The Telegraph
Friday , March 7 , 2014
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- The making of a heroine

Farzana: The tempestuous life and times of Begum Sumru By Julia Keay, HarperCollins, Rs 699

It might seem odd that of all the names of Begum Sumru (picture), and this lady had several, Julia Keay selects Farzana to be the title of her book. But then, she is clear in her mind — “A heroine needs a proper name.” On second thought she adds, “‘Farzana’ conveys the requisite intimacy while still implying the status she so jealously guarded.”

Even while rescuing the rather stern-looking Begum Sumru from the pages of late Mughal history and positioning her heroine in a kindlier light than most historians, past and present, have accorded her, Keay appears to be nervous about stepping on the Begum’s fierce individuality and pride. Begum Joanna Nobilis Sombre, nee Farzana, nee Farzand-i-Azizi seems to hold Keay in as much thrall as she did her contemporaries.

From being a nautch girl in Delhi’s infamous Chauri Bazaar to becoming the jagirdar of Sardhana and commander of a 3,000 strong brigade, Farzana’s is a fascinating tale. That she could effect this transformation had as much to do with the peculiar circumstances of her times as her own drive.

The first fifty years of 18th century India after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 was a free-for-all, where, as Keay puts it, “opportunities were there to be grasped, adversities to be defied.” Anyone could join the fray — from warlords to merchants to adventurers to foreign mercenaries, the latter arriving in droves from Europe to serve the Company or individual armies and to make a fortune. All the while, the imperial authority of the Mughals declined steadily. Walter Sombre Reinhardt, one such mercenary from Alsace and a frequent visitor to the lanes of Chauri Bazaar, gave Farzana the chance to escape her past. He too was trying to escape the opprobrium of a past action. That was their beginning.

Unencumbered by the racial or moral prejudices that were later to sit heavily on the colonizers, Sombre and his bibi, who never married, enjoyed an enduring partnership like many other inter-racial couples during this period of unhindered cultural fusion. And together, they made the most of the opportunities that came their way. If Sombre, Sumru to natives, and his art of self-preservation helped the brigade to survive the odds, Farzana’s free-wheeling ways, ready wit, intelligence and sharp tongue kept the men on their toes. It was this discipline, unexpected of a bunch of self-serving and unscrupulous Indian and European men, that helped the brigade and its commander achieve their objective — a permanent commission in the service of the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, in return for the jagir of Sardhana.

Farzana had played no small part in all this. Her personal equation with the emperor, who admired her courage and intelligence immensely, became crucial to the survival of both the Mughal empire in its fading days and Sumru’s brigade. Farzana would remain loyal to both objectives throughout her life, sometimes placing her own interests on the altar. For example, her romantic liaisons after the death of her husband, to a large measure were dictated by her concern for the brigade. In spite of having innumerable suitors, Farzana’s choice of lover was usually decided in favour of men who would provide able leadership to her army and keep it together. The only time she went horribly wrong was is in deciding to marry Pierre Levassoult, in order to spite the indubitable George Thomas, later the Rajah of Tipperary, whom Keay believes she truly loved, and to pacify the rebellious French officers of her brigade.

It is to some of these enduring values or principles of Farzana that Keay wants to draw the reader’s attention. This is in sharp contrast to the existing historiography on the Begum, colonial, nationalist, and even post-modernist, that sees her as a shrewd, unprincipled manipulator who changed her loyalties, her names and even religion, for the sake of retaining her hold on power.

Keay does not deny Farzana’s shrewdness. Without it, she could have hardly survived the tumult of her times and won the adulation of the larger-than-life figures, almost always men, who traversed the Indian firmament. In fact, she was too much of her own woman — “Farzana was not one to be pressured into anything.” Be it in her dealings with the Mughal emperor, his nobles, the Marathas or the British, Farzana negotiated on her own terms. And often, thanks to her supreme intelligence, as Keay shows, she managed to outdo the most intractable of her adversaries, be it in the battlefield or in the more sanctified arena of diplomacy. Many of her contemporaries found her almost masculine in her mental ability and determination.

To defend her heroine, Keay deliberates at length on a very important aspect of Farzana’s life — her decision to change her religion. Born a Muslim, Farzana’s adoption of the name of Joanna Nobilis, that followed her conversion to Roman Catholicism, is believed to have been dictated by her strategy to obliterate her Indian identity and push herself into the closed circuit of the Victorian elite which was gradually replacing the Mughal nobility.

Keay shows the conversion to have taken place long before the English could become a threat to her. Keay does not dismiss the “professional advantage” of espousing Catholicism for a woman who was of independent spirit and would not allow social restraints to tie her down. But she believes that there is also a possibility for the espousal to have happened because of “genuine spiritual conversion”. For Farzana remained true to her adopted faith, employing a personal chaplain and eventually constructing the gleaming basilica of Sardhana that remains one of the few reminders to her enlightened rule of Sardhana that made it an oasis amid the surrounding destruction.

Keay is persuasive. Despite her many failings, the mysterious Begum Sumru emerges from the pages more heroic than almost all the characters discussed in this book. This may have been Keay’s intent. But there can be no doubt that Farzana’s constant re-invention of herself made it possible for her to straddle both the later Mughal era and the emergent colonial era and for her court to become the symbol of a hybrid culture that would soon be lost.

Perhaps Keay would have been able to reason even better had she got a chance to revise her first draft. But a devastating illness claimed her before she could do that. Even in its present state though, this book is a triumph (as John Keay, Julia’s husband, who has desperately tried to put it together says) “both for her who wrote nothing and for her who would so loved to have written more.”