrier between the lover and the Tears of the Begums book coverbeloved.” He is referring to the fact that Emperor Mohammed Shah is buried between the shrines of Hazrat Mehboob- ae- Ilahi and Hazrat Amir Khusrau. The mystic attributes this separation of lovers as the cause of the destruction faced by the Mughal Empire.

It’s not just the women - Mirza Nasir Al Mulq, the grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, wasted away his pension and took heavy loans against it. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, begging was his only means of surviving and he could be seen dragging himself around. He couldn’t move his legs as they were paralysed and he had a bag around his neck to collect alms. The author uses this example to encourage people to develop their own character and gain knowledge, rather than just bask in the glory of their ancestors.

There is a reference to a box in the book, owned by Bahadur Shah Zafar, which has five strands of hair from the blessed beard of Prophet Muhammad. “This has been passed down in our family as a special blessing, now there is no place for me in this wide world and I don’t know where I can take it, I am placing the box in your care as you are the worthiest person I know,” the Emperor says to the grandfather of the writer, Khwaja Hassan Nizami. This episode elevates the gravitas of the book.

What does it mean to be true to one’s faith? Zakia, a descendant of the Prophet quotes the Hadith, “Leave that which makes you doubt, for that which doesn’t make you doubt.” Then she asks, “I haven’t been able to understand it clearly. How can we leave something, which we have doubts about? It is beyond the capacity of any ordinary person, to only adapt and believe those things, they have no doubt about.” Her father, a learned man explains - the Hadith asks us to adopt those actions which are clear of suspicion. For eg; if one man says there is God, another denies it, and a third says he’s not sure, then the first who believes is at peace, the second one who denies is also at peace. But it is the third who is indecisive and doubtful, who remains uncomfortable and unhappy. What a lovely lesson!

What was the last meal of the Great Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar - it was besan roti, chutney made of vinegar and some relish. The Badshah was so hungry that he thanked God for his mercy, and left for Humayun's Tomb where he was arrested and later exiled.

A fitting first book review for August 2022 - the month when India celebrates 75 years of her independence.
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta is an independent columnist, biographer and bibliophile. She is credited with the Red Dot Experiment, a decadal six-nation study on how culture impacts communication. She's on Twitter @OfficialReetaRG
first published: Aug 6, 2022 04:53 pm
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