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
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