Farzana: The Woman who Saved an Empire by Julia Keay; book review


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The Independent Culture

Farzana began life as an impoverished, powerless girl in Mughal-era India, where social hierarchies were prescribed and inescapable. Penniless and orphaned by teen age, she earned her keep by servicing the priapic needs of the East India Company in the dance halls of Delhi. So how, by the end of her life, had she become not only the leader of a formidable army but a revered adventurer who sat on an immense personal fortune in one the most illustrious estates of 18th-century India?

Her story is as large as any multiplex-worthy biopic and in Julia Keay’s hands, it is brought alive both in its sensational biographic detail – the stormy love life and marriages, the conversion from Islam to Catholicism, the rag-to-riches ascendancy of a “nautch” girl (dancer-cum-prostitute) –  and in the power-play between the East India Company’s imperial expansion across India and a tottering Mughal Court struggling to maintain its footing as a ruling power.

In almost every aspect of her life, Farzana managed to defy the social conventions that would have written her off as victim of her social class, her gender, her illegitimate birth. She was sold to the “nautch” trade by her destitute mother when her father died and his wife –  not Farzana’s mother –inherited his wealth. Farzana’s beauty gave her a natural advantage in this environment but the trade also seemed to finesse her powers of beguilement in other, far more powerful ways.

It was her ability to gain the trust of the men she entertained and to soothe but also to become their companion and confidante, which gave her the knee-up. A canny first marriage to a German soldier, Walter Reinhardt, two decades her senior, whose army of “freelancers” (mercenaries) led her to inherit his army after his death, and then on to her glorious transformation to Begum Samru of Sardhana.

On his death, she could have ended up as destitute as her mother, pushed out by his first wife (European men often kept a “native” wife as well as a European counterpart). In Reinhardt’s case, the first wife was “native” but produced for him what Farzana never could: a child and heir who would guarantee her financial security in the event of his death.

She didn’t need the heir in the end. Through the course of her military career, Farzana proved herself to be a supreme strategist, even if she was hopeless in love (a failed marriage to a Frenchman, a missed opportunity at a lifetime of love with an Irishman). She became the protector of the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam – said never to have lost a single battle – and later, formed allegiances with the East India Company, under whose protection she lived in her last years and who inherited her fortune when she died, aged 86. At the height of her powers, she was still only semi-literate and yet she managed to charm not just the British authorities but their wives too.

William Dalrymple, in his forward, points out that “the sad and strangely attractive world of Sardhana has been told several times, but perhaps never so well as by Julia Keay”. What’s more, Keay navigates the Farzana “myth” skilfully, unpicking the romantic Apocrypha built up over the centuries from the limitations of documentation. She doesn’t neglect the mythology either, and what a mythology there was – to some she was a “witch” who dabbled into the dark arts; details of her early life are scant, partly because she drew a veil over these days herself. Keay was still redrafting the book when she died in 2011 and her husband, John Keay, mentions in the afterword that this publication might have niggled her meticulous mind. What gaps there are seem more than pasted over by the most vivid writing of the most vivid of self-made princesses.