Review: Farzana: The Woman Who Saved an Empire by Julia Keay

I came across Farzana by Julia Keay capriciously while copiously rummaging through bookshelves in a neat bookstore. Exhausted by the numbing variety of topics on which authors were writing, and a customary pick did evince my interest but that was it, I told myself, no more till the current lot is done with. But fetishes have a way of presenting themselves in ways not so known and times not foreseen. Julia Keay has penned many historical books and was the wife of John Keay, whose India: A History and China: A History have been lying unread with me since, I sheepishly admit, since quite some years. Juliay Keay passed away in 2011 and this was her last book - left behind in the stages of first draft.

The earliest attempts of a biography of Farzana were by Lallah Gokul Chand in the form of an "illustrated verse narrative Zeb-un-Tavarikh" in 1822. Farzana was the daughter of an Arabian settler Latafat (or Lutf) Khan and a Kashmiri dancing girl Zeldah. Zeldah had been "discovered by Latafat Khan in a kotha, a salon or brothel, in Delhi's Chauri Bazaar". After the father's death, Zeldah moved back to the same melting pot and had "little choice but to sell the young Farzana into a form of slavery". In an era when European girls were few in the region and the increasing emphasis on trade (to start with) was bringing younger men into the subcontinent taking a local concubine or wife wasn't a taboo, though for them, as Julia points out, that "physical passion was intrinsically divine was incomprehensible" and all nautch girls were labelled as prostitutes. However, later, the drastic reduction in sailing times, as a result of traveling via Egypt rather than Cape of Good Hope, brought in a flurry of English brides and shadowed out the demand of bibi by English men.
Portrait of Begam Samru.jpg
"Portrait of Begam Samru" by Jiwan Ram (maker) - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The book is divided into three parts: part one chronicles her life with and because of Walter Reinhardt; part two is an assiduous telling of her coming to the fore after Reinhardt's death and reigning in glory (however paling in front of Ahalyabai Holkar in magnanimity; though in the cradle of fate, Farzana surely lacked what the other had bestowed upon her); and part three details the beginning of the end of Mughal Empire and sadly that of Farzana too. The author gives a fairly detailed historical background of events and characters all throughout. The Mughals were Muslims from central Asia of Mongol descent, "hence Moghul or Mughal", and had barragged as invaders. India, if the term can be used for describing the region of that time, was so "awash with precious metals as to lead one visitor to declare India 'an abyss for gold and silver'". The in-fighting between French and the English played out at many places with a lot of regional rulers playing them against each other for their own gains without any contrition. But the same applied to these regional players as well, being puppeteered many a times. Walter Reinhardt chose Farzana from Chauri Chaura, impressed by her charms and took her as his. He was already married and had a son, Louis Balthazar. For Reinhardt, "service with the English Company offered greater security and more realistic prospects of prize money than pandering of the fantasies of a nawab", and he had no scruples moving between opposing sides at the first sight of an emerging victory or better prospects. He was just like other mercenaries around the region, caring more for their own fortune-making in an exotic land rather than sticking with ideological-or-otherwise groups and grandiose displays of fealty. He was a "native of Alsace and so as much a German as a Frenchman", and later changed his name to 'Somers', then 'Sombre', and which later became Indianized 'Sumru' and was a part of various battles including the famous one of Buxar. Later he supplied his men of arms to the Jats and "when Rajah Jawahar Singh marched on Delhi in January 1765, Walter Reinhardt 'Sombre' went with him", and then began the coming together of a fifteen-year-old Farzana and fort-five-year-old Reinhardt, who took her to Agra with him and later their 'Sumru brigade' was employed by the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II in Delhi. Reinhardt's last campaign was helping the Mughals fight the Jats at Bharatpur and Dig and for his bravemanship was awarded the civil and military governorship of Agra and died in April 1778 of natural causes.

Reinhardt's death left Farzana in the cold as she wasn't his wife and found herself in a position similar to her mother, Zeldah, was in. She "cultivated" her future prospects with her brigade's stand-in commander, Colonel Pauli and later became a Christian, Joanna. Pauli was later decapitated butchered by Mirza Najaf's nephew. This brought the Irishman George Thomas into her life who later left India in September 1796 with a fortune of 22 million Pounds in today's worth. She was already widowed again by the suicide of Pierre Antoine Levassoult, who killed himself thinking Farzana had killed herself first to escape their revolting brigade. The fable of how Levassoult saw blood on Farzana's shawl in the night time and shot himself in the mouth, while, on the contrary, she was only injured and not dead, makes for a succulent tale.

As with any book trying to cover the tumultous period of the Mughal/British rule, during which "beheadings, blindings, garrottings, hangings, mutilations, dismemberings, disembowellings" weren't uncommon, many players come into the picture and at times perseverance pays to have some prior knowledge of the region and era. You will come across Rajputs, Marathas (Holkars, Scindias etc.), Bengal rulers, French and English lords, Sikhs, Ghulam Qadir - the Afghan Rohilla, Mirza Najaf, Mansur Ali, Ismael Beg ("originally a Mughal commander, then an ally of the Rajputs (twice), of Ghulam Qadir ("'his tongue was torn out of his mouth', 'his ears were cut off and hung round his neck and his eyes were scooped from their sockets and sent to Shah Alam in a casket") and the Rohillas (twice) and of Scindia and the Marathas (thrice), Ismael Beg had switched sides at least seven times in three years"), Tipu Sultan, French Revolution, Himmat Bahadur with his band of naked 'holy men', Robert Clive, Lord Cornwallis, David Ochterlony Dyce - the first Asian to be elected to the Mother of Parliaments, the blinding of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II and the disgrace heaped upon his daughters who were forced to dance naked in front of him by Ghulam Qadir. Farzana was decorated with various pompous titles: Zeb-un-Nissa, Farzand-i-Azizi, Umdat-al-Arakin and even 'Beloved Daughter in Christ' and at different times was gifted Sardhana, Badshahpur and Tappal either as fiefs or estates. She died of old age on 27 January 1836 at the pleading age of eighty-six.

Shah Alam II (1759-1806), the blind mughal Emperor, seated on a golden throne..jpg
"Shah Alam II (1759-1806), the blind mughal Emperor, seated on a golden throne." by attributed to Khairullah (active 1800–1815) - Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi » Decline of Power, Pursuit of Pleasure, Muhammad Shah, 1719-1748. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The beauty and charm of the book lie in its exquisite prose, exacting historical descriptions and within the sometimes ornate liberties taken to ascribe feelings and reasons to Farzana's decision-making and tempestuousness. Commendable to a great extent, though does sometimes go light on not showing Farzana in negative light. But did she save an empire? She was valiant and brave in coming to Shah Alam's aide at all times, except once when she delayed it for being in Tappal with George Thomas. Well, she couldn't save the Mughal Empire in the strictest sense of the word but, yes, played a role in elongating its debilitated existence for a few more decades. An outright pleasure to read, which one would surely do many a times over and again.


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