By Srishti Narain
Born in 1879 to a Chishti family in Delhi, Khawaja Hasan Nizami was a celebrated journalist, writer and historian of his time. His greatest contribution as a historian was recording the stories of the ghadar, or the Revolt of 1857, which marked the official end of the Mughal dynasty in India and brought it under direct rule of the British Crown. Of the many books he wrote, based heavily on eyewitness accounts, Begumat ke Aansu (1922) or Tears of the Begums as the English translation by Rana Safvi is titled, containing the stories of Mughals who survived the Revolt, is especially popular.
The events of 1857 are well known to us. What started as a mutiny in the ranks of the British Indian army descended into complete civil unrest as rebel sepoys from Meerut marched into Delhi to pledge their allegiance to the last Mughal emperor of Hindustan, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Ambushed by them, a reluctant Bahadur Shah was forced to act as the symbolic leader of the Revolt. In the months that followed, Delhi was ravaged by the sepoys and wiped clean of its British residents. Because of these excesses, the British retaliated with exceptional force upon recapturing Delhi. The story ends with Bahadur Shah being exiled to Rangoon and the rebels receiving extremely harsh summary punishments.
What remains largely unknown to us is what became of the 3,000-odd royals residing in the Red Fort after the fall of Delhi. This is where Nizami’s account becomes particularly useful. While it has been translated into Hindi and multiple regional languages, Safvi is the first to attempt an English translation of this invaluable source. Tears of the Begums is a collection of 29 stories that tell us how the members of the royal family, and those associated with the court of Bahadur Shah, fared in the devastating aftermath of the Revolt.
The moment when everything unravelled for the Mughals in Lal Qila was when Bahadur Shah left for Humayun’s Tomb on the day the victorious British forces reclaimed Delhi. The second chapter of the book titled, Bahadur Shah, the Dervish, is a poignant account of the emperor’s final reflections before his capture. Recollected by the grandson of Hazrat Shah Ghulam Hasan Chishti, a close friend of Bahadur Shah’s who was with him as he paid a final visit to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the defeated emperor expressed remorse at going along with the schemes of untrustworthy rebels, and resignation about his own fate and that of the country. He is said to have remarked, “This country now belongs to God and He can bestow it on whomever He pleases.” He bequeathed his most prized possession (a box containing five strands of hair of the Prophet), and had his last meal of besan roti, chutney and some relish before heading to Humayun’s Tomb to face the inevitable.
The book makes a powerful opening with this story of the old emperor in the final moments before his arrest. It continues to draw the reader in through subsequent accounts of members of the royal family—some immediate relations of the emperor and other distant relatives—who fled after Bahadur Shah left for Humayun’s Tomb to surrender to the British. Most of them recount with extreme detail and feeling the separation of families to have a better chance at staying undetected, their apprehension by British soldiers, or bands of gujjars on the borders of Delhi. Left with nothing, stripped of everything, these Mughals were forced to either make a living by learning how to perform ordinary labour or take to begging. Nizami recounts the tragic story of the emperor’s grandson, prince Mirza Nasir al-Mulk, who squandered his pension of `5 a month fixed by the British government, and spent the rest of his days as a crippled beggar. Another grandson of Bahadur Shah who was reduced to a state of destitution was Mirza Qamar Sultan. The blind beggar-prince walked to Jama Masjid every night, addressing no one in particular, but only calling out to Allah to provide for him.
Nizami also sheds light on the plight of the daughters and granddaughters of Bahadur Shah. Having led sheltered lives so far, these royal women were forced to strike out on their own after the ghadar. Some of them lost their entire families, such as the emperor’s daughter, Sultana Bano who is quoted as saying, “Though peace returned to Delhi, there was no peace for me.” Kulsum Zamani Begum, another one of Bahadur Shah’s daughters, made a narrow escape from British soldiers hot on her heels and returned to Delhi after more than a decade. The emperor’s favourite granddaughter Gul Bano’s distressing story also finds mention in the book. The young princess who had been pampered by the emperor her entire life was separated from her family and died alone in the dargah of Hazrat Chirag-e Delhi.
There are several recurring themes in the stories that have been collected. Often, the survivors (after the initial turmoil that was followed by resignation) made sense of the drastic change in their fortunes by reflecting on the transience of the world, and got by with the belief that come what may, Allah would provide for them. In some instances, we find expression of anger at all that they have had to put up with, such as in Zakia Bayabani’s story, a Syed woman who berated a Shia religious scholar in an open gathering, accusing him and other scholars who preached about serving the family of the Prophet, of having turned a blind eye to the suffering she and others like her had to endure.
While the stories are mainly about the fractured lives of Mughals who survived the Revolt, they also carry interesting details about the events leading up to it. One such story is about the theft of confidential documents from the magazine in Delhi to ascertain whether there was, indeed, a conspiracy to destroy the faith of Hindustanis by lacing the cartridges of the new enfield rifles with the fat of cows and pigs, the explosive rumour that was the immediate cause behind the Revolt.
The stories in this collection are not only extremely readable, but also appear to be faithful to the original text. Safvi has used the original Urdu words wherever possible with helpful references. The significance of the task that she has performed in making this crucial source more accessible cannot be overemphasised. Tears of the Begums is a one-of-a-kind source that takes us back to the end of a significant era in Indian history and helps us understand the lives that it changed forever.
Srishti Narain is a freelancer
Tears of the Begums: Stories of Survivors of the Uprising of 1857
Khwaja Hasan Nizami
Translated by Rana Safvi
Pp 244, Rs 499