Unique to the royalty of those days, the princely state of Bhopal was ruled by women for almost four successive generations. Veiled and regal, when Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum sat on her imperial throne, members of her cabinet – from ministers to wealthy dignitaries – came and presented their courteous salaams one by one, to Sarkar Aliya.

Despite being powerful in their own way, these men stood in her presence till such time as she majestically nodded for them to be seated. The unexpected result of having a woman as monarch was that by default the status of the fairer sex within this society improved. The suffocation women felt in the North Indian state of Awadh, where deep-rooted conservative values were being followed blindly, was completely missing in Bhopal.

As the sovereign of Bhopal, Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum was eager to prove she could match any man in intelligence and capability. She was worried about the wellbeing of her female subjects and wanted to eradicate ignorance from their lives by making provisions for them to receive a proper education. She was also keen to liberate women from a life of social confinement. One day Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum called my father and said, “Mir Majid Husain send your wife to present her salaam to me. Where have you hidden her… behind purdah?”

Back then, my mother used to wear typical Awadhi clothes. A cumbersome 12-yard farshi pyjama, a choli or shortsleeved bodice and a two-and-a-half yard long dupatta. Gathering her trailing heavy clothes about her, Amma presented herself to the Begum of Bhopal.

“Sit down Bibi.” Sarkar Aliya generally addressed women as Bibi or Lady. She would then proceed to enquire about their wellbeing in such an amiable manner that for the short span of time she spoke with them, the ladies forgot that in reality, a gaping chasm of rank lay between them. This was another indication of Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum’s astuteness, her diplomatic strategy as a ruler, to treat people in a way that made them feel at ease, despite being in the intimidating presence of royalty.

This is what happened with Amma. She instantly felt comfortable in the palace. During her initial visits, Sarkar did not make a single remark about the restrictive clothes she saw Amma wearing. She did however say, “Asharfunisa come and see me every Friday.” Now no matter how, Amma would hurriedly finish off her chores every Friday and rush off to Ahmedabad Palace.

Sarkar would ask her what life was like in a small village like Rudauli, the customs they followed there and how men and women stayed together in that social milieu. During one such visit, Sarkar said to Amma, “Bibi you seem to be a prisoner to this voluminous dress you are wearing. Why don’t you wear what we do in Bhopal? You will definitely feel more comfortable.” Then she turned to one of her secretaries and ordered her to get a Bhopali joda from her own wardrobe for Amma.

“Take Asharfunisa Bea inside and get her dressed,” she commanded.

In Bhopal the word Bea is used for Begum. Amma wore the clothes that had been gifted to her so magnanimously, went to the Begum and offered her gratitude in the form of a courteous salaam. Then she asked permission to leave. We heard that when Amma got back she was quite miffed at this great adversity that had befallen her. But from that day on whenever she went to Ahmedabad Palace, she made it a point to wear the same Bhopali clothes.

Ultimately one day Sarkar Aliya said to my mother, “Bibi get some more sets stitched for yourself. Every time you come here you wear the one I gave you. Try and get in the habit of wearing Bhopali clothes.”

Amma had to get some churidar-pyjamas stitched for herself. Over time, she got used to wearing Bhopali clothes and realised that indeed they were far less restrictive than the 12-yard farshi gharara she had been trailing about behind her till then. Gradually she switched to wearing Bhopali jodas. But she never took to draping the lengthy five-yard Bhopali dupatta. That to her, was as cumbersome as Awadh’s farshi pyjama.

‘A heady sense of freedom’

My childhood was similar to that of any child from a middle class family. The only difference was that I was born and raised in a city like Bhopal, where women had been in the seat of power for several generations, where the gender equation was evidently tilted in favour of the fairer-sex. The socio-cultural environment in Bhopal was not as restrictive and oppressive as it was in other towns and cities of North India.

Situated north of the Vindhya mountains, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal is a picturesque city that appears almost hewn out of the undulating rocks and vast plateaus that surround it. Also known as the “City of Lakes” for its various natural as well as artificial lagoons, Bhopal has thick green jungles inhabited by countless wild animals such as tigers, cheetahs, deer, antelopes, hyenas and jackals.

Accentuated by its inspiring natural beauty and heart-warming scenery, there was a heady sense of freedom palpable throughout the city. Aside from this there were also several impressive man-made structures in Bhopal that shed light on how people lived in that day and age. One such building was the sprawling Sadar Manzil Palace, which was so large, at least 20-25 families could live inside quite comfortably, without even being aware of each other’s presence.

The palaces of Sarkar Aliya’s sons were built atop two of the prominent hills of Bhopal. Heir apparent Nawab Nasrullah Khan’s beautiful mansion Idgah Kothi or Qiran-us-Sadain Mahal was situated on Idgah Hill while younger brother Nawab Obaidullah Khan’s airy manor, Shamla Kothi was on Shamla Hill. The view of the Upper Lake and its surrounding areas was absolutely breathtaking from here. The other noteworthy buildings famous for their unique architecture were the Shikar Gaah or hunting castle of Ahmedabad Mahal and the palatial Noor-Us-Sabah palace, which is now a heritage hotel of the same name.

Located within Ali Manzil was a ladies club, next to which was a massive children’s park where metal swing-sets hung invitingly between trees, luring children to come and play. There were rows of slides within the park, an open field marked with a running track and a separate area to keep girl guides busy. Another playground had been cordoned off especially for older girls to play hide and seek. This was so vast and spread out that it was almost impossible to find anyone!

Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life

Excerpted with permission from Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life, Saeeda Bano, translated by Shahana Raza, Zubaan/Penguin Books.