As might well be apposite for stories of the Partition, let us begin at the end. Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Hyderabad, the second book in her Partition Trilogy, closes with a ghazal by Hyderabad’s last Asaf Jahi Nizam, Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, lamenting the end of his dynasty, and acknowledging the inescapable momentum of history.

“Now the day dawns, the prophecy comes true,
The Pir’s blessing, finally on death bed:
Seized by Raja-e-Hindustan Nehru
Glorious Hyderabad is gallows led. (…)
It’s the way of the world to bid adieu:
To renew, all that is old must be wiped.”

Hyderabad tells the story of the richest princely state in colonial India, rife with the potential of communal tension with its predominantly Hindu population ruled by a Muslim elite who did not wish to let power slip out of their hands. Under the Asaf Jahi dynasty, the state had prospered as a centre of learning and culture. The seventh Nizam, recognised as the richest man in the world, had founded the reputed Osmania University, built hospitals, patronised art, and had commissioned a trained army that fought alongside British forces in the Great War.

For all his services and loyalty to the British government, the Nizam expected Hyderabad to remain independent of India; recognised as a part of the British Commonwealth, instead. Adding fuel to fire was Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sly insistence on the princely states being able to choose freedom, or, at the least, accession to Pakistan; this, despite Hyderabad’s landlocked status, with no possible shared borders with Pakistan.

India/Hindustan vs Hyderabad

On August 15, 1947, as the declaration of independence was made, Hyderabad was one of the only three princely states that remained outside the union, the other two being Junagadh and Kashmir. The Nizam wanted a “free” Hyderabad, one where his freedom to rule remained unquestioned. Using the Nizam as figurehead, Syed Kasim Razvi, leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party and founder of the Razakar militia, encouraged the dream of a “free Hyderabad for Hyderabadis”, meaning thereby Muslims born and bred in the state (and later, Muslim refugees coming from other parts of India), thereby denying citizenship and rights to all other identities and working towards the ideal of an Islamic state.

The Razakar army, organised on the model of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, fomented constant unrest, taking the lead in keeping Hyderabad from entering into a favourable agreement with India through its October Coup of 1947. Political opinion in the state was fiercely polarised. The state Congress, supported by outfits like the Arya Samaj, was in favour of joining India. The Telengana People’s Struggle, a peasant revolt that started under the leadership of the Communists, working outside of religious and communal divisiveness, wanted an end to feudal oppression and was opposed to the rule of the Nizam. To those residing outside of the circles of power, India/Hindustan was still only notional. It is this complex collision of currents and countercurrents that Hyderabad attempts to capture.

As in Lahore, the first book of her trilogy, Someshwar entwines the rhetoric and machinations of state and statecraft with the lives of the ordinary. The reader is witness to the idiosyncrasies of the Nizam and the hopes and frustrations of those around him.

An ageing Vallabhbhai Patel, determined to protect the new state’s sovereignty, the all too familiar cast of Nehru and Gandhi and Mountbatten, the intriguing figure of Sidney Cotton, gunrunner and inspiration for Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond, all are given their roles to play inside this ambitious narrative. Juxtaposed against these are the peasants, the housemaids, young men and women, rebels, intent on carving out a space and creating a new world order for themselves. Without its subaltern cast, the book would read like a reliable, well-researched historical account. With them, it turns into a story of hope and desperation, of deceit and revenge, of love and loss.

‘A story of excess’

Writers, poets, artists, displaced and disillusioned by the partition, have often questioned the meaning of azaadi. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “daaġh daaġh ujālā” (a stained dawn), from his “Subh-e-Azadi” has remained a haunting image for all readers of partition literature. Some of Someshwar’s characters explore this same melancholia of freedom and the dichotomy between apparent independence and the loss of individual choice.

For its women, caught in incessant cycles of oppression and exploitation, freedom from British rule holds no meaning whatsoever. Jaabili, a young woman, daughter of a “bonded family”, pushed into servitude and sexual oppression, forces her way out by running away and joining the Sangham, part of the Telengana struggle, with its goal of equality between classes and more importantly, for her, between men and women.

In Jaabili’s world, women have no control over their bodies or their destinies. She is scarred by the memory of Sithamma, another bonded woman from her community, who was beaten ruthlessly and tortured for the great crime of taking a break from the work assigned to her to breastfeed her baby.

Working as a courier for the Sangham, Jaabili begins to claim her own space, falling in love, taking control of both her body and her future. Uzma, another woman from an impoverished family, sexually abused and subsequently sent into the employ of the Nizam’s daughter-in-law, Princess Niloufer, has a similar journey, in the course of which she learns the skills of survival and subversion. Both women, when confronted with the idea of an “India” they ought to serve, fail to locate it within the concerns of their everyday struggles.

The violence inherent in the trauma of the partition often played out on women’s bodies, turning them into a battlefield. Someshwar’s novel takes cognisance of the physical and psychological violence performed on women. She writes of the trains between Lahore and Amritsar, reaching their destinations crammed with dead bodies and the retaliatory acts of subjecting the bodies of women identified as belonging to the aggressor religion to systemic humiliation, rape, and murder.

The accession of Hyderabad to India resulted in further violence with Muslim men being killed and women and children not just reclaimed as Hindu but their bodies tattooed and marked by their new Hindu names, in an obvious act of punishment and reprisal, and a mirroring of what was happening to women on the other side of the border. Beli Ram, a coolie at Lahore’s railway station in the trilogy’s first volume, makes a brief appearance in Hyderabad, carrying with him the memories of generations of women across both countries, who lost their lives, their homes and families, a whole world of possibilities, as a consequence of wars fought by men. In colonial as in post-partition India, women’s lives have very little value, the text seems to say, and, as an act of redressal, attempts to tell their stories.

The narrative voice in Hyderabad is that of a raconteur. It traces the history of the accession of Hyderabad, starting with the standoff with the Nizam and ending with the fallout of Operation Polo, taking the reader through the proposed treaties, the Standstill Agreement with India, the economic blockade that India finally forced on the state, the role played by Pakistan and particularly, by Jinnah. As also seen in Lahore, the communal conflict is imaged as the age-old Mahabharata motif of a war between brothers, a war that had no winners, irrespective of the outcome. The narrative keeps returning to Delhi, to the crises and the chaos of a city as new as it was old, reeling under the refugee crisis and the violence that accompanied it.

It often goes back in time, excavating old legends and anecdotes, like that of the prophecy made to the first Nizam, telling him his family would rule for seven generations, carrying within it, like all prophecies do, a kernel of ambiguity that makes it impossible to discern whether it was a blessing or a curse. Someshwar intersperses her narrative with wholesome, if sometimes impossible, love stories. The choice of an expansive and possibly unwieldy cast of characters also harks back to an oral tradition of storytelling where multiple stories segue into each other. Thus balancing fact and fiction, Hyderabad becomes, in the narrator’s own words, “a story of excess”, emerging as it does, from a landscape, a culture, a history of excesses.

Hyderabad, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HarperCollins India.