In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal

Written by Anne Mathai (trans.) Kenizé Mourad
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1844, a fourteen-year-old orphan girl dances in the “house of fairies” in Lucknow, Awadh, India. Her beauty and poetic abilities catch the eye of Nawab Wajid Ali. He marries her (as his fourth wife) and, following the birth of a son, names her Hazrat Mahal. The fun-loving nawab relishes the good life.

Although Wajid is gleefully governing Awadh under a treaty with the British East India Company (BEIC), they are displeased with his extravagant spending of Awadh’s abundant resources. When in February 1856, the BEIC forcefully annexes Awadh, Wajid decides to plead his case before Queen Victoria in London. He sets off with his entourage, leaving Hazrat behind, despite her pleadings. The BEIC’s sepoys mutiny in May 1857, and Awadh’s population joins in the rebellion, proclaiming Hazrat’s teenage son as the king. Hazrat, as queen-regent, takes charge of the rebel army, their first objective being to oust the Europeans ensconced in the British Residency.

While the failure of the 1857 Mutiny is historical fact, this brilliant atmospheric novel presents another perspective on its events. Based on extensive research, Murad also used her family’s primary sources: her father was an Indian raja. The real motives of the BEIC in annexing Awadh, the insight on how Hazrat rose to become a rebel queen, and the causes of the rebellion are all narrated in depth. Moreover, some very plausible details are dramatized on why the rebel army, despite overwhelming numbers, was unable to repel the much smaller, albeit better armed, BEIC force. Highly recommended.