Hazrat Mahal’s evening durbar exuded not just the heady perfume of summer blossoms, but eclectic, electric emotions. There was anger, excitement, resentment, hope and anticipation throbbing in the hum of voices from the congregation who sat, stood, half hid around her and along the walls.

Seated on a floor mat and leaning against a mass of cushions, Hazrat took in her loyal band of supporters, the people she had come to rely on in this time of intense revolutionary fervour. There were the rulers of small and large domains around Awadh, there were representatives from different religious communities; there were the merchants, farmers, taluqdars and rich zamindars, and there were the poorest manual workers ready to lay down their lives for freedom from the foreign rulers. There were Sunni Muslims, Shias, high-caste Hindus, and Dalits. It was a true tribute to the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb of Awadh.

Next to her, seated on a cane moda, her closest confidant Raja Jailal Singh was like a pillar she was figuratively leaning on. Hazrat looked around her and spoke in her low, husky voice.

“For the past few months, we have been meeting here, airing our anger, our impotence, against the Angrez. We have talked, we have debated, we have endlessly considered the options. Now the time for words is over. We need action. The time has come my friends, for action!” She raised a fist in the air.

A roar went up from the gathering.

“No more words! Only action!”

“No more Angrez! Only action!”

Hazrat glanced towards Raja Jailal Singh who sat on her right. His eyes met hers, an unspoken message passed and he stood up. Although not very tall nor conventionally handsome, Jailal was well built with a quiet presence that made not just men listen, but women take a second look at him. Everyone fell silent. Jailal put his hands into his sherwani pockets and looked from one face to another, taking his time. Zarina, who was serving sharbat in silver tumblers, stopped and backed away to the doorway.

Finally, Jailal spoke in his deep timbred voice that alone could send a thrill down one’s spine. But it was his words that made the gathering turn still and wide eyed.

“You are all ready for action. But what will you do, what do you plan to do? Ambush a few British soldiers? Attack a few white women in their carriages? Kidnap some children? What action are you talking about? Have you even given it a thought?” He narrowed his eyes. “Are we going to give in to our immediate anger against what happened in Kanpur and Meerut and make random attacks as they did? No!’ He raised a thick finger. “What we need to do is build an army, to plan, to strategise and to attack.”

There was a wave of assent, exclamations, nodding heads, raised voices.

“But!” he kept his finger up, “but we need clarity of thinking. We need focus. And we need manpower, weapons, we need logistic support. Horses, guns, cannons, food, uniforms!”

As the clamour of voices rose, offering money and manpower, shelter and support, one thin, deeply tanned man in white kurta and skull cap stood near the wall and watched the scene silently. Finally, he stepped away and walked to the centre of the room and raised his arms, eyes closed dramatically, until the voices ebbed and flowed and slowly faded away.

Mammu Khan opened his eyes and looked around.

“In the name of Begum Hazrat Mahal, last Begum of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who was exiled by the power-hungry British, I have a proposal to make!”

There was complete silence.

“Yes, every one of you is ready for a revolution! Yes, we shall form a rebel army! But every army needs a leader!” His voice rose. “Who shall lead us all?”

The silence quivered. Eyes shifted and fell uneasily. It was easier to create a force than to choose its leader. “Who better,” thundered Mammu Khan, “than a scion of the Nawab’s royal lineage? Who better than Prince Birjis himself?”

He turned towards the door and waited. As if on cue, a small figure clad in formal sherwani and a voluminous turban came hesitantly into the room.

In one voice, the congregation shouted, “Prince Birjis! Prince Birjis!”

The young boy’s eyes timidly sought his mother and spotting her on the mat, sank down next to her, trying to shrink behind her shoulder. People had begun to talk among themselves, a little loud with relief that one so apt had been found for the difficult role. There was a general reluctance to work closely with the Begum; they were too much in awe of her.

Then Veera Passi spoke, his tone humble yet decisive. “Begum Saheba, while the young prince is a fitting figurehead to lead our troops, we all surely know that his youth and inexperience will not give him the voice of authority!”

“Yes, Veera,” smiled Hazrat. “As you say, Birjis will only be a figurehead. We need a military strategist like you to take charge and guide him.”

“Me? Oh no, Begum Saheba! I am only a Dalit, a small farmer, ready to fight the cursed foreigner! But I cannot accept this honour.”

“Veera, I have the greatest regard for you. You have proved yourself time and again as an able administrator.”

Veera bowed his head humbly. “Forgive me, but I believe we need someone with great charisma to lead us. Someone loved by the people, someone with great mental strength and fortitude. Who will not just plan and organise the rebellion, but stay true to our cause throughout.” He looked at her significantly.

All eyes turned to her and someone cried out, “Begum Hazrat Mahal!” With new vigour, the crowd took up the chant.

Excerpted with permission from Begum Hazrat Mahal: Warrior Queen of Awadh, Malathi Ramachandran, Niyogi Books.