One may visit a city, spend time in it and live in it for a sufficient period of time but still may not know enough of its geography, people and culture. And if that city happens to be Hyderabad which has a distinct character and a mystique, especially for people in the northern part of India, the task may become even more challenging. But then was it not Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman visiting America, who understood America and its democracy better than most Americans themselves?

Shahid Husain Zuberi, more Hyderabadi than many Hyderabadis themselves, understands the city and its most important family so thoroughly because of his two-decades-long association with Mukarram Jah Bahadur, Nizam VIII, who appointed him the Comptroller of Chiraan Palace, a tough job requiring him to oversee the various defined and undefined aspects of the finance and administration. His portrait of Mukarram Jah Bahadur entitled Auraaq-e-Maazi translated as Echoes from the Past is as much a biography of the Nizam family as it is an intellectual tourist guide to the landmarks of the city.

Hyderabad’s anecdotal past

It is as much an observation of the customs, manners and lifestyle of the most important family of Hyderabad as a glimpse into the vulnerabilities of the royalty. Moreover, it is as much a biography of an erstwhile royal, a paean to the pull of memory, nostalgia and good old days as an autobiographical expression of his gratitude for his employer who was also a friend, philosopher, and guide. All books, more so history books, reveal the person and the age of the writer and as such one learns quite a bit about Shahid Husain Zuberi’s witty, cultured and self-respecting self and his able handling of difficult administrative tasks.

Originally written in Urdu and received very well in the language, Echoes from the Past needed the skills, learning and experience of Amina Kishore, formerly a professor of English at Aligarh Muslim University and Maulana Azad National Urdu University and fully familiar with two important seats of Urdu learning, Hyderabad and Aligarh, to translate an entire culture of wit, refinement, and leisured conversation that Shahid Husain Zuberi recreates in the book. Her knowledge of the customs, manners and significance of the Nizam family, coupled with her feel for a flowery and witty turn of phrases in Urdu, ensure that the book remains distinctive, novel, and very readable. If the narrative richness of the Urdu original is equal to the anecdotal aspect of Hyderabadi culture, Amina Kishore’s clear and luminous translation fully captures the nuances and hints of life in the royal household.

The book is neatly, though a bit unevenly, divided into twenty chapters, some long and some very short, some very interesting for everyone and some for the people specifically invested in the financial management of the Nizam family. Thus the detailed discussion of various educational trusts in a long chapter and the problems faced by Zuberi in running them may not be very interesting for everyone but for people of Hyderabad who have held the Nizam family in reverence, these details are important. Similarly one has often heard about the important buildings and landmarks of the city but one does not often know their interesting history. In a short chapter, Zuberi provides interesting information about names and legends of Hyderabad like Osmania Biscuits, Chaamlijah and many others.

Zuberi reveals how at the suggestion of MK Gandhi, who wanted the Khilafat to come to Hyderabad, Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar visited the deposed Khalifa of Turkey Abdul Majeed, at that time living in France, and sought the hand of the Turkish princess Durreshahwar for Nawab Azam Jah Bahadur. The Khalifa also married his niece Niloufer off to prince Nawab Moazzam Jah Bahadur. Another interesting piece of information that Zuberi shares is how Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi wished to see Mukarram Jah as the vice president of India. Equally interesting are the details of Indira Gandhi’s visit to Osman Ali Khan’s house at short notice and her witty remark that a niece does not have to plan too much to visit her uncle’s house. In another vignette, he reveals how Rajiv Gandhi snubbed NT Ramarao, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh when he tried to interrupt his conversation with Mukarram Jah.

Zuberi offers a very interesting perspective on the merger of the state of Hyderabad with the Indian Union, challenging the generally accepted view that the state was annexed by military action. Privy to some important conversations, he believes that keeping the best interests of the Hyderabadis in mind, Nawab Osman Ali Khan made a secret pact with the Indian Government and that is why the army of Hyderabad did not put up any resistance against the Indian army.

Life and work of the Nizams

Zuberi’s privileged access to the household of Mukarram Jah Bahadur yields some very fascinating vignettes. Appointed by his grandfather Osman Ali Khan Bahadur as his successor at the age of three, Mukarram Jah was destined to succeed in his grandfather’s footsteps whose twenty-five years of rule is considered the most illustrious in the Asaf Jahi dynasty. There is an informative chapter in the book on the family history of Nizams, beginning with the rule of Aurangzeb. Zuberi writes with interest about the period of Mahabub Ali Khan(1869-1911), who was a kind, generous ruler, often wandering the city in disguise to know the problems of the people.

The development of the city, Zuberi writes, took place during his rule with Urdu becoming the official language and many landmarks like Mahabubia school, public gardens, Assembly Hall of Telangana, and railroad changing the map of the city. Osman Ali Khan Bahadur further continued the good work and Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar dams were constructed by him to save the city from floods. He also built many mosques, churches, gurudwaras, and fire temples.

The book also provides a peep into the personal life of Mukarram Jah Bahadur, especially his relationship with his two wives, Turkish Princess Esra Burgen and his Australian wife Princess Aisha, formerly known by her maiden name Helen. As he remarks in the book his romance and marriage with Turkish princess Esra Burgen is the stuff of fairytales. Some habits of Mukarram Jah like his love of having ice cream with coffee, his humour and his interest in good quotes (“I like my job, it is the work I hate.”) define him. His relationship with his children and other family members are also taken up in short chapters. Interestingly Zuberi himself had a close relationship with the children of Mukarram Jah teaching the young princess horse riding.

Zuberi refutes many misconceptions and negative opinions about Osman Ali Khan and Mukarram Jah Bahadur. He vehemently refutes the rumours about Osman Ali Khan’s miserliness, his smoking of cheap Charminar cigarettes and his acceptance of King Kothi and Falakhnuma Palace from others. Similarly, he removes many misconceptions about Mukarram Jah like his obsession with car repair, his brusque behaviour, and his colourful nature. He rightly points out that Mukarram Jah Bahadur cannot be compared with his grandfather because of the reduced fortune of Hyderabad state after its merger with the Indian Union.

The selection of some very interesting photographs of different generations of the Nizam family, the portraits of the Nizams with their chronology, a short works-cited list and a glossary of culture-specific terms used in the book contribute further to the richness of the book.

Echoes from the Past, Shahid Husein Zuberi, translated from the Urdu by Amina Kishore, Tanveer Publishers.