The scene is set in 1952 Saigon. It is the era of French colonialism which is on its last legs. The communists are active in the resistance. Fowler, a British journalist has been living a quiet life here for the past two years. He keeps himself uninvolved with the local politics. He cares only for his girlfriend, Phuong. His big concern is being able to stay in Indochina, as Vietnam was then known. He does not want to return to London and his bad marriage. He has to struggle to obtain an extension on his Saigon posting from his newspaper editor. There is a world-weary air about him.

Everything changes when he meets Alden Pyle, an American Medical Aid worker. Fowler is aghast to learn that Pyle thinks there should be a third force in Vietnam, someone who will be able to offset the evils of communism and French colonialism. Fowler is not in favor of the political intervention that Pyle seems to advocate. Pyle also falls in love with Phuong and attempts to take her away from Fowler.

As time goes on, Fowler realizes Pyle is not who he claims he is. The way things are going, Fowler realizes that sitting on the fence will not help, he will have to take action, even if this action will leave him with a deep sense of guilt.

It is easy to spot the symbolism in the book. The characters are broadly representative of their countries. Pyle stands for America. He is young, rich, and handsome, and wants to bring about change. He wants to save the natives from the exploitative French and the rabble-rousing Communists. He is energetic and full of good intentions. He falls in love with Fowler’s girlfriend Phuong yet he never goes behind Fowler’s back about her. He tells him right away that he intends to offer Phuong a better life. Fowler, being married, is not able to offer anything but a temporary shelter to Phuong. Pyle is willing to marry her and take her back to America with him. He is innocent and honorable. He justifies every action he takes with logical arguments.

Fowler is ‘Old Colonialism’ as he describes himself. His intention is to be a bystander, a mere reporter of the world’s events. He is old and jaded. He has been through the drill many times. Stronger countries take over weaker ones, preferably far from home, and drains them of their resources, leaving them poor and grasping to survive. Fowler wants the white man to leave the natives alone to run the country as they deem fit.

Phuong seems to have no voice. She vacillates between Fowler and Pyle, going to the man who offers her the best option for security and shelter. To denote a chest-thumping machismo to the act of taking over a country, Phuong had to be female. Giving Phuong no voice works if you take it to mean that the people who are being exploited don’t get to choose. She can never be her own woman, she has to belong to someone. She is the personification of Vietnam.

The novel takes a definite stand as regards war. War is ugly, war kills innocent people who want to go about their lives. War is pure and simple murder. War is unwanted and often forced upon people who don’t want it. It was true centuries ago when men waged war in name of religion, trying to justify it as a ‘crusade’. War is wrong in current times when it is foisted upon countries for political supremacy. Similarly, nothing can justify colonialism. Nothing can justify why one country takes over the running of another country so brazenly.

Although the three major characters, Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong are set up in a triangle, there is more interaction, all very relevant, between Pyle and Fowler. They have long exchanges together when they share their viewpoints. Their views are different but they enjoy sparring. Fowler hates the way Pyle acts and is always very sarcastic towards him, he dislikes Pyle’s goody-two-shoes image. Despite this, Fowler does not hate Pyle. In his own way, Fowler is very fond of him. Towards the end, he is unhappy at the way he had to act against Pyle.

In the book, I agreed mostly with what the author had to say, except when he avers that the natives are too busy foraging for food to think about things. That sounded condescending. I am pretty sure every human being has thoughts, only they may not be able to express them.

This book was published in 1955 when the events in Vietnam were recent history. A political journalist often gets a ringside view of the events taking place. He may not get a chance to report on current events as they actually play out. We all know now about the restrictions imposed on media. It is a business and must be profitable. To turn in that profit, it has to please certain people who may have a vested interest in suppressing certain news. During wartime, news has to pass through the censor. A piece of fiction can take liberties and present the truth without any inhibition that hardcore news may be subject to.

The book was made into a movie twice. The earlier one, made in 1958, twisted the story to turn into an anti-communist war story. Much later, there was another version made in 2002. This movie starred Micheal Caine as Fowler, Brendan Fraser as Pyle and Thi Hai Yen Do as Phuong. It is a faithful version of the book and a very good movie. First off, it is good that the nationality of the actors matches their characters in the book. The characters even look like they are described in the book. Some of the long dialogues in the book between characters are cut short. It is a pity but it is understandable. In motion pictures, things have to move quickly. Long dialogues between characters may put the viewers off.

The events of the book are a part of our history now, it is interesting how Graham Greene foreshadowed American interventionism. Being a journalist himself and a traveler, he was privy to many ground realities. He knows how to blend the facts well into his fiction.

J.M. Lee or Lee Jung-Myung, is a South Korean writer of historical fiction. A couple of his books were adapted into critically acclaimed TV series, Painter in the wind and Tree with deep roots. I have previously reviewed his book The Investigation on my other blog.

Howard House stands at the top of a hill with a fabulous view of the town, Malcolm House is where the caretaker and handyman of Howard House lives. There are four children in the two houses. Malcolm House has Suin, a bright young man with a promising future. His brother, Hanjo is an artist. Howard House has two daughters, Jisoo a pretty young girl of eighteen, and her little sister, Haeri. One fateful evening, Jisoo disappears and is found dead. The case is investigated by the police and a culprit is found.

More than twenty years later, Hanjo returns to Howard House as a successful artist. He is at the pinnacle of his fame and success. At such a time his life is thrown in turmoil and he is forced to look back upon the events of that fateful summer when Jisoo died.

The story is told from the perspective of the three survivors of that fateful summer, Hanjo, Haeri, and Suin. Who killed Jisoo? It is a question that has no immediate answer. The survivors are equally baffled about the man who confessed to killing her.

This is no run-of-the-mill murder mystery that has a few suspects, a few twists and the answer is magically revealed at the end. It is a literary, psychological, slow-burn thriller. The narration is carried by characters and we can only know what that character knows. So the layers of ‘seeming truth’ and ‘real truth’ are revealed to us gradually.

“The truth doesn’t disappear because there’s no one to prove it.”

These words are spoken towards the end of the book. Haeri believes she knows who the killer is. The culprit thought his son was the killer. The police believe something quite different was the case. The law wants proof of the fact to be able to convict someone, a DNA sample, fingerprints, a bloody knife, or a confession. Truth stands alone, apart from knowledge, apart from proofs. This truth can shatter the lives of the people involved.

This wonderful book is beautifully translated by An Soon Jae. Readers are grateful to translators for allowing them to read books written in languages they do not know. Our reading lives are richer thanks to their effort.

After Suraiya left, Zeenat stood rooted to the spot, she was too shocked to cry. Yusuf had been summoned by Kariman, he took Zeenat into his arms as soon as he reached her.

“What’s the matter? Kariman said there was a woman here shouting at you.”

“It was Suraiya, Yusuf. Sikandar Mirza’s sister.” Then the tears started. Zeenat couldn’t stop crying. Yusuf led her to a diwan inside her sitting room and let her cry her fill. He signaled to Kariman to bring Sherbet. He made Zeenat take a few sips now and then.

“I feel so guilty about leaving Sikandar Mirza like that. He did nothing wrong. I wanted to explain things to him. It was so hard in those days to speak your mind.”

“I feel bad about that too, Bano. I tried to save him. I had even caught hold of him but he pushed me away and locked himself in his bedroom. All those silk draperies caught fire and so did the wooden furniture and fittings. If I didn’t have to come and protect you, I may not have come out at all. Those were his last words to me, Bano. Take care of Zeenat Begum.”

“Poor Suraiya. To find herself bereft on a day that was supposed to be her happiest…”

“Listen Bano. We were all victims of circumstance. You have to let Suraiya know the whole story. It won’t be easy to meet her but we will think of some way you can communicate.”

Zeenat sat up. “I know how, Yusuf.” Her face glowed brightly. Yusuf smiled and kissed her forehead.


Suraiya was packing things for the last time. This time they were leaving London for good. Her boys were running around their house, zipping down the banisters, running out from the backdoor, and playing in the garden. Their school was over. They were to begin a new life in Lucknow. They were very excited about it, they loved the large house in Lucknow with immense gardens.

Suraiya couldn’t help smiling. All she needed to take along were some clothes and gifts.  The house had been sold; lock, stock and barrel. It had been bought by an Indian family. They were happy to keep most of the things. Whatever was not needed was being donated.

This was decided over the period of the last two years. When they were last in Lucknow, Nawab Muzaffar Beg had spoken to Shahzad and Suraiya.

He was an old man now and finding it hard to keep up with the work of managing their estates. Sitaram Sharma, the manager of their estates had died six months ago and Nawab Beg had not been able to find anyone of his caliber to replace him.  Sikander Mirza’s old Munshi was also getting on in years and his son, who assisted him was not an honest man.  He knew Shahzad had a very good job in a bank in London but he couldn’t possibly manage their estates from the distance. Had it been a small estate, he would have happily sold it and lived off the proceeds, but the estate was too sizable to be disposed of.

Shahzad admitted the wisdom of his father. All over Lucknow and surrounding places, Nawabs were falling like ninepins. Some were done in by the wiles of the British, and some were profligate and lost everything because of their bad habits. Some families were so large that by the time the estate was divided, nothing was left. It was due to his father’s sagacity and fewer offspring, that their estate still held solid. They could not let go of the advantage they had.

Suraiya drew a deep breath. All the work was done. They were leaving in two days. Shahrukh, her eldest, came running in with a parcel in hand. The younger one, Asif, not to be outdone, was screaming at the top of his voice.

“Parcel for Ammijan.”

Suraiya laughed at the kids’ energy and took the parcel from their hands. It was compact and book-shaped. She put it carefully in her handbag, she didn’t want to be distracted by books right now, she would read on the airplane. She grabbed her children and took them to the dining table where lunch awaited them.

While her husband and boys slept on the flight, Suraiyya took the book out. It was by that same Bano of Urdu Prakashan. It was titled, “Bahu Begum”. The dedication read “To Suraiya, who is always in my thoughts”. “Humph! She is probably trying to suck up to me now.”  She wanted to toss the book in the trash but decided to leaf through a few pages. Before she knew it, she was completely engrossed by the story. 

It was about a beautiful young Naaz Banu who lived with her impoverished father in a haveli. She ran into Nawab Aziz Mian, a handsome youth at a wedding. They fell in love with each other instantly. Because of the restriction on meeting people of the opposite sex at the time, it was hard for them to meet. They would steal away to meet at times and promised to be together forever, till death.  Aziz, who was an orphan, asked his guardian, his uncle, to go to Naaz’s father with a wedding proposal. But his wily uncle manipulated things in such a way that the happy couple thought they were marrying each other soon. In fact, the girl was getting married to another Nawab. In those times, girls did not get to ask much about the person they were marrying and Naaz happily assumed that she was marrying Aziz. Her hopes came crashing down on her wedding day when her best friend, who was privy to her story, came running to report that the groom was not Aziz but Nawab Parvez. Distraught, Naaz ran away from her own wedding to meet Aziz in an attempt to clear things with him. She could not find Aziz at the spot they used to meet. She was on her way back but she hit her head and fainted. By the time she came to, it was already midnight. She went to Aziz’s house where her uncle insulted her and insinuated that Aziz habitually fooled women. Her own father, out of his wits, threw her out when she returned home. She even went to see Nawab Parvez who was shocked to see her. He was called by someone and poor Naaz left his home, presuming that she was rejected here too. Outside his house, she fell on the road and was rescued by a Tawaif who turned out to be a kind-hearted woman and sheltered her.

It so happened that Nawab Parvez’s sister was about to marry and he was looking for a respectable young woman who could stand in as the mistress of his home, The Bahu Begum. Naaz heard him trying to explain the situation to Nazeeran bai and figured out that no one knew yet of Bahu Begum’s disappearance. Nawab Parvez had thrown a veil over this incident but needed help getting his sister married. Naaz thought it her duty to help out the motherless girl.

When she met Samira, she was barely eighteen. She could be a wise woman one minute and a playful child the other. Samira took to Naaz immediately and gave her all the respect and love due to her real bhabhi. Bano wrote at length about the lovely relationship between the two women. She tried to shield Samira from all the evils of the world that she had endured in her life and saw to it that the girl went safely off to her husband’s house. She even considered living in the haveli as the namesake wife of Nawab Parvez.  It would shield his reputation and provide her with a secure home. She went into the garden to think things over.

Aziz chose this moment to come to the Haveli looking for her, he found her walking in the garden and called out to her. He had come to clear things with her.  He told her about his Mamu’s conspiracy. He had sent Aziz away to Allahabad, promising him that he would be married to Naaz on his return. When he returned, two weeks later, he found that Naaz had married Nawab Parvez. Naaz was not to be blamed as she had been tricked into thinking she was marrying Aziz. They were all victims of his evil uncle. What was done was done. Aziz was reconciled to her being someone else’s wife. All he wanted was a chance to explain why he could not be there for her. Naaz told him that she was not really married to Nawab Parvez. She had been away during the wedding, looking for Aziz. Her doli had arrived empty at Nawab Parvez’s haveli. Nawab Saheb had averted gossip by throwing a veil over the truth. She told Aziz that she owed it to Nawab Parvez to stay here and keep his dignity intact. She could not see him become notorious as a man whose wife ran away. Aziz agreed to her plan. He would go away and never again disturb her life.

Unbeknownst to her, Nawab Sahib was listening to their story. She and Aziz saw him run into the haveli. She wanted to run after him and talk to him but the haveli caught fire.  Aziz asked her to stay safe and went inside the haveli to rescue Nawab Sahib.  When Aziz caught up with Nawab Sahib, his clothes were on fire. Aziz tried to grab him and roll him to the ground. But Nawab Sahib pushed Aziz away and cried, “Take care of Naaz, I want you both to be happy”. He ran into a bedroom and bolted the door. The Haveli was burning fast. Aziz helped save people and also tried to douse the fire with buckets of water. But they could not do much. A cry had gone around that Nawab Saheb and Bahu Begum had died in the fire. He returned to Naaz and they quietly left the Haveli and Lucknow the same night. Every day Aziz and Naaz remembered Nawab Parvez in their Prayers. Every day Naaz prayed for Samira’s happiness.

Suraiya shut the book and wiped her tears. She had been so unfair to the woman who asked her beloved to go away because she felt she had a duty to a man she had unwittingly wronged. Zeenat Bano tried her best to do the right thing. She had won Yusuf the hard way. She had no option but to depend on Yusuf and honor Nawab Sikandar Mirza’s last wish.

A month after her arrival in Lucknow, a subdued Suraiya went to meet Zeenat, back to the Haveli where she had spewed such fire a couple of years ago. She knew the story was written for her, Suraiya. To explain why Zeenat was not in the haveli when it burned down. To explain that she did not abandon her brother in his difficult time, her brother chose this way to free her from the bond between them.

“Suraiya, how about finishing your homework first, my dear.” It was Zeenat. She was scolding a little girl who was twirling around the room.

“Bhabhi.” she said, softened by the thought that Bano had named her daughter after her. Bano looked up and saw Suraiya standing on the threshold and ran to embrace her.

The party was a huge success. Suraiya glowed in a soft golden sharara with all her best jewelry. She had worn her mother’s maang-tika and a naulakha haar her mother-in-law had gifted her.  Food and drinks flowed in the men’s section. In the women’s section, there were many stalls of food and servants ran to and fro serving all the fine ladies. Suraiya was made much of by the upper crust Lucknow society. A number of memsahibs, in flowing frocks, attended too. Suraiya chatted with them much to the awe of the other women.

Suraiya and Shahzad were visiting Lucknow. They lived in London where Shahzad worked for a bank. This was a celebration of their tenth anniversary. It was customary to throw huge parties now. Suraiya could barely believe how much the world had progressed. When she went to London the first time, they had taken a ship. This time they boarded a flight in London and reached New Delhi in a matter of hours. Suraiya looked proudly at her little brood. Her sons were following their grandfather around.  Her mother-in-law was glowing with joy.

Now there were merely five days left for them to return. Suraiya had just one more thing to buy. She was a matron now, a mother of two sons, and no longer needed too many attendants when she went out. She enjoyed this newfound freedom and was walking about the bazaar with Fatima, looking for a particular kind of silverware she needed for her home in London. Fatima stepped into a cloth shop while Suraiya was busy with the silver merchant.  Suraiya got her purchases paid for and asked the merchant to send them to the Haveli.

She walked out looking for Fatima who seemed to have gone on to another shop. Suraiya stopped by a bookstall. She picked out a few books and handed them to the bookseller. He picked out a book and handed it to her. “This is selling so well, Bibi, it had to be reprinted.”

The book was a collection of nazms titled, “Duniya Kare Sawal” by Bano. Suraiya told the bookseller, “I have read another book by this author. It was titled ‘Pad gaye jhoole’. “

“That book is still selling. It is very popular among ladies who yearn for the songs sung by older ladies. Bano Begum really knows how to pick a good collection.”

Suraiya flipped through the book. Her eye fell on the page that had the publication details. It said “Lucknow Prakashan” and the address of the office was the same as Zeenat Mahal’s haveli. Suraiya dropped the book and hailed a tonga passing by.  She looked around for Fatima but could not find her. She steeled herself and got into the tonga alone.

The tonga stopped right in front of the Haveli.  There was a man sitting on the ledge close by. She asked him who lived in the Haveli. “Nawab Yusuf and his wife Begum Bano.” She had a feeling in her bones that this Begum Bano was Zeenat Mahal. She was incensed at hearing that she was actually someone’s wife. She pushed the door of the Haveli and walked inside.

The courtyard was deserted. She could hear loud voices in the direction of the kitchen. She hesitated a little. “How can I help you?” asked a voice. Suraiya closed her eyes. It had been ten years now but she remembered that low mellow voice perfectly. She turned and it was Zeenat Mahal. She wore a simple sharara and barely any jewelry.

Her eyes widened on looking at Suraiya, she came towards Suraiya with joy on her face, “My dear girl. I have heard such good things about you. I am so glad to see you.”

Suraiya stepped back, her face dark as thunder.

Suraiyya breathed in and burst out, “I suspected you had survived the fire. I did not know the reason why. I thought you had gone back to the kotha you had come from for some reason. Maybe you were too ashamed to have abandoned my brother so cruelly after your marriage to him. I even pitied you, but here I see you living without any remorse. You have married another man. Why did you abandon my brother?” she burst out. 

“How did you know I was the one your brother married?” asked Zeenat, distraught. No one knew that. Only Sikander Mirza and Yusuf were privy to this secret.

“I found out. I went to visit the lady who harbored you. I found out how you reached the kotha and put two and two together.” 

Suraiya looked at Zeenat with disgust on her face, “For the short while that I knew you, I worshipped you. I thought you were compassionate and loving like my Bhabhi should have been. I deluded myself. You are just an ordinary woman who fled from fire and sought a better life for herself. You were married to my brother, yet you abandoned him!”

Zeenat stood stunned, tears streamed down her face. She could not bring herself to talk. All the guilt she felt towards Nawab Sikander Mirza came rushing back into her heart.

“I want nothing to do with you. I am disappointed that my beloved brother had anything to do with you. He killed himself, you are the one who brought that on. I hate you.” Her voice rang loud in the room. Kariman bi came running there. Yusuf was also brought back to the house because of the noise.

Suraiyya flicked her naqab back and went out to her tonga.  Her heart was bursting with the tears she dared not shed.  She did not cry until she got back to London and had sent her boys to school and her husband to the office. Then she put her face down on ‘Kya Jawab den” and cried hot tears.

Zeenat hung up Yusuf’s coat carefully on the wooden hook and called out to Kariman. “Bua Tea and snacks, please. Saheb is here.”

“It is all ready, my daughter. It’s that foolish Lajjo who is delaying. This girl dawdles so much. The quality of servants has gone down. They just don’t listen. These ones are nothing like servants in Lucknow.”

Yusuf and Zeenat smiled at each other. They loved Kariman and were used to her nattering.

That day in November fate threw them together forever. Yusuf had come to visit Zeenat at Nawab Sikander Mirza’s Haveli to explain why circumstances had led him to abandon Zeenat. He could not abide having her think of him as an unfaithful man. She was a married woman now and he wished her well. Things went awry when the Haveli caught fire and she had no choice but to follow Yusuf and flee with him to Allahabad under the cover of the night.

Yusuf deposited Zeenat in a Sarai and went hunting for a maulvi who could get them married. Those few hours that Zeenat spent alone in the Sarai were harrowing for her. She shook and shivered as the previous night played out again and again in her mind. Yusuf returned to take Zeenat with him along with a friend of his. Their nuptials had been somber. Zeenat could barely stop crying, thinking of all the hardships she had gone through. Yusuf had been most understanding and did all he could to comfort her.

Yusuf had some money that could last them for a couple of months. He had to look for a job quickly so they would not be hard up later. His friend in Allahabad was employed in a newspaper. This friend put in a word with the editor. Yusuf was good at writing so he was taken on immediately. In the early days, he had been busy establishing himself in his career.

Zeenat had risen to the occasion and worked like a slave at their little house. She wasn’t used to cooking and cleaning but she soon learned. Their landlady helped the young couple settle themselves. She gave them many utensils and things they needed for setting up a household. They were happy in their little room and kitchen at the back of the big house.

If Yusuf felt bad about bringing Zeenat down in life, she shut him up by reminding him how much they suffered when they were separated by fate. She was happy they were together. She was much happier wearing the plain cotton clothes that he bought for her. She did not miss the pretty silks she had for a brief while. “I am the daughter of a poor Nawab, remember,” she said.

After a couple of years, they were settled in their way of life. Yusuf had left the newspaper job and was working in a publishing house. He talked about Achhan a lot. Achhan had helped him in his difficult days. Zeenat encouraged Yusuf to write to Achhan. He was hungry for news of Lucknow, as was Zeenat. Achhan had been his best friend and the only one Yusuf could trust with his secrets.

Achhan came to visit them as soon as he got the mail. He cried and hugged Yusuf and brought gifts for Zeenat. He insisted on calling Zeenat his sister. He bore good news and money.

Yusuf’s Mamu, who had squandered away most of his inheritance, had gone away to Kanpur to try his luck in the shoe trade. His new enterprise, aided by Shagufta, his wife, was called ‘Mian ke Joote’. He was a rich businessman now. He had sold Yusuf’s haveli after his disappearance but kept the money in safekeeping for Yusuf.  He had given that money to Achhan. He had a feeling Yusuf would return one day and would be in need of money. He had also given the papers of Zeenat’s haveli to Achhan. He was smitten by remorse at the trick he had played on her and wanted to compensate her. Achhan had continued living in the haveli as a caretaker cum tenant. He had rented the big part of the Haveli. He had accumulated a lot of rent which he handed over to Zeenat.

He wanted them to return immediately to Lucknow. Yusuf told him about Nawab Sikander Mirza. If people learned that Zeenat Mahal was in Lucknow, as a wife of Yusuf, they would talk. Achhan agreed that it would be difficult to return so soon. People still talked about the big fire and how Sikander Mirza and his Bahu Begum had perished in the fire. “Your father has not yet returned from the Haj, Zeenat. Poor Bua Kariman is in a bad shape. She spends her time crying in the house and has gone so thin. I do provide for her but cannot make her happy.”

Zeenat looked beseechingly at Yusuf. “Can’t we bring Bua Kariman here?”

“Of course, we will bring her here. Achhan, you can also live with us, there is no one to care for you in Lucknow.”

Achhan had a sly look on his face, “Don’t you worry about me, dear Yusuf. I have a mausi in Lucknow who is trying to get me married to a Nawab’s daughter there.”

With all the money they had now, Yusuf bought a small, decent-sized house on the outskirts of Allahabad. Achhan soon fetched Kariman Bua to their new house.

Kariman complained about the tiny-sized house. “Just eight rooms? Your Haveli in Lucknow had fifty rooms.”

“And no money in our pockets” Zeenat retorted tartly. “Here we have a steady income, Bua.”

“Alas! The Nawabs are now going out to work like laborers”

Despite her kvetching, Bua was thrilled to be near Zeenat and thrilled to see her happy. She took over the management of the house. Woe betides the idle servant or thieving vendor. No one escaped the sharp edge of her tongue.

Zeenat could relax and spend her time reading and writing. Soon they were blessed with a pretty girl who they called Suraiya.

They had spent nearly eight years in Allahabad when Yusuf learned of a printing press for sale in Lucknow. He went to take a look at the press, staying with Achhan and his wife, Fatima. Achhan signaled his approval, he was also willing to partner with Yusuf in this venture.

It was eight years from the time they had left Lucknow in the cover of darkness. Yusuf had published many books of poetry and fiction. He was a well-known author, writing under the pen name ‘Aman’. He was running a small publishing house. Zeenat also wrote a couple of books that were proving to be very popular. They were doing well.

The only thing that rankled was being away from Lucknow. Yusuf had often been to Lucknow on work and every time he returned, he spoke about Lucknow for days. Bua Kariman, of course, invoked the excellent times of Lucknow all day, and once an impudent maid retorted, “You keep harping on Lucknow, why don’t you return there?” That sent Kariman in a tizzy.  Zeenat had to calm her down and stop her from sacking the maid immediately.

“Do you think we could ever return to Lucknow?” she asked Yusuf one night. Zeenat had put Suraiya to sleep and come to sit by Yusuf who was revising a manuscript. “Achhan was saying Lucknow has changed. The older people have become too old to remember and the younger ones don’t care about the old stories. People no longer talk about Bahu Begum and the fire. They like going to watch movies. Even Achhan’s cockfighting has become a ‘heritage’ sport. That printing press offer in Lucknow, I am thinking of taking it. I can hire some workers and we can print our books and pamphlets. I am sure we will survive. We have enough capital now. Bano, you have been so careful with money.”

Thus, they made plans to return to Lucknow. They pretended to hire the Haveli that was in the care of Achhan.  Yusuf opened his office in a corner of the haveli. Those very rooms that Achhan used to live in. They modernised the Haveli a bit but left it as it was.  Zeenat Bano was now known as Bano Begum of Allahabad. It was generally understood that Yusuf Nawab had married into a prestigious family from Allahabad. Bano Begum observed strict Purdah and was rarely seen by anyone. It was whispered that she had a speech impediment and squinty eyes. Her father had given Yusuf Mian a lot of money to get her married.

Yusuf and Bano (as Zeenat was known now) laughed over these tales. It helped them keep their true identities secret.  Much to the disapproval of Kariman Bua, little Suraiya was sent to a big convent school, La Martiniere.  Bano said “Bua, these days it is not enough to know a bit of household work, a little math, and Urdu. The more you know about the world, the better you can survive. I cannot think without shivering how I would have fared if Nawab Sikander had not brought me home from the kotha. I would have been virtuous, but would have faded away like a wraith.” The little frock that she was embroidering for Suraiya fell from her hands at the terrible thought. “I was lucky that Nawab Saheb and Yusuf Mian were so forward thinking as to allow a woman who had strayed from home back into their folds.”  Kariman Bua said no more and thenceforth had nothing but sharp words for those who tried to criticise the little girl’s modern education.

Yusuf had often talked about how Zeenat had rescued him from a dark fate. “I knew nothing about working. My early days were spent playing cards or eating paan and talking to Achhan. My love for you shook me out of my inertia and made me go out in the world for employment. After my Mamu squandered away my estate, I would have spent my years like your father, dependent on one handout to another. Now we have risen back in the world thanks to our labor. You have worked hard at building our little nest and me outside. But we are able to offer a better life for our daughter.”

“Look at Sikander Mirza, he took personal care of his estates. He lived well and was philanthropical, but was also canny and hardworking. It is because of that he was able to maintain his wealth and marry his sister off so well.” He often said to her.

Now that she had faced strife, Bano knew the value of education and spent her time learning English and a new language called Hindi, from her daughter’s books and teaching her Urdu in turn.

Every day, during namaaz, she and Yusuf prayed for Sikander Mirza’s soul. Bano prayed every day for good health and happiness for her beloved Suraiya, Nawab Saheb’s affectionate sister, who took her so readily to heart without ever asking anything of her.

Begum Para was happy to allow Suraiya to spend a day with her friend Fatima. She took her maid, Ameeran along with her. They had their coachwan, Pehelwan with them. He was a hefty fellow and a good deterrent for any of the goonda elements who tried to harass ladies traveling alone.

As soon as Suraiya reached Fatima’s house, she was surrounded by women. Fatima’s household was large and several families lived together there. She was fussed over, fed with snacks, plied with cool sherbet and bombarded with questions. Fatima’s mother shooed them away at Fatima’s signal.  After an hour, she was able to get to Fatima’s room and get some alone time.

After swearing Fatima to secrecy Suraiyya told her that they had a lady visitor for her wedding who disappeared after the fire in her brother’s house. She was trying to trace the lady. As it was a matter of her family’s pride, she had to conduct her investigation in secret. She could not, upon the pain of death, let her in-laws know where she had been. She had to visit Naseeran Bai’s kotha to find out more about that mystery lady. Fatima was saucer-eyed when she heard this, but agreed to smuggle Suraiyya out.

She thought up a good plan. They would discard their fancy silk burqa’s and jewelry and wear a rough chador each. They would slip out of a side gate used by servants and hire a tonga outside.  Most servants used these tongas to go shopping for groceries. At the bazaar they would go to the cloth market and walk the rest of the way. It was the safest option. Suraiya lauded this quick thinking on Fatima’s part. Luckily, often the women of their house had pointed out Naseeran Bai’s kotha to each other in hushed tones, gossiping about the goings-on in that place. This is how they knew where to go.

Everything went smoothly. They had chosen a time when most servants and household members were at siesta. They reached the bazaar and walked quickly to the kotha, that stood at the edge of red-light district.  It was in shape of a sprawling bunglow owned by lesser nawabs.  They walked into the house, telling the gatekeeper that they had a message for Naseeran bai. They stood in the lounge, not daring to sit in the ornate chairs kept there for visitors.

Naseeran Bai came in, a little miffed at being disturbed in the afternoon. “Yes?” she asked a little crossly. The girls who accosted her looked pretty and soft but were dressed in a coarse chador that covered them from head to toe. One of the girls took her chador off. She was dressed in silks worthy of a noblewoman. Naseeran Bai was intrigued.

“I am the sister of Nawab Sikander Mirza.”

Naseeran believed her. She resembled her brother, whom she had seen but a fortnight before his death by fire. She bade the girls sit down and was about to call out for water and sherbet when it struck her that the girls were here incognito.  She went and closed the door to the lounge and shooed away the servant girl loitering there.

“My brother came to visit you a day before my engagement. Can I ask you why?”

“I promised your brother not to tell anyone about his mission.” Naseeran cast her eyes down. She had guessed a bit of the story. Her existence thrived on discretion and she had never, ever betrayed anyone.

Tears ran down Suraiya’s face, ‘My brother is no longer around. I have to know what happened in the last few days.” Suraiya paused a little and said, “Did you have anything to do with a lady who came to our house just before my engagement?”

Naseeran sat with her head bowed. If she wanted, she could simply say no. But she could see that this girl was suffering.  What difference would it make if she told the girl the truth. Both that woman and Nawab were dead.

“I am sure that lady did nothing wrong. Your brother did come to me and asked me send a lady over to your house to act like Bahu Begum. I happened to have a lady of a good family staying with me at the time. I have no idea where she came from. She was found by me on the road, in a dead faint. She refused to tell me anything about herself. I told her about your brother’s request and she agreed to go to your Haveli. I am afraid she never returned. I assumed she died in the fire, too.” Naseeran sighed.

She went out and brought a jewelry box and some clothes wrapped in muslin. “These are her belongings.” She put them on a table in front of Suraiya.

Suraiya flipped the muslin cloth and recognized the rich red sharara immediately. It was the one they had sent to Zeenat Mahal’s house on the wedding day for wearing on the doli. She opened the jewelry box and found some necklaces, earrings and the beautiful maang-tika that belonged to her mother.  Fatima gave a little gasp, “That’s your mother’s maang tika, Suraiya!” Suraiya looked stricken and closed the box.  

She stood up and took Naseeran Bai’s hands in her own. “You have been very helpful. Thank you.” She covered herself up in the chador again and walked out, followed closely by Fatima.

They walked fast without speaking till they came to the bazar. Suraiya leaned against a bench there and breathed hard. Fatima stood close by holding her by her arm. Suraiya stood up straight once more and hailed a tonga. She quickly gave instructions to the tongawalla and jumped in, pulling Fatima along with her.

“Where are you going?” Fatima whispered furiously. “Shouldn’t we be getting home?”

“Just one stop, my jaan. We will never be able to sneak out like this again. You know that.”

They stopped outside a rather dilapidated haveli in the old part of the town. Suraiya asked the tongawalla to wait and stepped out, followed quickly by Fatima. She was going to keep Suraiya company, no matter what happened.

The door to the Haveli was locked, so Suraiya asked a man sitting on the ledge outside.

“Mianji, What news of Nawab Mirza Sultan?”

“Arrey Beti. He went to Hajj soon after his daughter got married. He had sold his Haveli for his daughter’s wedding. It now belongs to Mian Qurban Ali. I don’t think Nawab Saheb will ever return.” He shook his head sadly.

Suraiya could do no more. She had unlocked one secret but it lead her nowhere. The lady who came to their house was Zeenat Mahal, the lady destined to be the Bahu Begum of their house. Why she ran away from the doli, why she appeared at Naseeran Bai’s kotha was still a mystery. Did she really perish in the fire or did she go away from the house before the Haveli caught fire?

With a heavy heart, she returned to Fatima’s house. They went shopping as decided in the late afternoon before she returned home.

After two days, Munshiji came in bearing a jewelry box and laid it before Suraiya. She recognized the box immediately. “It seems Bahu Begum sent this jewelry to be cleaned to jeweler Khuda Baksh. He just returned from a long trip and sent the box to me today. They belong to you now, beti. Keep them as a keepsake of your unfortunate Bhabhi.”

After Munshiji left, Suraiya bowed her head and shed tears for the good lady who ran a kotha and was notorious. People probably thought she was a greedy, immoral person. But she had sheltered a helpless girl, preserved her chastity, and returned her expensive items to where they belonged. She could only ask Munshiji to give the Khuda Baksh a good bakshish for being so faithful and thank him. She knew her thanks would be passed on.

October 1942

As Suraiya slowly recovered from the shock of her brother’s death, she tried to think about the reasons the Haveli caught fire. How could such a thing happen? It could have been an accident, as others conjectured. She wasn’t convinced. The mystery of the missing Bahu Begum, the lady who masqueraded as her Bhabhi during the wedding days, who were these women? She was sure there was something more to it than met the eye. She decided to be logical and list the events as they played out from the time when her brother decided to marry.

In September, Suraiya was thrilled to discover that her brother had finally found the girl he wanted to marry. Hitherto, he was adamant to remain single. Munshiji’s wife told her in confidence that he had spotted a beautiful girl in a jewelry shop and sent Pyare Mian to find out which family she belonged to. It turned out to be good news, she was the daughter of Nawab Mirza Sultan, a nobleman who had fallen on hard times. He was thrilled to receive an offer of marriage from Sikandar Mirza. Everything was smooth sailing after that. In a week’s time, on the first of October, they were to take the baraat to Nawab Mirza Sultan’s house. No women were invited by request of Mirza Sultan, he was a widower and had no ladies in his household to care for the female guests. Sikandar Mirza took only a small number of close associates to go with him. He was conscious of the fact that he should not impose upon the hospitality of a poor man.

Suraiya sent the clothes that the bride traditionally changed into when coming to her husband’s house. It was a rich red Sharara that had been worn by the new brides of her family. She also sent a lovely maang-tika, a gem-encrusted jewel that her mother wore on every happy occasion in the family. This lady, the new Bahu Begum, was going to be the mistress of this household and the harbinger of happiness. Suraiya could barely sit still the whole day. She made sure that her new Bhabhi’s boudoir was perfect. Her brother’s room adjoined this boudoir. She was planning feasts and outings with her new companion.

It was late afternoon when the baraat returned. The doli was brought into the women’s quarters and left in their courtyard. Suraiya went to welcome her Bhabhi but was shocked to find that the Doli was empty. She nearly went out of her wits. Luckily her brother arrived just then and had the presence of mind to say that the Doli should be taken into the boudoir, Bahu Begum had fainted.  Then the nightmare started, the brother and sister kept up a ruse that Bahu Begum was seriously ill and was confined to her bed.

Suraiya dared not ask her brother what the matter was. She dared not think that her brother had chosen a wayward girl who ran away from the Doli. Was she abducted? Was she robbed and killed? Even so, they would have heard some news. Days went on and they heard nothing. Her brother was like a robot, and she too had a hard time being normal.

She had enjoyed gossiping with Munshiji’s wife, but now she refused to see her. She had to keep up appearances of being busy with her Bhabhi’s convalescence.

After three weeks she had a talk with her brother. He told her he had found a match for her. She was reluctant to leave him at such a time but her brother insisted. This was a way out of their predicament. Once she was married, he would handle the news about Bahu Begum. She fell to her knees and prayed to Allah to help her through this difficult time.  A week before the wedding, the betrothal was to take place. Her brother called her and quietly told her that he had arranged for a lady to assist them with the wedding arrangements and Suraiya was to call her Bhabhi. Suraiya was surprised but also relieved. Now she would be able to prepare for her wedding without trying to keep up with the hoax of an ill Bahu Begum.

The next morning, an impeccably dressed lady stood outside Bahu Begum’s boudoir. The servants came running to greet her. Suraiya was stunned by the lady’s looks. She looked like a goddess who had descended to earth. Where could her brother have found this woman? She was surprised when the lady, the one she called Bhabhi, fell so easily into the role of the lady of the house. She ordered the servants firmly but politely. She knew exactly what to do.

By the time the engagement was over, the servants were wowed by her. The guests had returned satiated with food and attention. She had remembered to attend not only to the guests but the servants also, including the coachmen who stood outside. Everyone was fed well. The beggars at the door had been lavished with food and money. “It was as grand as a wedding.” Everyone said.

Late in the night, Bahu Begum called Suraiya to her room.  She stood by the bed, in a plain white Sharara. All the jewelry she had worn in the day was taken off. She handed a key to Suraiya. “This is the key to the jewelry box Nawab Saheb had given me. It is time for me to go.”

“All day I felt like my mother had returned in your guise. I felt easy all day. You can’t possibly leave me now. Why do you have to go?  Is there someone who requires your attention?”

“No, I have come from a darkness and that is where I have to return.”

Suraiya had not allowed the lady to return. She had clung to her until Bhabhi promised to remain with her until she was married. Bhabhi had kept her promise, she stayed by Suraiya’s side and soothed her. As before, she took over all the arrangements for the wedding. When Suraiya’s doli left, she could see her Bhabhi crying in the courtyard.

That was the last time she saw her.  Later in the night, when her husband’s house was still alight and feasting was still on, news came that her brother had perished in the fire that raged in their Haveli. She was left with a secret that only she knew now. That the Bahu Begum was a fake, a lady her brother had hired for the event.

She wasn’t a thief. The jewels she had been given were still in her boudoir. She never touched any money. All transactions were done by Munshiji who was always at hand to disburse money to those who needed to be paid.

Suraiya lay her head on the cool garden seat and closed her eyes. Her mental recapitulation of the events did not help much. It gave her a headache. If only she could locate the place the fake Bahu Begum came from.

Her brother’s secretary, Munshiji had to visit her often, she had to sign papers pertaining to her ownership of their estate. She was now the sole owner of her parental estate. The Haveli had burned down, but the land belonged to her. They had owned several orchards on the outskirts of Lucknow. Munshiji was overseeing the transfer of property to Suriayya. It was deemed unorthodox, yet her mother-in-law had allowed Munshiji free access to Suraiyya. “He is the only survivor of your brother’s household. He is like your brother now.”

One day, as she was signing a fresh batch of papers Munshiji had brought over, she asked him, “Munshiji, the day before my engagement, did my brother do something that was out of the ordinary?”

Munshiji thought hard. He almost shook his head to say no but stopped. He said slowly, “The only thing that comes to my mind is this. A day before your engagement, Nawab Saheb wanted to assign a task to me. Then he changed his mind and muttered, “I will have to do this myself.” I was mystified and followed him to the front door and caught his instructions to the tongawalla. He was asking to be taken to Naseeran Bai’s kotha.  I was surprised. For such requests, Nawab Saheb would have sent Pyare. Pyare usually handled arrangements for dancing girls. I thought maybe he wanted everything to be impeccable, so he wanted to do it himself. You know Pyare Mian could be quite scatterbrained at times.”

After Munshiji left, Suraiyya pondered over his words. This was a clue, slim as it was. Maybe the lady who came to their house came from Naseeran Bai’s kotha. She had heard tales told of highly accomplished women who served as nautch girls. Some of them wrote poetry and danced so well that they were regarded as artists, not fallen women. Such women could be mistaken for aristocratic women in ordinary surroundings. The only way she could learn a little more about the woman was by visiting Naseeran Bai’s Kotha. For this, she would need help. The only person she could depend upon was Fatima, her friend.

She spent the next few days in thought, trying to work out a way to visit the bazaar alone with Fatima and then make her way to Naseeran Bai’s kotha. Fatima’s older sister was getting engaged in a week’s time. If she asked her mother-in-law to be allowed to go to Fatima’s house to help choose clothes for the bride, she would surely be granted permission. If Fatima chickened out, she would have to find other means.

  • None
  • thandapani: Thank you, Vani. I was thanking all those unpaid translators of web novels also from the bottom of my heart. Such selfless dedication.
  • Vani: Beautifully reviewed. Nothing like to read a nicely translated work, true.
  • Vani: Loved the concluding chapter. Beautifully summed up. And the last line is brilliant. This is excellent novel material.