What a joy this biography is.
An absolute delight to read and oh-so interesting to learn about a fascinating historical figure, about whom I was – admission time – hitherto woefully ignorant.
The life of Farzana, known as Begum Samru, is a classic rags-to-riches story, told with verve and much admiration, by the late Ms Keay.
Born, an illegitimate girl, in the mid-18th century into poverty, sold off by her impoverished mother to become a “nautch” girl (a dancer -cum-prostitute) theoretically Farzana had absolutely nothing going for her in life. She could have easily slipped into sad oblivion.
But this young lady was obviously ambitious and had a vision of her own future which did not involve a life in the red-light district. She lived with a foreign mercenary two decades her senior, and as she moved around north India with the hapless Walter Reinhardt Sombre, she learned how to manage his mercenary troops, how to command their respect, how to manage land and finances.
Even by 21st century standards, Farzana is an impressive figure.
But she was a total anomaly in the 18th century – practically illiterate, riding into battle with her men, respected by both Indians and the foreigners with whom she came into contact. She was fiercely loyal and stood by the Moghul Emperor through his years of turmoil and defeat at the hands of warring factions.
From illiterate poverty to the very heart of Moghul power was a quantum leap for anyone, but for a woman it was even more so. She held her own with men, including the colonial British, yet remained caring and considerate of the hundreds of people who depended on her for their existence, feeding and housing a huge number of people – including the widow of Walter, who lived in her care for decades.
She had estates bestowed on her, she converted to Catholicism & built a lavish church in the north Indian state of Haryana. She rode into battle wearing a turban, she fell in love with a dashing Irish mercenary, smoked hookahs with the men and, amazingly, was admired by the otherwise prim-and-proper British women of colonial India.
Ms Keay tells Farzana’s story, from abject poverty to being the only Catholic ruler in India, with obvious affection and a fair deal of feminist support. Comparing the destinies of another Indian warrior queen, the 13th century Raziya Sultana, Ms Keay writes:
“Historians to a man (gender studies have yet to catch up with Raziya) portray her as a victim of circumstance or a product of wishful romance. Exploits that would surely win approval in the case of a dashing young sultan evidently tax academic credulity when their agent is a gritty young sultana…Farzana has suffered in similar fashion. In fact when scrutinised by those armchair authorities who would interpret the exploits of India’s freelancers to future generations, her reputation has nosedived…”
A page-turning read, in which history is brought alive with colour and ( I warn you) sometimes stomach-churning brutality, I found myself cheering for this remarkable woman.
Do read this exciting story (you can order the book using the link below). You absolutely won’t regret it.