Of Turkish and Indian descent, author
Kenizé Mourad recounts the history of the courageous Begum Hazrat Mahal in her highly acclaimed novel Dans la Ville d’or et D’argent, published in French and translated into eight languages. Deepshikha Punj finds out from the author about what prompted her to pen this book and much more.
When the state of Awadh was annexed by the British in 1856, the sepoys revolted, as did most of the population. They needed a symbolic leader and crowned a young son of the king. Since he was only 10 years old, his mother, the 25-year-old Begum Hazrat Mahal became the regent and assumed power. This is the extraordinary story of her courage and morality,” begins Kenize Mourad, author of In the City of Gold and Silver, who was recently in India as a part of its world premiere.
Born in Paris, Kenizé Mourad is the daughter of Sultana Selma Rauf, the granddaughter of the Ottoman Sultan Omar the 5th, and Syed Sajid Hussain Ali, the Rajah of Kotwara—a princely state near Luknow, and was introduced to the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal when she visited her father’s hometown in Lucknow. “A rather down-to-earth gentleman came to our house and was telling us extraordinary stories about his ancestor. He was Prince Anjoum, the great grandson of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the fourth wife of nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh,” says Mourad.
Mourad studied sociology and psychology at the Sorbonne University in Paris before entering journalism. She has worked as a freelancer for various newspapers, including Ouest France, Les Nouvelles d’Alsace, Le Monde Diplomatique, and for radio programmes. But she made most of her career in Le Nouvel Observateur, between 1970 and 1983, covering West Asia and the Indian subcontinent. “I became a journalist and later a writer to try to explain the societies of West Asia and subcontinent to the western people who have a lot of misperceptions and prejudices. It is, I suppose, because I am part of these two worlds, born and brought up in France but from an Indian father and Turkish mother,” she says.
In her book, Mourad tells an interesting story, one that has been ignored by many historians. The author says that there are many things the readers would take from Hazrat Mahal’s story. “It is surprising that such an important figure of Indian history is so little known in the country, especially when everybody has heard so much about Rani of Jhansi who died on the battlefield but only fought for six months, while Begum Hazrat Mahal fought for more the two years. Also, the fact that Hazrat Mahal was Muslim is also important in today’s context when one sees the Muslim women as submissive and hidden behind their veils,” says the author. She adds that Hazrat Mahal was a Muslim woman who ruled with wisdom, fought with courage, never renounced her principles. She would be the role model for women at large, “Muslim women in particular, who today are being told that a woman’s duty is to stay home bringing up the children,” Mourad says.
Her biggest challenge was lack of historical documentation on the subject. “There are so few documents about Hazrat Mahal. I searched all the great libraries in England,and in Delhi, but found almost nothing. Finally I found most in Lucknow, among the old families whose ancestors had been fighting along with the begum. One very important source also was the Mutiny Papers published by the Uttar Pradesh government in 1957. It reproduced all the telegrams exchanged between the British military during the fight. There, the begum is mentioned quite often,” she says.
Her first book, Regards from the Dead Princess, was also historical fiction and based on the story of her mother—the granddaughter of Ottoman sultan, through the end of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon of the 1930s under the French Mandate where she was exiled. “And I also talk of a tolerant and open-minded Islam which was prevalent in those societies, far from the extremism of today,” she says.