Colours of rebellion

In the introduction to the novel, Safvi writes that despite her frequent scholarly engagement with Delhi’s history, countless accounts remain “buried in archives, untranslated, if not lost to history altogether.” The novel is an attempt thus, she adds, to document the undocumented.
Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 01:34 IST

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In A Firestorm in Paradise, translator and historian Rana Safvi forays into the world of fiction to narrate a timeless story, where love and revolution become one. In the introduction to the novel, Safvi writes that despite her frequent scholarly engagement with Delhi’s history, countless accounts remain “buried in archives, untranslated, if not lost to history altogether.” The novel is an attempt thus, she adds, to document the undocumented.

In 1856, Bahadur Shah Zafar was ruling over an atrophied Shahjahanabad. The East India Company had taken over both the administration and economy, and the emperor’s glory was scaffolded on allowances from the angrez. In this landscape, the novel relates the story of Falak Ara, the emperor’s illegitimate daughter from a tawaif. Falak Ara’s mother dies during childbirth but she continues to live in the harem with her caretaker Mubarak.

Safvi enchants the reader with her elaborate descriptions. At one point in the novel, Safvi describes Chandni Chowk as “a dowager who had endured the vicissitudes of time with her dignity intact.” Her previous works breathed life into stones, and her tireless research shines when she writes about the harem and the royal quarters within the Lal Qila. But she also adds charming textures and colours to other descriptions; Falak Ara is dressed in a “beautifully embroidered orange brocade angiya. Her muslin peshvaz was fitted at the top… flared panelled silk pyjamas and a diaphanous organza dupatta completed the ensemble.” Each of these descriptions measures the weight of time — how each object has made its own journey through trade routes to be used in Indian Mughal courts of the 19th century.

In the opening scene, Falak Ara accidentally falls into the river while boating. As she flounders, a young salatin dives in and restores her to life. Through hazy alarm, she registers the salatin’s brazen courage and is smitten by his disarming beauty. The novel soars in its descriptions of longing and love, as Falak Ara and the young salatin, Mirza Qaiser, are intrinsically connected to, and daydream about each other… But they must circumvent a series of social restrictions to be together. Safvi edges around desire and its frustrating repressions with tasteful openness. This is, in part, also achieved by adding many songs, poems and shers that capture the characters’ emotional ranges and responses, as well as the cultural milieu. Some of the most iconic Shahjahanabad poets—from Dagh Dehlvi to Mirza Ghalib—feature in the novel.

Enriched by research

Safvi has spent a lifetime archiving, translating and restoring the histories of Delhi. Naturally, the novel is enriched by these years of research. Between the slow-burn love story that blossoms, Safvi finds gaps to take the reader through a guided tour of the old city. There is a wide and almost confusing range of characters in the novel. For all of its countless characters, however, the effect is clear: the novel is about giving a voice to the many lives and stories that populate the streets of old Delhi. Lives that historical records reduce to numbers and mere names. It is also, simultaneously, about registering the syncretism of that old world—a quality that seems to be at its most endangered in ours. Coexistence is the everyday reality of Shahjahanabad: “You can hear the temple bells mingling with the sounds of the prayers coming from the mosques.”

Safvi shifts between interior monologues and thoughts too, and without distracting breaks, weaves in and out of multiple narratives ably. It is a treat to taste the local flavours of Hindustani when characters talk to each other. At one point, a character curses another by wishing that the devil may urinate on her. Similarly, through various epithets for the emperor and some other key characters, as well as famous proverbs that we continue to use, the novel brings alive the profound heritage of our shared languages.

Falak Ara and Qaiser’s longings and desires foreground the first half, while the second half is mostly about the 1857 uprising. The rebel groups of purbias and telingas—mercenaries who mutinied against the East India Company—loot and desecrate the old city. One of the more lasting portrayals in the novel is that of the emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who is often “engrossed in some weighty matters of metre and verse.” When the rebels demand his interventions to combat the Company Bahadur, Zafar describes himself, in Safvi’s dialogue, as a faqir with nothing to lose and no power—the truth of this statement is made apparent when his directives are unheeded during the war.

The final events of the novel are relatively rushed. But perhaps such is also the nature of the events that had to be recorded. The 1857 revolt is a brutal reminder of the East India Company’s barbarous exploitations of and violence against the citizens of Shahjahanabad. Safvi tells it as it perhaps indeed was, when the streets around Jama Masjid were choking with dead bodies, and the old city smelled of death and putrefaction and blood for days on end. The colour of henna and the colour of blood resemble each other in the end, she suggests. While the final moments of the story leave the readers asking for more, this is a fine, engaging debut novel from a celebrated Delhi historian. 

Published 23 June 2024, 01:34 IST

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