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Gone with the wind: Elections as observed from the tomb of Bahu Begum

Faizabad was once the centre of the kingdom of Awadh. The first Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan, established it as the capital of his kingdom, and his successors Safdar Jung and Shuja-ud-Daula took it to great heights. It is said that in its heyday, people left the Mughal capital in Delhi as well as foreign shores to live there. But its glory was destined to be short-lived.

My father was born in a nearby village called Ballipur and the Faizabad I visited during my school vacations was a decaying, derelict town that got in the way of my imagining the grandeur of past times. I grew up on the stories of the Nawabs of Awadh as much as I did on the tales of the Ramayana, most of which is set in and around the neighbouring town of Ayodhya. But while my friends in school knew the stories from the Ramayana (mostly thanks to Ramanand Sagar’s televised version of the epic), none of them had heard of the Nawabs of Awadh, or of Faizabad for that matter. It was as if they were my little secret.

Of all the stories I had heard about Faizabad while growing up, the legend of Bahu Begum, the wife of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula, fascinated me the most. This month, I decided to go back to her mausoleum after 15 years.

The Makbara, as it is called, is in a state of disrepair. The grand entrance to it is shut, a poster in Urdu peeling off its façade. I go in through a smaller door and find it desolate. There isn’t a soul in sight. The garden is unkempt; playing cards strewn in a corner; vegetation growing out of the ornate windows of the dilapidated building; names of visitors scribbled all over its walls and pillars. Most of these etchings are declarations of love, ‘Raj loves Pinky’ and so on, except one that says ‘Modi for PM’. The only sign that someone has been to the Makbara recently.

After about half an hour I locate the 82-year-old man who has been the caretaker here since 1962. Locals call him Neevar Baba because of how scrawny he is. It is a moniker that has stuck. Baba keeps the building locked, but if you pay him Rs 20 he will show you around. “Who was Bahu Begum?” I ask him. “A queen,” he says tersely. Subsequent questions about her life are met with silence. He is unwell and the medicines cost him Rs 50, he says instead. The Shia Waqf Board that takes care of the premises now pays him a monthly salary of just Rs 1,500 which is not enough.

I want to stop at the Begum’s grave for a minute but he keeps walking until we reach the Imambara. I ask him if it still holds gatherings during Muharram. “Of course,” he says, and goes on to describe the Majlis andDaawat the Imambara hosts, the grand Mehndi that leaves from here and the day the Tajia comes back. He knows the Shia rituals of Muharram intimately and is boastful of how accurately tradition is observed here.

Our conversation is interrupted by a loud procession on the street outside. It is a campaign rickshaw for Mitra Sen Yadav, the Lok Sabha candidate of the Samajwadi Party (SP), fitted with blaring loudspeakers. The SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav is in town. “I am also a Yadav,” Baba says in Awadhi. “But I won’t vote for him this time. No one from my village will. We will all vote for the lotus (BJP). They might still vote for SP. Who knows?” By ‘they’ he means Muslims. This is when I realise he isn’t one.

Back in the gardens we meet Dilip Sonkar who asks after Baba’s health. The 24-year-old lives with his family inside the inner precinct of the Makbara. They rent out the enormous tract of land around the building for Rs 60,000 a year to cultivate fruits. They gew up here, Dilip says. Earlier, they lived in the outer precinct of the Makbara in one of the 85 odd houses that the Waqf Board rents out for Rs 250 a month.

He is a graduate but could not find a job. Government jobs are the only option here, and they are hard to come by. There are barely any private sector jobs; there is barely any industry. “So many of my Muslims friends in the area have left for Saudi Arabia and Dubai to work as labourers and workers,” he says.

The majority of the houses in the premises are rented by Muslims. Hindus are a minority. “But we live peacefully with each other. There is no tension here. We have the same issues, all of us. The same problems,” Dilip says. He was barely two years old when the Babri Masjid was demolished. “There were no riots in 1992 in Faizabad. Riots are done in the name of our city outside,” he says. “We have no riots ever.” I ask him about 2012, when communal clashes erupted in the city on Dussehra. “We felt nothing here,” he replies. There is no polarisation then? “No,” he insists. Who will he vote for? “Modi. All the Hindus here will vote for him. All the Muslims will vote for Congress,” he says. Why is that? When they all have the same issues? Dilip has no answer.

I ask him about Bahu Begum. “She was very rich,” is all he has to say. I ask him if he will introduce me to his sister. He seems hesitant to let me speak with her. “She has gone out,” he says. I tell him I can see her filling water from the hand pump. He relents and calls out to her. Khushboo is 17 years old and painfully shy. She was asked to quit her studies to take care of her father and three brothers after her mother passed away. I ask her about Bahu Begum. “She is very nice,” is all she says before scurrying away. “She is a girl. She won’t know as much as I do,” Dilip says when she has gone.

Unmatuzzohra Bano was also a girl. Better known as Bahu (bride) Begum because she was married to Shuja-ud-Daula, the third Nawab of Awadh – a man known for his “Ram Rajya”, as Manzar Mehdi, the publisher of Aap Ki Taqat, a local Urdu daily, describes him.

But Bahu Begum was more than just a bahu. Born in Persia into an influential family, she inherited an enormous amount of wealth. When the Nawab lost his battle against the British, she saved the kingdom by paying the British off from her personal riches. She also took an avid interest in architecture and promoting Urdu in her state. After the untimely death of her husband she secured the succession for her son Asaf-ud-Daula. But when the new Nawab decided to shift the capital to Lucknow, she refused to leave Faizabad and continued to rule from behind the strict purdah.

Known for her able administration, sharp politicking and deep compassion, Bahu Begum is said to have taken her beloved city to the pinnacle of its glory. She also managed to prevent the British from taking it over for as long as she was alive.

But it wasn’t easy being a woman in charge. All through her life her estranged son, the Nawab, and the British rulers harassed her for money. Religious leaders questioned her right to her inheritance. Hardliners balked at her exerting authority.

Before her death in 1816, she designated Rs 3 lakh, a huge sum at the time, for the building of her mausoleum. It was finished long after she passed away. And after her death, Faizabad began to perish as a city. The mausoleum became the last testament of its former glory.

This mausoleum is today under litigation. The Shia Waqf Board, that has rights to the premises but not to the building, claims she left it to them. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI), that has rights over the building claims she left it to the British government which passed it on to the Indian Government. A 58-year-old man who calls himself Prince Ajaz Bahadur and claims to be Bahu Begum’s descendant says only his family has rights over the property. He calls the Waqf Board “fraudulent”. Ashfaq Husain Zia, the managing trustee of the Waqf Board, says he is “not from her family”. The ASI blames the Waqf Board for endangering the property by allowing tenants to live on the premises. The Waqf Board claims the ASI has let the property rot. In death, as in life, there are many claimants to Bahu Begum’s property but none to her legacy.

“There is nothing about her in our text books,” says 15-year-old Shamail Fatima, who lives in one of the quarters on the premises. I am sitting in the courtyard of her house with three generations of women from her family. “The history I studied is not the history my daughter is studying. Muslim rulers have either been excised from it or vilified,” adds her mother Tehseem Fatima.

Tehseem’s mother-in-law, 73 year old Shakeela Khatoon, grew up in Calcutta but she read about Bahu Begum after she got married and moved to Faizabad. She tells me the Begum’s story with great passion. And remorse. “No one knows about her. They don’t care for her tomb because she was one of us. Look at the way they brought down the Babri Masjid. Why could it not have co-existed with the Ram Temple the way we live here together?” she asks.

Manzar Mehdi also has a lot to say about the communalisation of history. He laments the manner in which monuments built by Muslim rulers have been neglected in the city and cites examples of the state’s endorsement of uncorroborated facts that vilify them. He also rues the marginalisation of Urdu as a ‘Muslim’ language. Urdu, that was so dear to Bahu Begum.

Mehdi’s office, situated inside the Nawab Hasan Raza Khan mosque in the chowk, was looted and destroyed in the communal riots of 2012. But Mehndi seems to believe there is no polarisation in Faizabad. That its culture is as syncretic and harmonious as it was in Shuja-ud-Daula’s times. As we talk in his office, the caravan of Muzzafarnagar riots accused and BJP MLA Sangeet Som passes by, loudly campaigning for BJP MP candidate Lallu Singh. “They are making a huge mistake by bringing him. The people of Faizabad will reject him,” he says.

Zia, like Mehdi, also believes the Bahu Begum Makbara has been neglected largely because it is part of India’s Islamic heritage. He claims he has filed RTI applications to find out if the ASI, UP Tourism and the Faizabad Development Authority have allotted more funds to “Hindu sites” in Ayodhya than they have to “Muslim monuments” in Faizabad. “I still haven’t received replies,” he says. “But I feel the government is too partial in these matters.”

Manoj Pandey, a journalist with a local newspaper, explains it slightly differently. “The Hindu people are not concerned with what happens to the Makbara because it is their (Muslim) property. So why will politicians care about it?”

The state of the Makbara does not seem to be an election issue for Muslims either. Shakeela and Tehseem talk about the difficulties of daily life in the area. There is an acute shortage of water, no naali for drainage and garbage lies out in the open in the field between the Makbara gardens and the dwellings around its periphery. They, like the other tenants, keep repairing and extending their houses when they need to. The ASI objects to this, because legally only they have the right to repair the buildings on the property.

Even so, their principal concern is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. “Of course we are afraid. We know what happened to Muslims in Gujarat in 2002,” says Tehseem. “I would vote for the AAP if I could get up and go to vote” says Shakeela.

Tehseem’s husband, Khalid Raza Kidwai, however, feels Muslims need to stop fearing the BJP. “Every party has organised or abetted riots at some point or the other,” is his logic. “My entire family has been Congressi. My grand uncle, Mukhtar Ahmed Kidwai, was an MLA from our village, Tanda. He was such a die-hard Congressi that when he heard Rajiv Gandhi had been killed he had a heart attack and passed away. But times have changed, people have changed, the Congress has changed,” he says.

Kidwai, a 55-year-old lawyer, joined the SP briefly, but realised politics was not his cup of tea. Like his mother he believes the AAP has potential and is a self-professed fan of Arvind Kejriwal, but he might not vote for the local AAP candidate, Mayuri Tiwari, because she is not likely to win. “I won’t vote for the BJP,” is all he will reveal when I ask him who he will vote for. This after saying Muslims need not fear the BJP.

Like Dilip, Khalid also goes on about the Hindu-Muslim bonhomie in the mohalla. Why then are they divided on the BJP? “No one here will tell you the truth about who they will vote for. I can guarantee you that,” he says.

In this unique locality inside the premises of the Bahu Begum Makbara, where Muslims outnumber Hindus, everyone I speak to is cagey about revealing which party they will vote for. The bonhomie Khalid and Dilip speak of is apparent. Most doors are open and neighbours move in and out of each others’ homes. But the elections are raising uncomfortable questions about the strength of this seeming unity.

Kamala Shrivastav, 62, one of Khalid’s neighbours, says she used to work as a nurse in a government hospital. She is a widow, whose son and daughter have moved out into their own houses, but she could not live anywhere but here. What has she heard about Bahu Begum? “I don’t know anything about her. Never had any interest,” she tells me.

Sarwar Husain, 58, one of her Muslim neighbours, is sitting with us. He says Kamala, like him, will vote for the Congress. Kamala agrees. “Khatri (Nirmal Khatri, sitting MP from the Congress who is seeking re-election) is an honest man and has not jumped parties like others. He has done whatever work he could. Besides we have voted for Congress for generations,” she says.

Khalid drops in to join us for tea soon after. “She is a Modi supporter,” he tells me laughing. Kamala is visibly discomfited by his remark. “No, no,” she says vehemently, looking at Sarwar who is clearly an ardent Congress supporter. He points Khalid to a sticker from Khatri’s campaign on her door but looks less sure about who Kamala will actually vote for. When both Sarwar and Khalid have left, Kamala says, “We are divided into two groups here, the Hindus and the Mohemmedans. No one will be honest about who they are voting for.”

No one except Soorajpati Rajbhar, a 69-year-old woman who lives inside the BSP office at the outer gate of the Makbara’s premises. She takes care of the office. In return, she is allowed to live there, but they don’t pay her a salary. She is from a lower caste and was turned out by distant relatives who usurped her land in her village, Akbarpur.

Soorajpati too knows little about Bahu Begum despite having lived here for decades. “She was a queen who had no children,” she says (which is incorrect). But she does know who she is voting for. “I will vote for Behenji (Mayawati). How can I do namak haraami when I live in this office,” she says.

Anwari Siddiqui, a 33-year-old lawyer who lives next door, is not as forthcoming. She talks eloquently about laws relating to women’s safety and the problems with their implementation. She also repeats what others have already said about the living conditions in their mohalla. But she clams up when I ask her who she will vote for. “I have not decided,” she says looking around. We are sitting outside her house because there is no electricity in the area. Her Hindu neighbours’ kids are playing around her.

I change the topic of conversation. What has she heard about Bahu Begum? “Nothing,” says she. But she grew up here. How can she have heard nothing about Bahu Begum? “Because there is nothing written about her,” she says. Why? “She must have been just another queen living off the Nawab’s riches. If she did nothing, contributed nothing, naturally there will be nothing to write about her,” she explains.

Bahu Begum was not just another queen living off her husband’s riches. But it is too late in the day for me to tell her that. The sun has set. I walk towards the building over her grave one last time before I leave. The top floor is now shut to the public, but Dilip borrows Neevar Baba’s keys and lets me go up briefly.

The terrace offers the most spectacular view of Faizabad, just like Bahu Begum willed it. I look at the city spread out before me and think of the tomb’s last brush with fleeting glory.

Muzaffar Ali, filmmaker and son of the last Raja of Kotwara, filmed the last scene of his 1981 film Umrao Jaan at the Makbara. In the novel on which the film is based, courtesan Umrao Jaan’s father worked at the Makbara. She was kidnapped as a child and sold to a tawaif. In the final scene of the film, she comes back to Faizabad from Lucknow for a mushaira and sees her family after ages. But her family turns her away, embarrassed by her profession.

Shahryar’s words sung by Umrao Jaan’s character in that final scene allude to more than her own story. “Yeh kya jagah hai doston, yeh kaun sa dayaar hai, Had-e-nigaah tak jahaan gubaar hi gubaar hai (What sort of a place have I come to, my friends. It is impossible to see anything in the dust storm that surrounds it).

There is an actual dust storm as I walk out of the Makbara. People who live on its premises have rushed back indoors and shut their doors.

(First published in DNA, May 7th, 2014)

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