THOSE HALCYON DAYS – Zeenath Khan

Chapter One

Hyderabad, capital of the Nizam’s dominions
December 31, 1946
Pareeza

I sat upright with a start and clenched both hands over my palpitating heart. I flung off the blanket that had kept me warm through the chilly December night. To my great relief, there wasn’t a drop of blood in sight. It was just my mother-in-law again. The sequence of her crimes varied little. She hovered over my bed with a dagger in her hands and plunged it deep into my heart while I slept. And that wasn’t the worst part: of late the old lady rubbed her hands together in delight and cackled with perverse glee that she knew my secret.
Khurram, my husband, sensed my restlessness and stirred. “Darling, did you have a bad dream again?” he mumbled. “Please don’t tell me it was the one with Macbeth and Banquo’s ghost.”
“Yes, it was.” I buried my face in his chest, and the gruesome images prancing about in my mind disappeared. Khurram played along with my story about Banquo’s ghost, but I suspected he had guessed ages ago whom my nightmares were about. Not that his mother was a ghost. On the contrary, she was a strapping woman of sixty-odd years in excellent health, who rued the day her son laid eyes on me.
“Try and go back to sleep, darling,” he said in a sleep-laden voice. “Last year some of our guests stayed until breakfast.”
Joon, has it occurred to you that it may be insensitive on our part to host a New Year’s Eve ball when India is on the brink of a civil war?”
Silence met my question; he had drifted off into a peaceful slumber. Nature had blessed my husband with the wonderful ability not to dwell on unpleasant matters. Unlike me, he wasn’t prone to committing unconscionable acts either. Sleep eluded me, and icy fingers of dread squeezed my heart. If anyone ever discovered my secret, my entire life would unravel.

*

The day whizzed by in a frenzy of preparation and giddy excitement, and evening fell before I knew it. As the old adage went, it was time to say good-bye to the old and bring in the new. During the course of the day my mood had lifted considerably; I even had a brand-new emerald-green satin evening gown to wear for the occasion.
Farishteh, our thirteen-year old daughter, gazed at me with unblinking eyes as I preened before my dressing-table mirror. Faredoon, our three-year-old, lolled about under his sister’s watchful eye. Our middle child, eleven-year-old Zain, distanced himself from such situations.
“The colour of your gown really suits you, Mama, and your up-do is so elegant…’ Farishteh sighed. “Do you think Papa will ever allow me to cut my hair?”
“Papa finds your hair far too beautiful for that to happen, and he never changes his mind about anything.”
“Do I hear my name being taken in vain?”
Khurram emerged from his dressing room, dapper in his black dinner jacket. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a muscular physique honed from years of playing polo, he was a man who stood out in a crowd. An innate good nature and kindness lent a certain softness to his otherwise prominent, aristocratic features. Despite being almost forty, there wasn’t a speck of grey in his luxuriant head of dark hair.
He appraised me with twinkling eyes. “Darling, don’t you look lovely?”
Joon, you would say so even if I were to wear a sack.”
My husband was aware of my vanity and pandered to it quite indulgently. He strolled over to me and planted a kiss on my neck. In my oval dressing-table mirror, Farishteh rolled her eyes in embarrassment.
“Could you fasten the clasp of my choker for me, joon?
He obliged, and I rewarded him with my sweetest smile. Guilt made me behave much better with Khurram than usual—guilt coupled with the knowledge that the poor dear had been the victim of my volatile Persian temper for years.
With her face squashed between her palms, Farishteh said, “You look like a pair of movie stars… I hope my husband is as handsome as you are, Papa.”
“I’m glad someone still finds me handsome,” replied Khurram. “Mama finds me old and boring.”
“Don’t believe a word Papa says,” I retorted, applying the final touches to my lipstick. “Whenever we go to the Club, women of all ages swarm all over him like flies. I can’t leave him alone for a second. It’s shocking how they behave with someone else’s husband.”
“Farishteh, I can assure you these women are all a figment of Mama’s vivid imagination—”
“Our house is lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Faredoon. His words were muffled by the ever-present thumb in his mouth.
I put down my lipstick and spun around. The sight of Faredoon always tugged at my heartstrings: he had rosy cheeks, gorgeous golden curls, ripples of baby fat, and me wrapped around his little finger.
“My little moosh, you’re as lovely as those angels hanging from our tree. They have golden locks just like yours—”
“Mama, you mustn’t pay him such lavish compliments. He thinks he can do no wrong and has become a little tyrant,” said Farishteh in her strictest older-sister voice.
Khurram ruffled Farishteh’s hair and smiled down at her. “There’s no doubt about that, but he listens to you, and it’s your responsibility to make sure he behaves tonight. It’s almost time for the party to begin, and Mama and I must go downstairs. Don’t forget to watch the fireworks from the terrace at midnight.”

*

We kissed the children good night, and Farishteh grabbed Faredoon by the hand and led him to the nursery. Then Khurram proffered me his arm, and together we descended the immense staircase. His grandfather built Kaher Kashan, our grand mansion, at the turn of the century, when Hyderabad’s aristocrats were vying with each other in the construction of the most lavish homes possible. The men of Khurram’s family were prolific collectors as well. Kaher Kashan’s many rooms were full of rare paintings, sculptures, tapestries, artefacts, and furniture from all over the world. Of the many treasures within our four walls, my favourite was the enormous blue and white glass chandelier that hung from a dome-shaped ceiling in the foyer’s centre. Khurram’s grandfather had commissioned a famous Italian artist to paint a panoply of cupids armed with bows and arrows on the dome’s interior. The cupids wore whimsical expressions, which, I was convinced, changed to reflect the mood of the house. This evening they appeared cheerful, a sign that augured well for the evening.
My father-in-law and his younger brother, Uncle Haaris, stood by the main door, awaiting the arrival of our guests. From their bored expressions it was apparent that they had been at their posts a while. Father had been Hyderabad’s secretary for external affairs before his retirement, and he was still one of the most important men in the city. Uncle Haaris was a bachelor; he hadn’t worked a day in his life and was a great bon vivant. He and I were the best of friends.
Father turned his snowy head toward Khurram. “Mr. Herbert will be here any minute. Pareeza may require time to get dressed, but you ought to have come downstairs earlier.”
“I’m sorry, Father. But I didn’t expect Uncle Haaris and you to be standing here even before the time mentioned on our invitation.”
“Muzaffar, go easy on the boy,” said Uncle Haaris. “The evening has yet to begin, and don’t forget that he’ll be the only one of us in a condition to see off our guests when it ends—”
“Mr. Herbert must have arrived, I heard a car pull up into the portico,” I interrupted.
Guards dressed in white liveries, with crimson Turkish fezzes on their heads, flanked the stairs that led from the covered portico to the foyer. One of them sounded a bugle whenever an important guest arrived, and the rest of them raised their hands in salute. Mr. C. L. Herbert, the British resident to Hyderabad, was one of the night’s most important guests.
After his ceremonial welcome, Mr. Herbert was all smiles. “Good evening, Nawabsaab. You have the most magnificent home! I’ve never seen a more spectacular view of the city.”
Father shook Mr. Herbert’s hand. “Thank you, Mr. Herbert. I trust matters at the Residency are in order.”
“To be honest, Nawabsaab, I must confess that this hasn’t been an easy assignment for me. I’m bound to obey the orders of my superiors in Delhi, which conflict with those of the Nizam. But those are concerns for another time. My predecessor waxed eloquent about your legendary parties, and I’ve been looking forward to this evening.”
Uncle Haaris grabbed Mr. Herbert by his sleeve. “New Year’s Eve isn’t the right time to worry about serious matters. Who knows if we’ll be alive to enjoy another! Let’s go and get you some whiskey.”
Khurram and I watched as Uncle Haaris and Mr. Herbert made their way towards the ballroom.
“Uncle Haaris and Mr. Herbert have become good friends already,” he remarked.
“When a sizable number of our guests arrive, the two of you can proceed to the ballroom and begin the dancing,” said Father. “I’ll remain here until the Prince and Princess of Berar arrive.”

*

The ballroom was abuzz with the tinkle of fluted champagne glasses, the drone of voices, and the music played by the orchestra. If only it had been possible for me to spend the evening on the dance floor—but alas, my duties as a hostess involved flitting between the guests in the ballroom and the living room. I ensured that no one held an empty glass and that the waiters plied everyone with hors d’oeuvres. It was with great pains that I had decided on the menu for the five-course meal we would serve on the lawn after midnight, and now I needed to make a quick dash to the kitchens for a last-minute conference with our cooks.
Occasions like these reminded me of my own father; Baba was a high-ranking Persian diplomat and had served under the regime of Reza Shah. My mother died when I was a toddler, and I grew up helping my father plan elaborate dinner parties. By the time I was a teenager, I had learned enough about the art of entertaining to act as his de facto hostess. Baba was a man of cultivated tastes, and I liked to believe his panache had rubbed off on me.
The kitchens were quite a distance from our formal rooms. By the time I returned to the party, I was out of breath.
Someone called my name. “Pareeza—there you are, my dear!”
The voice belonged to Lady Feroza Farouhar, Father’s paramour of thirty years. The Farouhars were a blue-blooded Zoroastrian family from Bombay. Her late husband, Sir Khushroo Farouhar, OBE, had advised the Nizam on financial matters. The passage of time had done little to diminish her beauty. She had eyes of the most vivid blue, like the Mediterranean Sea on a bright summer’s day. Her exquisite porcelain skin remained unblemished, and her body was slim and graceful. Physical attributes aside, she was a highly accomplished woman, renowned for her philanthropy as well as her business acumen.
“Lady Feroza, how lovely to see you! I wasn’t sure whether you could be here with us this evening.”
“Muzaffar insisted that I spend New Year’s Eve in Hyderabad this year. And, before I forget, Darius rang from London earlier this evening and asked me to tell you that he sends his love.”
I gulped. “That’s nice of him.”
“Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you want to enjoy yourself.”
I was so preoccupied with my thoughts that I didn’t even realize I’d bumped into Khurram until he said, “Darling, where did you disappear to?”
“While you’ve been smoking cigars and joking with your friends, I’ve been running around making sure everything’s in order and getting my cheeks kissed by old uncles.”
“Who can blame the old devils? You’re more fetching than usual tonight.”
“Be quiet and give me the rest of whatever is in your glass.”
“What if someone sees?”
“So what if they do? Why should men have all the fun?”
“Drink up, then, and let’s dance—your mood is faltering.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said, hoping that my queasiness and exhaustion wouldn’t be obvious for the duration of the party.
Khurram led me to the dance floor, and we began to waltz, but to my irritation his attention was elsewhere.
“Whom are you staring at, joon?
“Uncle Haaris’s popularity with the opposite sex is enviable. On my last count, he’s danced with at least six different women.”
“Let him enjoy his evening, and stop glancing in his direction. I hope he doesn’t overdo it and make himself unwell.”
“It’s the Prince we should worry about. He’s drunk and about to collapse at any moment.”
I strained my eyes to spot Prince Azam Jah and Princess Durrushehvar of Berar in the crowd. “Isn’t that gentleman in khadi Maharajah Gopal Rao’s son? He’s hovering around the Princess as though he were waiting for an opportunity to speak to her.”
“That Jairam has developed radical ideas. He supports the abolishment of the feudal system, even though his father is one the wealthiest jagirdars in the state. We should hurry over and make sure the situation doesn’t become awkward.”
The Prince and Princess were at the opposite end of the ballroom. By the time we ploughed our way over to them, it was too late.
“Madam, what will happen to your puppet kingdom now that your puppet-masters are leaving?” Jairam said, his eyes darting towards Brigadier Napian, Chief of Staff in Hyderabad’s army.
“Jairam, that’s no way to talk to the Princess,” said Khurram, pulling him away from the Princess.
Durrushehvar was an Ottoman Princess, her father the last Caliph of Islam. As a young child, she had stood up to a police officer taking her family into exile from Turkey in the middle of the night. Jairam was not aware of the Princess’s steely resolve. Her green eyes flashed; her imperious gaze was frosty enough to turn an adversary to ice. “Sir, my husband’s family has ruled the Deccan for over two centuries,” she said. “In case it has escaped your notice, the state of Hyderabad is one of the few places in the subcontinent not in flames. You may think we fear the departure of the British, but we do not. What scares me is the prospect of the likes of you ever holding the reins of power.”
Durrushehvar’s husband, the Prince, was staring into space; he had missed the entire exchange.
“It’s best that you leave right away, Jairam. I’ll have our guards guard you out,” Khurram said.
Jairam shook himself out of Khurram’s grasp. “That won’t be necessary, I can see myself out. You’re a great lady, Madam, and I apologize for my behaviour. However, your husband is a coward. A man who can’t come to the defence of his wife won’t be able to save either his dynasty or his kingdom.”
“Do I have to evict you?” asked Khurram, his tone sharp.
Jairam turned on his heels and left.
“Khurram, my husband isn’t in a condition to remain at the party,” said Durrushehvar. “We must take your leave. Don’t bother to see us out.”
Regardless of the curious eyes on her, Durrushehvar left the room with her head held high. The Prince’s aide-de-camp bodily supported him out of the room.
“That idiot Jairam chose the wrong person to bandy words with,” said Khurram.
“Why did he have to ruin Durrushehvar’s evening?”
“If you ask me, she was glad of the escape. Her husband would have continued to embarrass her.”
At five minutes before midnight, the orchestra stopped playing. Father stood on a dais and banged a teaspoon against a champagne glass to attract everyone’s attention. “I would like to propose a toast to King Emperor George VI of India,” he said, and raised his glass in the air.
Mr. Herbert followed suit. “To His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad.”
Uncle Haaris hoisted his glass in the air with a flourish. “To the New Year, 1947. May we be standing at the end of it!”
I enjoyed the cacophony of glasses clinking against each other. Khurram never allowed me more than a sip of alcohol, but copious amounts of it were being drunk all around us.
“Let’s slip outside. If we remain indoors when the clock strikes twelve, there will be an entire line of uncles clamouring to kiss you.”
A violinist began to play Auld Lang Syne. Khurram and I escaped to a secluded corner of the lawn. The revelers in the ballroom, although out of tune, sang along to the words of the old Scottish ballad. At the stroke of midnight, an array of fireworks illuminated the winter sky over our home. Khurram pulled me towards him and whispered jumbled terms of endearment in my ear.
“I love you, joon,” I said. “You’re so wonderful.”
He was, he really was. I wasn’t prone to severe pangs of conscience, but at moments such as these the most severe guilt imaginable consumed me…albeit for a short while.

Chapter Two

January 1, 1947
Farishteh

I emerged from Mama’s womb with hair so abundant and long that the birthing-room nurse could fashion a pair of ponytails in it. The Muslim faith demanded that the parents of a newborn shave their child’s head as soon as possible. When I was a week old, a hajaam, armed with a pair of scissors and a razor, did the needful. The event upset Papa so much that he forbade my hair ever to be subject to either instrument again. He was unaware that Mama made Rosie, her Lady Friday, trim my hair regularly, so that it never grew below my waist. My day began and ended with my hair being parted, combed, brushed, and braided.
I’d woken up with butterflies in my tummy, but Rosie’s gentle brushing eased them. Every year on the first of January, we hosted a lunch for Papa’s sisters, Aunty Zehra and Aunty Saleha, their husbands, and their many children. Today was also one of the few days in the year when Papa insisted that we visit our grandmother, who detested Mama and wasn’t fond of the three of us either. Another family ritual was that Mama and Papa always ended the first day of the year with a blazing row.
I should clarify what I mean by “visiting” my grandmother. She lived in the same house as the rest of us but observed purdah and seldom emerged from her private quarters downstairs. My grandparents were estranged, and I’d read enough books to understand what the word meant. Reading many books made you understand rather too much. Mama was against my reading anything with disturbing content in it, but Papa, being a professor, was greatly in favour of the broadening of my intellectual horizons.
“Farishteh, how would you like your hair done?” asked Rosie. She had been with us for almost seven years and spent a lot of time styling Mama’s hair. She’d become quite the expert on the subject.
“A French braid would be perfect. Thank you, Rosie.”
“You resemble your Mama more and more every day.”
“I don’t know, Rosie. Don’t I look more like Papa?”
“But you’re fair like your Mama.”
“Rosie, of all the silly things… Why couldn’t you say I had Mama’s eyes or something?”
“Farishteh, you don’t understand how lucky you are,” she persisted. “If I were fair, I’d have found a husband years ago.”
There was no talking sense into Rosie. To most Indians, light skin was a coveted asset. But there was much more to Mama than a peachy complexion. She had an angelic face that belied her fiery temperament, a dainty physique, and what my grandfather called a “winning personality.” In addition, she hadn’t aged even a little; no one believed she’d borne three children and was over thirty. Then again, everyone pandered to Mama’s whims, especially Papa.
My aunts hadn’t been so lucky with their husbands. A few months ago, Aunty Zehra had showed up at Kaher Kashan, after being beaten by her husband. For once Dadajaan, my grandfather, intervened in one of his daughters’ marital problems and told his villainous son-in-law that if he ever laid a finger on Aunty Zehra again, he would report him to the Nizam and the police. The encounter ended with my gentle Papa punching his brother-in-law in the face.
There was a knock on my bedroom door. “Can I come in, Farishteh?”
“Yes, Papa.”
Papa was still in his pyjamas and appeared displeased to be out of bed. “Why aren’t you taking lessons with Miss MacGregor?”
“Miss MacGregor only resumes classes after the fourth of January, and I’m way ahead in all my lessons.”
“How about Zain?”
“Miss MacGregor asked him to revise his Geography this morning and gave him the rest of the day off to play with the other boys. Papa, have you forgotten that we’ve invited the aunts and their families for lunch today?”
“No, I didn’t. Rosie, don’t mind me—please carry on with whatever you’re doing.”
He flopped back onto my bed and fell asleep. Rosie was used to Papa’s presence and continued her task, closing the door behind her when she had finished.
“Papa, Rosie’s gone, wake up now… Is Mama upset with you?”
Blinking sleep from his eyes, Papa said, “I muttered something about going to the Club after lunch, and she asked me to leave our room.”
“Oh, Papa. When will you learn not to mention the Club on a day of an aunts’ visit? And why must we invite them on New Year’s Day, when all of you are in bad shape from the night before? This is the only time our family is ever frugal. Is it necessary to feed them with the leftovers from last night’s dinner?”
“Given a choice, I’d never cross paths with those wastrels my sisters married. There couldn’t be any worse specimens of mankind, but that didn’t stop my sisters from producing an entire cricket team between the two of them.”
“Never mind, Papa, as long as you and Mama don’t have more children.”
“Absolutely not,” said Papa. “Faredoon’s birth strained Mama enough as it is.”
Papa, who had received an education at Eton and Cambridge, believed that multiple pregnancies were detrimental to a woman’s health. They hadn’t wanted more children after Zain; Mama and Papa claimed that Faredoon happened only because they were both sad when Papa’s younger brother, Uncle Faiyaz, died. Uncle Faiyaz had been a pilot with the RAF, and the Italians shot down his plane somewhere over the Saharan desert.
The war had affected Papa’s life in more ways than one. He had been a fellow at Trinity College at Cambridge, well on his way to being tenured as a professor, when England declared war on Germany in 1939. Dadajaan had ordered Papa to bring us all back to the safety of Hyderabad. Since then Papa had, in his own words, “settled into the comfortable life of a Hyderabadi Nawab,” carrying on with a job for which he was vastly over-qualified. He headed the classics department at the Nizam College here in Hyderabad, but it was a far cry from Trinity.

Author’s Statement

There was a time when India was a land of princes, the foremost of them all being the Nizam of Hyderabad. Those Halcyon Days is a historical novel that gives a blow-by-blow account of India’s brutal takeover of Hyderabad seventy years ago. I attempt to bring to life a world so magnificent that it’s almost impossible to believe it ever existed.
My protagonist, Pareeza AliKhan, is a feisty young Persian woman. Destiny brings her to Hyderabad, where she lives in the fold of her aristocratic husband’s family. Despite batting personal demons, she displays admirable valour when confronted with a barbaric economic blockade, a rampaging army, and her husband’s incarceration. Farishteh, Pareeza’s teenage daughter, is an intuitive girl with an intimate knowledge of the political upheaval around her as well as other matters. When the Indian army invades, Hyderabad’s forces capitulate in four days. The new administration clamps down on all those with ties to the old regime, including Pareeza’s husband. At the risk of her secret being discovered, Pareeza turns to the one man who can help her.
I grew up in Hyderabad during the 1970s and ’80s, almost unaware of the city’s illustrious past or the events that led to the state’s absorption into India. All that remained of times gone by were a few crumbling old homes and the fanciful tales of ancient relatives, which I never believed. Two years ago, however, I read a book that gave a no-holds-barred account of the manner in which India bullied Hyderabad’s ruler into accession. The more I read about the subject, the more it seemed to have the perfect ingredients for an interesting story. On the one hand, there was a ruler as rich as Croesus and a ruling elite with lifestyles as decadent as those of the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, there was India poised to swallow them whole. Eighty thousand words later, I’m still trying to get it right. Those times, the world that was, and the type of people my story describes are all long gone, but I hope my novel will interest those with a passion for historical fiction.

 

Zeenath Khan lives in Mumbai, India.

Embark, Issue 9, July 2019