My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Historical fiction at its best!
Set in the tumultuous times of the Sepoy Mutiny, or the first war of independence fought by Indians against the British, this is a gripping tale of what went on behind the scenes. Like all great historical fiction, the author does a stupendous job of meshing fact with fiction. The protagonist of the story is Begum Hazrat Mahal, the fourth wife of Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh (present-day Lucknow). An orphan who is brought into Wajid Ali Shah’s zenana when she is merely a child as a dancer, she catches the attention of the decadent King for her intelligence and her poetry compositions.
As the political turmoil takes root, and the British threaten to annex Awadh, the King departs from Awadh in a bid to travel to England and negotiate with the Queen. He leaves behind the Begum and her 11 year old son. Meanwhile, Hindu and Muslim sepoys in the pay of the British, begin to rebel against the occupiers even as the King is taken prisoner by the British and is detained at Fort William in Calcutta. The Begum is a nationalist at heart and abhors the British for pitting Indian against Indian. The fast changing events thrusts the Begum right into the middle of the action and she becomes one of the leading lights in the 1857 War of Independence.
The author’s meticulous research into the period shines through even as she weaves a gripping tale of politics, intrigue, deceit, love, betrayal and brutality. There are parts of the book that resonated for me as many of the themes that the author touches upon are still relevant today in modern India. There is a fascinating incident where the Begum pits her wits against a fanatic maulvi. He challenges her authority in front of her allies and supporters for going against what Islam preaches. The authoritative manner in which the Begum shreds his arguments leaves no one in doubt of her mastery over not just Islamic teachings but her stature as a leader. It was almost as if the Begum was addressing issues about women and their role in politics in modern times.
I would recommend this book for everyone who loves historical fiction and of course to those who want to delve into the real life characters and world of undivided India in 1857.