A Voice From the Pow­er­less

Ti­tle: A Story of Days Gone By Edited and Trans­lated by: Ta­hera Aftab Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (Fe­bru­ary 2012) Pages: 268, Hard­back Price: PKR 825 ISBN: 9780199060122

Southasia - - Book review - Kinza Mu­jeeb is pur­su­ing a B.A in Me­dia Sci­ence from SZ­ABIST, Karachi.

Princess Shahr Bano Begum’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Biti Ka­hani orig­i­nally writ­ten in a male dom­i­nated so­ci­ety of In­dia in 1885, is more than a mere au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It serves as a com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­men­ta­tion, cap­tur­ing the largely ob­scured lives of In­dian women of that era.

The au­thor Ta­hera Aftab, pro­vides a de­tailed ac­count of not only Shahr Bano’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy but also de­scribes the chal­lenges she faced in a highly pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety that failed to rec­og­nize the works of a fe­male writer. Over the years, sev­eral no­table writ­ers have trans­lated and edited the orig­i­nal text writ­ten by Shahr Bano. Aftab, how­ever, must be ap­pre­ci­ated for her ex­haus­tive re­search that took her from pub­lic li­braries of New York to those of South East Asia, in or­der to de­ter­mine the au­then­tic­ity of the edited ver­sion of the orig­i­nal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy by var­i­ous dis­tin­guished writ­ers.

The au­to­bi­og­ra­phy re­volves around the tragic tale of an In­dian princess born in the prom­i­nent fam­ily of Pataudi and wed­ded into an­other re­spectable fam­ily of Jagharr. Shahr Bano lived a life of envy un­til all was brought down by the ‘mutiny’ of In­dian se­poys. In­stead of tak­ing us through chrono­log­i­cally, Ta­hera puts down the nar­ra­tive event by event, un­wind­ing Shahr Bano’s life that took a turn for the worst.

Ta­hera gives a de­tailed ac­count of all the ma­jor events and mishaps of Shehr Bano’s life. It be­gins with her birth, which al­lows Bano to add his­tor­i­cal facts from the time of her fore­fa­thers. Due to this, Shahr Bano has de­scribed her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as not only the ‘nar­ra­tion’ of her story but also as a ‘chron­i­cle of his­tory.’ Since there were no fe­male writ­ers in her era who could cap­ture their own sto­ries and those of oth­ers around them, Shahr Bano’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy be­came the only fe­male per­spec­tive avail­able in an ex­tremely male-dom­i­nated so­ci­ety. The strik­ing as­pect of her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is the fact that hav­ing lived a life un­der shroud and pro­tec­tion, Shahr Bano is a mas­ter in the art of his­tory and is at par with some of the best his­to­ri­ans due to her keen observations.

As the re­volt sets in mo­tion, her life is thrown into a se­ries of episodes of mis­trust and hard­ship. How­ever, she shows great char­ac­ter in liv­ing through those years of ut­ter mis­ery with el­e­gance and keep­ing true to her roots. Ta­hera por­trays the great ne­glect suf­fered by Shahr Bano at the hands of her con­tem­po­raries and asks whether they ever con­sid­ered her a force to reckon with in terms of power, lead­er­ship and sus­te­nance.

Bear­ing kids at the ten­der age of 15, she was well-equipped for a life of re­spon­si­bil­ity and over the years had to travel ex­ces­sively. She wit­nessed the death of her five chil­dren, who died in in­fancy, apart from her last son, who died at the age of 10.

Fol­low­ing her hus­band’s death at the youth­ful age of 24, Shahr Bano ex­em­pli­fies great strength and pa­tience in deal­ing with a life that was de­prived of any form of com­fort or sup­port.

Stricken with grief, the per­sua­sion of Gertrude Fletcher was not the only rea­son for the Princess to doc­u­ment her life. A pur­dah-ob­serv­ing woman, she ex­plained, “When one re­flects on what­ever has be­fallen a per­son all through life and de­lib­er­ates upon the mis­for­tunes, one would truly be­hold an amaz­ing spec­ta­cle of Divine Power. There is an ex­cel­lent les­son in this spec­ta­cle to keep one away from hu­man neg­li­gence and heed­ful­ness.” She also be­lieved that her roller-coaster life might serve as a ‘les­son’ for oth­ers. She wanted her ‘sis­ters’ to ‘ben­e­fit’ from her ‘ex­pe­ri­ences.’ This in­ten­tion res­onates throughout her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as she con­stantly and di­rectly refers to her ‘sis­ters’ while de­scrib­ing the events of her life.

Ta­hera Aftab has pro­vided elab­o­rate notes on the in­for­ma­tion she gath­ered from var­i­ous sources. Many authors who have writ­ten about the life of Shahr Bano have mis­in­ter­preted her per­son­al­ity and char­ac­ter. Ta­hera gives us an over­view of all those au­to­bi­ogra­phies and men­tions the parts where the authors might have un­der­mined Shahr Bano’s true iden­tity as a South Asian, Mus­lim woman. The ex­cerpts from the var­i­ous books she cros­sex­am­ined, al­lowed Ta­hera to reach the con­clu­sion that while many may have ex­alted Shahr Bano’s at­tempt to nar­rate her life of mis­ery, many oth­ers have missed out on how she el­e­gantly coped with ev­ery tu­mul­tuous stone thrown her way.

There is a fac­sim­ile of Shahr Bano’s man­u­script that aids in pro­vid­ing an ac­cu­rate in­sight of the Princess’ writ­ing abil­i­ties to the reader. This gives the read­ers a first­hand ac­count of Shahr Bano’s knack of nar­rat­ing her life in pen, when most women of her time ap­peared voice­less and pow­er­less.

Ta­hera de­scribes the writ­ing style of Bano as the flow of a soft river. There is im­mense use of Per­sian words. The fac­sim­ile also hints at the tinge of old Urdu di­alect, which makes it an even more fas­ci­nat­ing read. The one page ex­cerpt proves that Urdu has evolved over the years. Urdu was ini­tially highly Per­sianised and grad­u­ally un­fa­mil­iar words and phrases of Per­sian and Ara­bic were elim­i­nated. Writ­ten in 1885, the Urdu used in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is still quite close to the Urdu spo­ken in to­day’s world.

The fac­sim­ile also al­lows the read­ers to an­a­lyze Shahr Bano’s as­sess­ment of her self. The con­stant un­der­es­ti­ma­tion of her own per­son­al­ity not only re­flects her mod­est na­ture but also mir­rors the pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of her so­ci­ety.

The book is di­vided into three parts. While the third part is a sim­ple trans­la­tion of Shahr Bano’s sec­ond half of the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, ti­tled, ‘The com­ple­tion of my story’, the first part re­volves around the ‘mutiny’, which shaped the bat­tered fu­ture of the In­dian princess. The sec­ond part of the book at­tempts to un­der­stand the his­tory of the Pataudis. The time­line, itin­er­ary and map help in pro­vid­ing a clearer and more vivid pic­ture of the chal­lenges she faced. The book also con­sists of Ap­pendixes, which help in un­der­stand­ing the text as it lays out the fam­ily tree.

Ta­hera Aftab has made a tremen­dous ef­fort to re­veal the unabridged story of our past by high­light­ing Shahr Bano’s works in the midst of male his­to­ri­ans who ad­hered to and fur­thered a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety.

Re­viewed by Kinza Mu­jeeb

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