Sunday, July 14, 2013

Yet another White Mughal- a look at Wazir Khanam’s life (BOOK REVIEW FEATURE)


Yet another White Mughal- a look at Wazir Khanam’s life (BOOK REVIEW FEATURE)  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

White Mughals have always been the flavor of exotica in Indian history.  After writer William Dalrymple dug out the tale of  the East India Company resident of Hyderabad, Capt James Achilles Kirkpatrick, who converted to Islam to marry Khair-un-nisa in the historical treatise “White Mughals”,  noted Urdu critic, editor and writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has rummaged through the pages of colonial history for another gem of a story.

“The Mirror of Beauty”  — a narrative biography published by Penguin India in three languages, English, Hindi and Urdu in July (2013) — has brought to readers the life of Wazir Khanam, the daughter of a Muslim craftsperson in early 19th century Delhi who took an English army officer and a Mulsim nawab as lovers to set a example of cross-cultural amity in a newly-colonised India.

Wazir (born around 1811), the mother of the famous Urdu poet Dagh, bore the Englishman Edward Marston Blake a son and daughter and — a son to the Muslim nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan . The clan flourished into a unique Indo-Anglian tree with Wazir’s daughter Sophie Blake marrying the famous army officer Alexander Skinner of the Skinner Regiment at a time when the conservative British society shut its door on native-white alliances. A series of wedlocks such as these during the 18th--19th century India perpetuated a bloodline of “white natives”, who sported Christian and Muslim names - and remained on the fringe of the English society in India with their dual identities.

The book which narrates the story of Wazir Khanam’s life, on a broader vein explores the colourful tapestry of a multi-cultural India that was opening up to a new civilisation from the west. It moves across Delhi, Awadh and Rajputana to thread diverging cultural realities together on a common canvas around Wazir’s life, looking into the society, mores, arts and the emerging Urdu literature- especially poetry- unique to northern India.

Faruqi, a bilingual scholar in Urdu and English, and the founder of “Shabkhoon”, an Urdu literary monthly, said he chose the story of Wazir Khanam for the sheer challenge and the scope of the plot that represented India at a cultural crossroads. Native and British India were trying to reconcile the divides - creating a set of commonalities to co-exist.

“I wanted to pour my heart out against the complete ignorance of people about Urdu culture in Delhi and in India as a whole. How about Dagh… He was not a man of complex character but his mother was a different thing altogether,” Faruqi said.

Faruqi says the “book reflects on the 19th century woman”- the strength of their femininity and willfulness in the face of adversities and conservatism. “Wazir Khanam chose a life for herself that was controversial. “Each time, she thought she had made it, success failed her pitching her into uncertain circumstances… Here is a woman, who is willful, who is a ‘tawaif’, a courtesan, but also a human being and a patron of arts,” Faruqi says in an attempt to spotlight the persona of Wazir Khanam. The writer, associated with the ruling Faruqi clan, says “the story, the environs, the lives and legends of the era are in his blood”.

“I know the rites, mores and the ceremonies of existence of Mughal India during the British rule. I grew up with it,” Faruqi says, when asked about the nature of research he put in for the book. “I consulted the archives and the books for the exact dates,” the writer says.

Wazir Khanam’s story begins on a stormy evening when she was returning with her father from a religious fair at the village of Khwaja Qutab Sahib near Mehrauli. Stranded on desolate stretch of the road near Hauz-e-shamsi  (present day Hauz Khas), prone to heists by tribal highway brigands, Wazir’s father sought the ministrations of the English officer who was on his way to Delhi. He agreed to accompany the family to safety. But a stray glimpse of young Wazir bewitched the officer and the two began to court discreetly.

Illicit affairs then were the order of the day. Most English officers of the John Company kept multiple Indian “bibis (wives)” in their homes probably because the English women who came out of England as brides for the young officers of the Raj were “insipid and droll”. The native women were smarter and beautiful – with a flair for keeping organized homes.     

Wazir eventually became the “bibi” in Blake’s home, managing it till misfortune befell the Englishman during a revolt in the Jaipur palace. Wazir was rendered homeless with her two children and forced to return to the capital. A chance encounter with the nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, the ruler of Firozepur, changed the course of her life. The ‘nawab’ was enamoured of Wazir and the two entered into a liaison.

Wazir Khanam is one of the earliest examples of women who broke through the barriers of conservatism, the writer says. “In a way, the story is also an assertion of gender power in which a woman wins her way and goes on to make independent choices,” Faruqi says.

The book is an exhaustive culling of relevant facts from the personal memoirs, dairies, journals and letters belonging to the family despite the writer’s claim “that the story was in his blood”. “Most of the research is based on the jottings and dairies of Khalil Ashgar Farooqi, a retired doctor, who has been compiling material on Wazir Khanam for a long time.

The book is a delightful read because of the rich insights into the milieu of the arts and typical culture of music and poetry that shaped lives of the gentry of the early decades of British rule in India.
For Penguin India, “the book reflects a growing trend of multilingual editions, says publisher Chiki Sarka. “We hope to publish more books across languages simultaneously because some of the books being written in Hindi are amazing,” Sarkar told this writer.     

 Book: “The Mirror of Beauty”; Published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India            

Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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