The backdrop of the novel by Michel Larneuil, is India in the mid-18th century when the French and the British, riding high on the fever of colonization, were fighting to make India one of their colonies. Farzana Zebunissa, born in a Muslim family, was forced to take up the life of a prostitute in Delhi. However, soon the nightmare turned into a dream as Frazana met the charming and charismatic French General Sombre and Sparks flew. Soon Farzana become Begum Samru and afer the demise of Sombre, the ruler of Sardana. Thus started a journey of adventure, curt intrigues and power play. Begum Samru, the protagonist of this novel, can be described best in her own words:
“I am one of those who has survived, and held sway, on the strength of my sword.”
Michel Larneuil is an eminent French writer. His other books include La Petite Marche du Telengana, Le Vautour et I’ engant and Le Dieu assasine.
Ranjit sinha holds a Ph D in French from the Sorbonne University in Paris. He has combined his love for the language with his passion for history in this translation. His book Lalkot to Lodhi Gardens; the delhi of Sultans capture the essence of Delhi during the Mughal era. He has also written other books on his travels across the world.
The years were 1831. I played host to a young French traveler for three days. I must confess, I quite enjoy receiving Frenchmen-they are gallant, garrulous, and often amusing. They know how to enjoy the company of women. And above all they evoke in me the most passionate memories...
This particular traveler was about thirty years old. And his name was Victor Jacquemont. Acutally to tell you the truth, I found him a little cocky and somewhat pretentious, but such things are ignored in the young. Moreover, his conversation was not devoid of interest. He was a botanist and had recently been to North America- on which I posed him several question. He was then, on his way back from Kashmir and Punjab, and his collection of herbarium from these lands was truly impressive. Fond as I am of plants, I enjoyed examining the specimens he has collected. I quizzed him about them mercilessly and his was able to come up with a satisfactory answer each time. What’s more, his talents were not restricted to the realm of botany. His was an incisive and observant mind. Before visiting Kashmir he had been to Lahore where he had met Ranjit Singh, the king of the Sikhs. The Sikh ruler had greatly impressed him. He was an extraordinary man; “a miniature Bonaparte!” Alas, I can’t say I share his enthusiasm for Ranjit Singh. I know him well and admire his virtues, but, when it came to the crunch, unlike Bonaparte, he did not have the courage to cross the Rubicon.
In brief, I spent three pleasant days in the company of Monsieur Victor jacquemont and we parted as good friends. When taking leave of me, he thanked me profusely for my hospitality and swore eternal gratitude and respect.
But then, Monsieur Jacquemont, foolishly entrusted a letter he had written, destined for France, to my service de courier. My secret service seized it immediately, and produced the letter before me. I asked Fabre, my French Lieutenant, to translate it. When one is the ruler of a small state one is forced , on occasion, to stoop to such lowly practices. As such this is not to be considered as social travesty; merely part of my stately duties.
The first page of the letter carried Jacquemont’s reflections on various subjects. The second page described his stay at my place in Sardhana. I was listening attentively. Suddenly, Fabre stopped. “Well, Monsieur,” I said, ‘continue.’
“Begum,” he answered, “I have some difficulty. The writing is becoming illegible.”
I took the letter from him and had a look at it.
“What are you saying? The writing is as clear as on the previous page. Continue, my dear friend.”
Fabre turned red as a beetroot but refused to translate further.
“Well,” I said again, “what are you waiting for?”
“I am not feeling well, Begum,” he stammerd. “My head is reeling.’
“Can I take my leave, Begum?”
His embarrassment was so evident and his excuse so clumsy, that I insisted on knowing the contents of the letter.
“I order you,” I told him angrily.
“Begum, Begum...” he mumbled, unhappily.
“There is no Begum here, “I told him harshly. “ Translate and do so loudly.”
His voice shook. Without daring to look at me, he read the rest of the letter:
“Today I lunched and dined with a veritable old hag! I even gallantly kissed her hand, and clinked my wine glass with hers. She is an old wretch; (Here Fabre’s voice grew so faint, I feared he would collapse) a relic whom age has broken into two; a shrunken, shriveled raisin of a woman, a living mummy who still looks personally into all her affairs, listening to two secretaries simultaneously, even as she dictates to three others…”
Fabre stopped reading again.
“Read on!” I commanded him in a flat voice.
Fabre exploded,” I cannot. I cannot Begum. For anything in the world, I cannot!”
“Do you want to be dismissed?” I yelled at him. “Do you wish to remain in my service? Then continue.”
In the tone of a convict who has been sentenced to death and is on his way to the execution wonders whether if he is to be beheaded or hanged, my lieutenant resumed, “A little less than four ago, she tied some of her ministers and disgraced courtiers to the muzzle of her cannons. They were fired like cannon balls. Some sixty or eighty years ago she had a slave girl buried alive of whom she was insanely jealous. Afterwards, she arranged a wild orgy for her husband on the dead girl’s tomb. Both her European husbands met with violent deaths. The Italian monks have had their fill of her.’
The letter was over. Fabre’s voice broke. He was wishing he was hundreds of miles away.
“Put down this translation on paper and bring it to me. Let the letter go to Pondicherry. You can leave now.”
He left immediately, forgetting to salute in his haste to get away.
I was left alone with the cruel words echoing wickedly in my ears. A cold rage against the boorish Frenchman was slowly taking hold of me. For three days he had lived under my roof, lavished me with hand-kisses and bows. For a moment I felt like sending my sentries after him and getting his wit thrashed out of him. But wisely I did not yield to this impulse. After a while, I calmed down and realised that it would be much more useful to observe the effect Monsieur Jacquemont’s letter and observations had on me. I asked for my hookah. I repeated in my mind his most unflattering epithets-old hag, old wretch, shrunken like a dry raisin, a living corpse. And the passage where he had waxed eloquent on the terrible atrocities I have been rumoured to perpetrate.
Suddenly I stood up and looked in the mirror. I was not hundred years old; I was about eighty-one.
Neither was I ‘broken into two”, nor an “old mummy” nevertheless, is true that age had bent and wrinkled me. Nothing remained of my former beauty.
The story of the ministers and courtiers who I had supposedly cannon-fired four years ago; the story of a rival whom I had had buried alive some sixty or eighty years ago, baffled me. These were the kind of absurd stories one spread about me.
The fragrant smoke of the hookah was filling my room. Enveloped in the mist of the bluish fumes I began to dream. Jacquemont’s taunts were of no significance. I was dreaming and the memories came back, like waves lapping the shore.
Memories of the men I had met, admired baited, loved…
An idea was taking shape in my mind. For once and the last time I would set straight the facts of my life. I would write my memoirs.
And despite what you might think, it is not outrage against some brash Frenchman that has made me take this decision. I do so out of love and anguish. I dedicate my memoirs to the foolish Frenchman whose facile dismissal of my life has motivated me to redeem the memory of the men and the country I have loved.
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