The finest quality of Tears of the Begums, translated so beautifully from the original Urdu (Begumat ke Aansoo by Khwaja Hasan Nizami), is the collection of stories on the brutal treatment meted out by the British on the survivors of the Mughal royals, after the uprising of 1857 and the arrest and exile of the last Mughul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, manages to be extremely poignant without being gushy or a tear-jerker. 

That is where the skill of both the writer and the translator comes into play. The book is a collection of narratives, as related to Nizami, after the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1857. Though a lot has been written about the 1857 uprising, also known as the First War of Independence, not much is known about the fate of the 300-odd Mughal royals living in the Red Fort area at the time of the uprising. These included Zafar’s immediate family and descendants of previous Mughal Emperors.

In her foreword, Safvi tells us that, immediately after the fall of Delhi, the British secured the walled city of Shahjahanabad and the Red Fort and punitive punishment was meted out to the Mughal ‘loyalists’ who had participated in the rebellion, then known as Ghadar

Many a story, carried in this collection, will tug at your heart strings, even while others talk openly, and honestly, about the ignorance and arrogance of many Mughal royals, especially the princes and princesses. You will read about the young orphaned princess, Naaz Bano, who, along with her elder sister, Sultan Bano (16), was entrusted by their brother to a eunuch to take them to a safe place, while he fled from the British. While walking, when a thorn pricked Naaz, she fell down and imperiously asked for a palanquin. When the eunuch asked her rudely to keep moving, the surprised princess scolded him, only to be slapped by the eunuch, who then left the two princesses and bolted. Somehow, the two girls manage to take refuge in the Nizamuddin Auliya dargah, which became a safe haven for thousands. Later, both got a pension of five rupees a month from the British.  

Imagine the irony of nobles, whose begums, once upon a time, used to send elaborate food trays in thousands from the Lal Qila filled with the “most delicious preparations” during Eid and other festivals, now becoming destitute and seeking refuge and food in those very dargahs.

Adding to the book’s charm is mysticism, a mix of drama, superstition, and divine intervention and of course, fantasy and romanticism. After all, these were stories related to Nizami after a lapse of time by the Timurid Dynasty’s survivors, and as all narratives, specially oral ones tend to do, some additional spice creeps in.

For instance, in the Mendicant Prince’s tale, the story of the man married to the last Mughal Emperor’s daughter, who, even at the best of times, stayed away from the trappings of power and wealth, and confined himself to eating simple food – just two jau ki roti (barley rotis) and prayers. But, he was fond of personal grooming and itr, a collection of which he kept in a small box. After the 1857 mutiny, he left his palatial house in the Qila, taking with him only his prayer mat, itr, and two eggs. All his gold and jewellery, he gave to his servants, asking them only to take care of his wife and their six-year-old princess. But, the servants desert them soon, and then, there is a mysterious dream, a benefactor, and though the mendicant-royal dies, his wife and daughter are well taken care of in Alwar in a comfortable home.

Above all, the pathos, tragedy, and irony of the once-mighty now reduced to penury family comes through powerfully as you read about the victims and survivors of the siege of Delhi in 1857. Some royals did put up a valorous fight, mostly to fall to the might of the British soldiers and their Indian lackeys. Providence took others in different directions. In the last chapter, we read about a son of Zafar, the Emperor, through a slave girl who fell out of favour with the King, ending up as a chef at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay!

Safvi’s words resonate with you when she writes: “I have cried as I have translated some of these stories and wondered at the transient nature of the world.” The most poignant story is about the surrender and arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar himself. A story related by Nizami’s grandfather, who was the caretaker of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Shrine, describes Zafar as an “enlightened dervish and mystic, who had imbibed spiritual knowledge of the unseen. He had divined the events of the Ghadar or uprising much before the event took place through his spiritual powers but was content to place his trust in the will of God.”

The Nizamuddin Shrine was his favourite and he would visit it during important festivals and ceremonies as the annual urs. Zafar says that as the Ghadar failed and his arrest was imminent, he left the Qila of Delhi and came to the revered shrine. Says the grandfather: “He was in a state of despondency and despair. His face was lined with worry and his clothes were covered in dust.” He admitted trusting the rebels was a mistake. “They were bound to go down and take me with them. Now, they have run away. I am a mendicant, but I am a descendant of the Timurid race, which has the instinct and courage to go down fighting. But, my end has already been revealed to me. I am the last Timurid to sit on the throne of Hind. The lamp of the Mughal dynasty is about to be snuffed out; it shall last only for a few more hours. Why then should I indulge in unnecessary bloodshed?”

That’s why he had voluntarily left the Qila, leaving the country to God. “For hundreds of years, my ancestors ruled Hindustan through force and fear. Now, it is time for others to rule. There is no reason to mourn, for we too removed someone from the throne and destroyed their dynasty to establish ours.”

The Badshah then entrusted to Nizami’s nana’s care a small box containing five strands of hair from the Holy Prophet’s beard, saying they had been acquired by Amir Timur after the conquest of Constantinople, and had been “passed down our family as a special blessing”. The box was carefully kept in the dargah’s treasury where it remains even today, being displayed once a year on a holy day.

Zafar then asked for some food, saying he had missed his last three meals and was hungry. He declined the invitation to visit their home and the offer of protection saying, “I will not jeopardise the lives of my pir’s children to defend this old body. I will eat a few morsels and then go to Humayun’s tomb. Destiny will fulfill what fate holds in store for me.” Zafar ate a few morsels and left for Humayun’s tomb where he was arrested and exiled to Rangoon.

As I read this account, it brings back to memory William Dalrymple’s fascinating book, The Last Mughal, where the historian/writer has painted a brilliant portrait of the Mughal Emperor, erasing his caricature as an incompetent buffoon that many historians and writers have presented of the poet-king.

I turned the last page of Safvi’s gripping narrative, written in a very engaging style, humming my favourite lines from Zafar’s poignant ghazal Lagta nahi hei dil mera, penned in Rangoon.

Umre daraaz maang ke laye thhey char din; Do arzoo mei kat gayi,do intezaar mein. (I had borrowed a life span of four days; two were spent in aspiring, the other two in waiting.)

(Rasheeda Bhagat is a veteran journalist; currently she is the editor of Rotary News)

About the Book

Tears of the Begums: Stories of the survivors of the uprising of 1857

Khwaja Hasan Nizami, Translated by Rana Safvi

Hachette India

Pages: 212; Price: ₹499

Click the link to check out the book on Amazon