Decadent and dark secrets

Decadent and dark secrets

Instead of standing up to them the native rulers bought peace through humiliating treaties allowing the scheming East India company officials to have a free run in matters of state. A decadent royalty immersed in sensual pleasures had neither the will nor inclination to improve the lot of the populace. Awadh during this period was one such state in the twilight years of power with the Nawab and his court coming to terms with the British masters.

A K Srikumar has chosen this milieu as the backdrop for his historical novel  The Begum’s Secret. Set in the year 1784 when Awadh had been reeling under drought resulting in massive migration of people to capital Lucknow in search of food and employment, the novel strives to capture the spirit of the uncertain times. As the plot is woven around the vacillating and fun-loving Nawab Asaf-ud-daula and his court the reader is offered a rich fare of power, intrigue, betrayal, loyalty and sacrifice. The public derive pleasure from wrestling matches, cock fights and harem gossip .

 The somnolent court wakes up with the arrival of a messenger from Calcutta conveying the news of Lat Sahib’s (Warren Hastings) proposed visit to Lucknow. There is excitement all around as the visit involves enormous preparations resulting in employment for many. It also offers ample opportunity for the self-seeking nobility to undermine the Nawab by currying favour with the foreign masters. In the midst of famine and poverty the Nawab conceives a grandiose plan to build an Imambara (Shia prayer house) which will dwarf  any similar structure. It is Begum Shams-un-nisa’s suggestion that the multitude employed to build the imambara get food in return for work as the treasury is empty. Srikumar has deftly woven into the plot a dark romantic secret of the Begum which unfolds towards the end. Attention to period details including the bejewelled royalty wallowing in opulence undeterred by the penury all around, fetid streets of Lucknow lined with sweetmeat shops  and havelis, poets and nautch girls, gastronomic delights dished out by famed chefs, the bazaar buzz, motley crowd of entertainers and scheming eunuchs mirror the times faithfully.  The construction of Bada Imambara, a major architectural attraction even now, also gives birth to a culinary tradition Dum Pukht (rice pulav/khichri) through its make-shift kitchen. For those interested in the degenerate bygone era peopled with eccentric but warring royals and their consorts, crafty and lecherous East India Company officials, the novel has plenty to offer.

The Begum’s Secret has quite a few dramatic moments worth remembering as the reader is taken through the twists and turns of this royal saga of loyalty, conspiracy, illicit love and betrayal. The powerful narrative brings alive the bustling chowks, the wrestling arena, the harem, the court and the lackeys. No doubt, a well-researched work but
history with shades of mystery alone won’t make a novel great.

The run of the mill characterisation is a blemish. Protagonists rarely venture beyond the stereotype. One or two characters with depth, not necessarily larger-than- life figures, would have made a difference.

The Begum’s secret
A K Srikumar
Penguin, 2010,
pp 353, Rs 299

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