[A brief history of the forgotten women who took up arms against an exploitative system, and a book review. First published in Women’s Web.]
When one thinks of Partition, one thinks of Punjab and perhaps of Bengal. The bloodshed on both sides of the border. People unrooted from the only home they ever knew. trains pulling into station with coachloads of slaughtered people. Refugee camps crammed with bewilderment, nostalgia and a determination to start afresh.
The stories of Partition that we take about are stories enabled by Radcliff. But far away from the stories that dominate 1947, is the story of how Hyderabad came to be a part of India. A story that most Indians are not aware of- even many who live in areas that were a part of the Hyderabad State do not realise that they will officially celebrate 75 years of being a part of the Indian Union only in September 2023.
In her fictionalised historical novel, Hyderabad (The Partition Trilogy #2), Manreet Sodhi Someshwar examines the many people and forces that were in play in the months before the annexation of Hyderabad into the Indian Union. Unlike in other princely states, there were many more forces that were in play in Hyderabad, and Manreet does full justice to the many historical personages who were involved. However, where she really impresses is with her portrayal of the common people- people who were being pulled apart by forces beyond their control, but who never surrendered their agency in dealing with them.
Where are the women of the Telangana armed struggle in history records?
Women have been largely written out of the Freedom Movement, and even when we remember them, we do not think beyond a few prominent women Freedom Fighters who achieved some degree of fame.
Most of the women who have been immortalised are women who were women from privileged families; women with education who played a public role in post Independence India. There were no such women in the Telangana Armed Struggle, which was an anti-feudal and anti-caste movement against the oppressive regime of the Nizam and later of Independent India.
It was Dalit and Bahujan women who joined the Telangana Armed Struggle, and their fight was against caste oppression and for the right to own and cultivate their own land.
We know the name of Chakali Ailamma, who took up arms to fight against the structured oppression of the feudal system, and in the process also rebelled against gendered domestic expectations.
There were, however, many women such as her who took up arms to fight against the system. It is the stories of these women that Manreet tells through her fictional characters.
Jaabili accompanied her mistress to her marital home, where she was expected to serve as a concubine to her master. This was not acceptable to her, so displaying immense moral and physical courage, she escaped to join the Telangana Armed Struggle which she continued to serve despite the heavy personal price she had to pay.
She was unwilling to serve her master, but had sufficient agency to take on a lover of her own. She never gave up till the end, and was willing to resort to violence to achieve her ends.
Uzma was sold into the service of the royal family. She was forced to abort an illegitimate child. Yet, instead of accepting her face, she displayed initiative and rose through the ranks to eventually become the confidant of a Princess. While she could have then lived in luxury, she chose to act as in informant for people seeking socio-economic justice for the labouring classes.
Far from being the submissive gender, she showed she was even willing to kill to further her cause.
Both Jaabili and Uzma are composite characters who represent the nameless, faceless, now forgotten women of the Telangana Armed Struggle. By breathing life into them Manreet literally entreats us to learn more about these (often unlettered) heroines who stood up valiantly for the rights of labourers, for caste justice and for gender equality.
There is one other character who glistens like the Kohinoor throughout the book. Princess Nilofeur was the exquisitely beautiful niece of the Last Caliph who, along with her cousin (the daughter of the Caliph), travelled from Nice to Hyderabad to start life as the younger daughter-in-law of the Seventh Nizam.
Nilofeur has always lived in the shadow of her equally beautiful and accomplished cousin who was married to the older son, but in this book, it is Nilofeur who dazzles. Her grace, her concern for others, her empathy and even her sense of humour. Nilofeur who sits in the royal car while her lady-in-waiting gets her Osmania biscuits and Irani chai from a café frequented by Communist sympathisers. Nilofeur, fresh as a rose, in the dank and dusty King Koti where the Nizam’s family resides. It is worth reading the book just for her interactions with her best friend Emily, and her lady-in-waiting.
The book ends with the Nizam’s forces surrendering to the Indian Army, but we know that for Jaabili and Uzma, and countless others like them, the struggle would continue for a few more years. You can draw boundaries on maps, and redraw them with blood on the ground, but the fight for freedom from oppression can only end when there is justice, equality, liberty and fraternity for all.
At a time when history is being erased one WhatsApp forward at a time, it is necessary that we read up on our history. Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s ‘Hyderabad (The Partition Trilogy #2)’ is certainly a book that you will learn a lot from.
Author’s note: I received an ARC of the book, but the views are entirely my own. The book is categorised as historical fiction.