Books are defined, at their most basic, as stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But classics like the Mahabharata and The Thousand and One Nights are enjoyed for how frequently these three sections are interrupted. Structuring a book to consist of stories within stories allows author to escort the reader through some portions of the story, and later force the reader to plunge, unassisted, into a new section. The result is dizzying, but unforgettable. Characters blend into one another, time and space collapse, and dreamworlds feel real.
Readers like me delight in these narrative rabbit holes; we become Alice, eager to explore Wonderland with the book as our guide.
Tarana Husain Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan is one such nested story about a Muslim family and the fate of its women, generation after generation. Feroza is forced to become Begum to Nawab Shams Ali Khan in Sherpur (which appears to be a fictionalized version of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh), in the late 19th century. Ameera is her great granddaughter (p. 6), of school-going age in 2016, who is forced to stay home because her father cannot afford the fees.
Restless Ameera implores her dadi to tell stories about Feroza Begum, whose own restlessness had ruined her life. What follows is a 250-odd page book about inheritance, religion, and the occult. A map is most definitely required.
Khan realises this. Her chapter headings are accompanied with a narrator’s name and the year, and every few pages, footnotes identify various sources Khan has used to build her story: Urdu poetry, unpublished memoirs from the royal harem, the oral traditions of dastangoi, and photographs. As Ameera’s grandmother warns, once: “There are stories, whispers and then there is the truth. My story can draw from any of these or from all of these,” (p. 31).
Indeed, Khan’s novel does. Having acquainted her readers with Feroza Begum and Ameera, she introduces a third narrator, Kallan Mirza, who is a professional storyteller, or dastan. Appearing every few chapters, he recites scenes from the famous Tilism-e-Hoshruba, an Indo-Islamic fantasy epic・contemporaneous with Feroza’s story. It is not a coincidence that the protagonist of this story is another royal woman, Princess Lalarukh, and the calamities written into her fate.
This braid of stories weaves between Feroza Begum, Ameera, and Princess Lalarukh. But the writing style becomes hectic at times. Sections begin with quotations from varied sources, including Urdu couplets which Khan has herself translated. Words are inconsistently in brackets or italics, creating unnecessary hierarchies between Urdu and English. Occasionally, one narrator’s direct address to another character clashes with the exposition that follows. Structurally, too, Ameera’s circumstances feel temporary compared to Feroza Begum’s lifelong entrapment; the latter is better synchronised with Lalarukh’s adventures.
But Khan accomplishes much: a flavour of Nawabi daily life, Rohilla military culture, the Sunni-Shia tensions mixed in with colonial influence, and, ultimately, the women representing each of these categories. What these protagonists share is “Ummeed, hope in the face of fate,” (p. 94), which propels each of their stories onto the next page, through a time portal, over an interruption, and finally, to the last page.
Such novels rely as much on author’s mastery as on the reader’s commitment, and Khan’s attempt is deeply researched. But for a novel which can manipulate time and space, whose characters are consummate storytellers, it doesn’t land as powerfully as one of its colleagues, The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine published in 2009, which opens thus: “Listen. Allow me to be your God. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”
The Begum and the Dastaan
By Tarana Husain Khan
Tranquebar, Rs 499