Review: Chandni Begum by Qurratulain Hyder


Chandni Begum was Qurratulain Hyder’s last novel. Written in 1989, almost two decades before her demise, it centres around the lives of two aristocratic families living across the Gomti river in Lucknow and a controversial estate with a mosque and a temple in its compound.

As the story unfolds over a period of four decades or so and across generations, not quite a long period compared to Hyder’s earlier works, we find her holding forth on an issue closest to her heart – a society without caste or class divisions.

Given Hyder’s prowess for knitting and knotting plots, it comes as no surprise that the eponymous Chandni Begum plays only a small part. The novel featuring the three women mentioned on the flap of the book jacket, including Chandni Begum, whom the reader subconsciously expects to have a lavish love affair with Qambar Ali, the romantic revolutionary, ends in a beautiful anti-climax. However, this is rather expected of Hyder, whose writings jump conventional genres.

The story moves at a fierce pace, shuffling between the past and the present – from the Partition of India to the Mandir-Masjid dispute in Ayodhya – showcasing the complexities of life, trying to find coherence in the class-caste chaos, yet never bereft of the trademark Hyder wit.

Red Rose is home to Shaikh Azhar Ali, a renowned barrister and his social reformer wife Badrunnisa Azhar Ali aka Bitto Baji. Qambar is their only child, who revolts against capitalism, and launches a socialist magazine, Red Rose, first in English, and subsequently in Hindi and Urdu.

He alarms his parents by refusing to marry the classy Safia Sultan, and displaying unusual interest in the firebrand Bengali Brahmin, Sharbari, who tells her students “they would never be able to comprehend Sartre if they used so much vermilion”.

During childhood Qambar was engaged to Safia Sultan aka Fenny, who belongs to the aristocratic family that lives across the Gomti river in Teen Katori House, home to Anwar Hussain, the raja of a small principality.

Qambar tells his mother he wants to marry an educated girl from the working class, and to make sure that the bride “doesn’t wear a nose-ring like cattle at the time of the nikah. That is a symbol of the enslavement of women”. His mother chooses Chandni Begum.

However, when Bela, the Panchgani-educated daughter of a “mirasi-bhand couple” comes along, he decides to bail her out of her misery by marrying her. And thereon begin his own string of troubles.

Qambar’s parents, who could have stopped their son from bringing Bela home, are dead, and Munshi Bhawani Shankar Sokhta, his father’s loyal secretary, can be of little help. Especially, when Qambar decides to bequeath Red Rose House and its orchards to Bela. Or when she threatens him with suicide or thrashes him.

As a resident of Red Rose, Bela, who could have had a flourishing career in films or theatre, spends her time shopping to pass off as a cultured Begum and not be mistaken for a woman from a Mumbai chawl, which is where her past lay. When she has had enough of that, she decides to re-decorate rooms of the palatial Red Rose and then orders fancy furniture for a non-existent baby’s nursery.

Across the Gomti river, following Qambar’s rejection, Safia Sultan rejects proposals that come her way. To take her mind off the activities at Red Rose, she decides to open a “convent school” and names it St Sophia, taking a cue from the popular Durga Das Convent and Abraham Lincoln Convent in the vicinity.

When the highly-educated and bespectacled Chandni Begum, who has fallen on bad times, shows up at Red Rose to seek Qambar’s help, Bela suggests she teach at St Sophia’s and dumps her at Teen Katori House.

There is no vacancy in St Sophia’s, so Chandni Begum ends up sewing clothes and living in the servents area. Yet she is grateful she has a place to stay.

Years later, Red Rose House is a disputed estate. There are fights over what came up first there – the mosque or the temple – a barricaded area where once Munshi Sokhta prayed. Apart from the maulvis and the pandits, there are several claimants from Bela’s family to distant cousins of Qambar.

Chandni Begum comes alive once again in the conversations of the post-Partition generation of Teen Katori. Safia Sultan’s brother Vicky Mian, who wanted to marry her, remembers her fondly. Safia Sultan decides to name a school after her – St Monnie’s Convent – as atonement.

Hyder wrote this tale of love and loss, of people and land, a few years before the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground in Ayodhya in 1992, almost predicting the future course of events, of an India that would become increasingly intolerant.

Born to writer parents, Hyder’s first collection of stories was published when she was 11. She is counted among the best writers in Urdu and has taken home all the big awards – from the Jnanpith to the Sahitya Akademi.

Translations are never an easy task, but Saleem Kidwai has done justice here. There are Urdu phrases, that lose zing when translated into the English language. Some of these Kidwai has judiciously retained – the lament that the cry “Aye Bahu” conveys cannot be expressed in English. However, “Allah, forgive my sins” – even with a descriptor “by placing her hands on her ears” – doesn’t do justice to the dramatic, half-mocking “Allah maaf kare!”

One of Hyder’s characters loves to invent names – the reader would think much the same for the author. Teen Katori (Three Cups!) has a Bobby Mian, Vicky Mian, Pinky Mian, Dinky, Jenny, Penny, Fenny and more. Anyone who is familiar with the nomenclature favoured in landed Muslim households – whether in Lucknow or Bhopal – would not need a verbose description of the character after hearing these names. They would just know that Bobby Mian would own a Willys Jeep, love hunting trips, and have the reputation of a “hyena”.

Hyder’s intricately crafted story isn’t a breezy read. This book needs time, several sittings, to understand the rapid socio-cultural changes that have impacted India, then and now. It’s wise to see the world from Hyder’s eyes – 340 pages, and a couple of evenings – is all it takes.

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