Love in the time of mutiny
On May 10, 1857, there began in Meerut an uprising that was to change the course of Indian history. What the British called the Sepoy Mutiny and which we today refer to as the First War of Independence was the first large-scale attempt to oust the East India Company. It failed, crushed by a far more powerful enemy, but it left in its wake a changed India. An already crumbling Mughal Empire was finally destroyed, the last of the line, the poet-mystic Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ being exiled to Rangoon. Control passed from John Company to the Crown, and the British began a systematic policy of dividing the country, of ensuring that the rebellion would not be repeated.
Disgraced beyond redemption, Laale cannot expect to be welcomed back into her family, and so she sets out to see what life will offer. Sold off to the Nawab of Jhajjar, she is gifted by him to the Mughal
Emperor, and finds herself part of the zenana in the Red Fort.
Laale’s journey from the relatively quiet, secluded environs of her native Badakhshan to the bustle and intrigue of the Mughal court, is written with passion; Laale’s evolution from beautiful but gauche girl to skilled courtesan is interesting. Her relationships with famous personalities of Delhi—from Zafar himself to Begum Taj Mahal, from Captain Hodson to Mirza Ghalib—are of course all part of artistic licence, but offer an entertaining ‘what-if’ insight into the last days of the Mughal court.
The Mulberry Courtesan, given that Sikeena Karmali is also a poet (and both Zafar and Ghalib are important characters in the novel), has a good deal of poetry, much of it beautiful. The writing is evocative, bringing to life another era, another Delhi. The period relating to the events of 1857 is especially well-written. The characters are a mix of interesting and forgettable, but the central figures, Laale and Zafar, come through vividly: one old and powerless and drifting ever closer to inevitable doom, the other young, full of life, determined to go down fighting.
The romance is a little hard to believe, and some characters, including Captain Hodson, come across as caricatures. The most jarring aspect of the novel, though, is the carelessness with which a good bit of it has been written and edited. Laale’s abduction and rape are set either in March 1852 or June: it’s unclear when. The marketplace where she is sold could be in Chitral or Amritsar: both are mentioned. Zafar’s lawyer could be Ghulam Ahmed or Ghulam Abbas.
The anachronisms are embarrassing, with everything from zippers and hand grenades to harmoniums being used, and items—tea, newspapers—which were relatively unknown in the 1850s being supposedly in widespread use. Chinars may be large in Kashmir, never in Delhi; Lucknow to Delhi by horse carriage is unachievable in the space of a day; and Wajid Ali Shah did not die till 1887. Read The Mulberry Courtesan for its story and its poetry, not for its historical accuracy (or lack of it).