Monday, January 20, 2014

Down In Memory Lane: Emporer Zafar's Beloved 'Abban'

By Shazia Rafat | INN Live

The winds of change prevented Nawab Shah Zamani Begum from becoming a Mughal Empress. One spent an entire day looking for information on Nawab Shah Zamani Begum or some trace of the house of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s youngest daughter-in-law. Just as pretty as Zinat Mahal, she was felicitated by Mirza Ghalib in the sehra (panegyric) he recited at her wedding to Mirza Jawan Bakht. Zinat Mahal’s house still stands as a ruin in the Lal Kuan area. May be Zamani Begum too lived close by. But it dawned that the house was probably in Jaipur, her “maika” or maternal home. 

But before January 6 (when X’mas ends) got over one was pleasantly surprised by what seemed like a belated present. “Zafar and The Raj” seen in the light of the new moon peeping from the window, did contain some valuable information on the subject. But first about Bahadur Shah, fondly called “Abban” in the zenana. Like his forebears, he too celebrated all festivals and enjoyed eating Twelfth Night (after Christmas) plum cakes presented by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, say some records.
So much has been published on Zafar (1775-1862) that anything written now sounds trite, but Prof Amar Farooqui’s treatise, covering the period 1800-1850s, seems an exception. Talking about religious festivals, he says Zafar celebrated the two Eids, Dussehra, Diwali and Holi with great enthusiasm, being bathed in seven kinds of water and weighed in gold coins and grain, which were later given in charity. Only a buffalo and a goat were officially sacrificed in the fort on Eid-uz-Zuha and the meat distributed to the poor. For his own table, Zafar preferred venison from deer shot by him on the Yamuna bank. A good shot with the fowling piece, he trained many disciples to use the gun. It’s a tragic irony that he couldn’t even take a sip from a spoon of soup during his last illness.

According to Farooqui, “The abundance of game in the forest zone beyond Mehrauli took the Emperor annually for a prolonged stay to the Qutb during winters. A routine followed since (his father) Akbar Shah’s time.” On 6 January, 1851 Mahbub Ali Khan, Bahadur Shah’s factotum, was ordered to prepare for the move to the Qutb. In Mehrauli he was invited by Mahbub Ali to look at a garden he had developed near the Minar. Bahadur Shah visited the garden along with his wives, who spent the entire day there amusing themselves with plucking the oranges — 2000 of which were sent to the Red Fort for the princes who had stayed behind. 

Bahadur Shah then went hunting in the surrounding area, though he had prohibited the killing of peacocks and nilgai (blue bull). “During the winter he would set up camp at Najafgarh jhil, accompanied by his wives, for a spot of bird-shooting.” The one animal he had an aversion to was alligators, which abounded the Yamuna and often preyed on humans. “Fishermen had instructions to catch them so that they could be brought to the palace to be killed in his presence. A reward of Rs. 2 was given for every reptile killed.” Rupees two must have been equal to more than Rs.2,000 at today’s inflated rates.

The treatise gives such interesting facts and more like how Mirza Jawan Bakht, Zafar’s favourite son, died in Moulmein (Burma) of liver cirrhosis in 1884, as he had taken to drinking heavily. He had been sent from Rangoon to Moulmein to convalesce. His mother, Zinat Mahal, died in July 1886 of colic. She had been addicted to opium for 17 years (probably to get over the tragedies she had suffered).

Jawan Bakht’s wife, Shah Zamani Begum died in July 1899, when Jawaharlal Nehru was nearly 10 years old. Zamani Begum had accompanied the Emperor, the queen and her husband to Rangoon. A year after Zafar’s death, in 1863 she, along with her son and daughter, was allowed to visit her mother and other relatives in Jaipur and Delhi. She was to originally spend a year in north India but the visit was abruptly curtailed after three months as the British thought that her presence could lead to trouble for them. She had arrived in December 1863, accompanied by a Mrs Cannon, who then returned to Rangoon. The Begum’s mother came to Delhi from Jaipur to meet her.

The Lt-Governor of Punjab got to know of the visit in February 1864 and immediately objected to it, saying she should be directed to return to Burma, now that she had met her mother. Later James Talboys Wheeler, Secretary to the Chief Commissioner of British Burma, who had taken charge of the royal family, suggested that Zamani Begum be allowed to travel to Calcutta with Jawan Bakht, who could return after a month while she stayed back for treatment of a serious eye ailment that was threatening her vision. Wheeler also asked for funds for the marriage of her 11-year -old daughter. He had suggested a sum of Rs.2,000 but the Government sanctioned only Rs.1,000. It also rejected the suggestion that Jawan Bakht should accompany his wife to Calcutta.

Their son, Mirza Jamshed Bakht (born about the same year as Tagore) went on to get an English education at the Diocesan School and Rangoon College and turned out to be a man of pleasing personality. He was associated with the initiative to build a mausoleum to his grandfather and was regarded as one who spoke the “English language gracefully”. “He lived a life of genteel poverty,” dying at the age of 60 in 1921, some 22 years after his mother. 

Had she had the good fortune of being the next Mughal Empress after Zinat Mahal, Shah Zamani Begum’s name would have enlivened history but the wind suddenly changed (“Gayi yak ba yak jo hawa palat”). As for her ancestral house, it may be there in Ghat Gate, Jaipur where some of the well-known Muslim families still reside, despite the noise pollution caused by the ironsmiths of Loharon-ka-Khura.
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