Book Review: Gold Dust of Begum Sultans


The book under review was originally published as an Urdu novel, Sunehri Rait, in 1989. The acknowledgements indicate that the current version is “not strictly a translation” because the translators “have taken artistic license, adding drama to a narrative which was linear and factually written”, but there is nothing to indicate where the factual ends and license begins. Gold Dust of Begum Sultans was also the title of an exhibition showcasing the lives of the Rohillas who made Rampur their home after being defeated in battle by the Nawab of Awadh. Though the book’s Preface tells us that the story is “about an adjacent riyasat, Mohammadpur”, all signs point to a thinly transformed narrative of the Rohilla Pathans.

A criterion for any successful historical novel, even one which flaunts its artistic license, is how well it combines history and fiction to create an absorbing story line, and the present novel begins on an encouraging note. While the city sleeps, Akbar Ali Khan’s household is humming with activity. Walls are stripped bare of their rare paintings, the floors of Persian carpets. The overwhelming sense of secrecy and stealth suggests that this is no normal occurrence. It is, we learn soon enough, an escape from his nephew Nawab Asad Ali Khan. Unfortunately this initial suspense gives way to a tedious recounting of Akbar Ali Khan’s pedigree before digressing into a long, not particularly interesting enumeration of the Nawab’s sexual escapades. Any potential critique of the exploitation of the women he ravishes gets buried in this never-ending morass, and it requires considerable willpower to overcome one’s gut inclination to shut the book at this point and not read any further. Read more