(Book Review) Decline and fall: The final years of privilege and pomp

(Book Review) Decline and fall: The final years of privilege and pomp

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 4 June, 2016
An exibit from the 20-day exibition that was put up along with the launch of this book in Delhi.
This historic tale of the Rohillas, first published in Urdu years ago, has just been made available to the Anglophone world, thanks to a brilliant, pitch-perfect translation.

Gold Dust of Begum Sultans

By Zubaida Sultan

Translated By Zakia Zaheer and Syeda Saiyidain Hameed

Pages: 218

Price: Rs 500


Gold Dust of Begum Sultans, opens with the lines, “During the 18th century, bands of Pathan adventurers called Rohillas established their control over the wedge of country located between the foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges and Awadh, and gave their name to the region — Rohilkhand.”

And goes on further trying to explain almost all connections and origins of the protagonist tribe — the Rohillas. Written a long time ago in Urdu and printed in 1989 under the title of Sunehri Rait by Zubeida Sultan the book Gold Dust of Begum Sultans is a translation of the original by Zakia Zaheer and Sayeda Saiyaidain Hameed.

To understand how much has been lost in translation one will have to go through the original text for which I lacked the academic knowhow, so we only speak about the book in hand. The basic essence of the book, which even the intro will tell, you is that it narrates a powerful story set in post-1857 Rohilkhand. With an intensely patriarchal setting in the backdrop, the book explores Akbar Ali Khan’s household, dominated by strong begums across three generations, Qamar Zamani, Jahanara and Shehzadi. The nawabs and sahibzadas watch helplessly as their fortunes dwindle and the strong, tempestuous matriarchs come to the fore.

And like several other books of the genre that are either written or translated, Gold Dust of Begum Sultans also talks about the cultural philosophy of one of the richest riyasats, a culture in full display in the strong passions and extravagant indulgences of the patriarchs. As their antics come under the scrutiny of the British, the book considers the maneuverings of the women protagonists. All the while, a new India struggles to be born.

Though the book is a work of fiction it manages to capture the dilemmas and reactions of the characters that portray the roles of people who actually did exist in history. In short, the book is a fictional tale based on true historical facts and people. The author manages to capture and paint the perfect picture of Mohammadpur in the 18th century.

Critically pointing out the limitations of a book that was written more than a few decades ago makes no point but considering the fact that the book has been translated and reprinted, there are a few things that the translators could have considered.

“In Akbar Lodge, Qamar Zamani, all alone, watched the last grain of the golden sand slowly turn to dust. Fixed on the door, her glazed eyes were waiting for her dulhan. Unknown to her, the bond between the two women had finally snapped. And there was nothing left.”

The first chapter of the book tries to explain the family of Akbar Ali Khan but fails as there is no way that a reader will remember the intricate connections. Now consider the fact that the story is about a royal family where things get further complicated due to the numerous wives, children and cousins. This is why I prefer fantasy fiction, for in such books as we have now, you need to grasp too much in order to follow the story, which is why the authors literally draw a family tree to explain the family dynamics and extensions.

The second thing is not a limitation but more of an incapacity on my part for there are certain lines in the book that explain how a character is feeling. These lines beautifully convey the emotions of the character in English. Now think about Urdu which is the language of poets in which this text was actually written — how beautiful these lines will actually be in the original text. So why not just print the original text alongside?    

One of such sentences is also printed on the book jacket and it read, “In Akbar Lodge, Qamar Zamani, all alone, watched the last grain of the golden sand slowly turn to dust. Fixed on the door, her glazed eyes were waiting for her dulhan. Unknown to her, the bond between the two women had finally snapped. And there was nothing left. Shehzadi had won, and Qamar Zamani was left, to wait.”

Overall the book makes an excellent read and no doubt the translation is spot on for had I not known that the book is a translation I would have found it to be a great read. The translators have done a good job of keeping the poetic explanations and descriptions alive and have conveyed them in a really great manner but a few changes in the printing style would have made this book a must-have.   

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