So, this is the story of Feroza Begum, my grandmother and your great-grandmother. May Allah forgive my tongue for any transgressions. The year was 1896 or 1897, the reign of Nawab Shams Ali Khan had just begun, and Feroza Begum desperately wanted to attend the sawani hosted by the Nawab at Benazir Palace to commemorate his twenty-first birthday.

Now, Feroza was a very wilful and headstrong girl, indulged by her father, Miya Jan Khan, who loved and despaired at her familial stubborn streak and her temper, so very like his own. She was his firstborn and the only one with his blue eyes. He had named her “Feroza” for her blue Feroza gemstone eyes. So, if Feroza wanted something, there could be no peace until she got her way.

Miya Jan Khan had hoped that her marriage two years ago to Murtaza Raza Khan, the son of his dearest friend and kinsman, would calm her down; but the sweet-tempered Murtaza, wonderstruck by her beauty, was completely dominated by her.

Now I must tell you, just to make things clear, that Feroza and Gauhar were Miya Jan Khan’s daughters by his first marriage to his cousin, the formidable Phul Begum.

At that time, in every household and in Miya Jan Khan’s haveli, two parallel lives existed in tandem – the mardana and the zenana, the male and female sections, connected by a single door. Only the master of the house, his sons and very close male relatives could access the zenana.

As she was about a year older than her husband, Phul Begum found it fit to call him by his formal name – a practice unheard of at that time. “Altaf Khan!” she would bellow from the zenana and he had become a figure of ridicule among friends and elders sitting in the mardana baithak, the “males only” sitting room. “Go, your bulawa has come,” they would snigger.

He had to abandon the conversation, hookah and chess to attend to her or she would go on calling. Despite many warnings, she, with the same obstinacy, continued to take his name. Miya Jan Khan divorced her in a fit of rage and forbade the daughters to ever meet their mother.

I don’t know what happened to Phul Begum after that, but the girls, about six and five at that time, were completely cut off from their mother. Feroza and Gauhar sat on the takht, their arms touching each other, watching the inglorious departure of their mother in petrified silence.

Miya Jan Khan then married a biddable, down-to-earth woman, Zubeida Begum, who produced two sons – Nausha and Pyarey, and a daughter, Ruqayya, in quick succession. Zubeida Begum walked the edges of Miya Jan Khan’s mercurial temper, soothing his rages and trying to ensure a peaceful household. Nausha’s antics also contributed to her constant stress.

Nausha was a precocious thirteen-year-old who loved to dabble in medicines and alchemy and found a mentor in his maternal grandfather, a hakeem. Nausha would often make concoctions to play pranks on hapless servants and even experiment on himself, with disastrous results. Feroza loved him for his ability to make everything fun and laughable.

He would pander to her cravings for street food, running off to the bazaar to get her chaat and sweets. She in turn would shield him from parental wrath and help him out of scrapes. Only Nausha dared to smuggle out Miya Jan’s treasured books of romantic poetry from the mardana for her and she would sit reading the ghazals and setting them to simple tunes.

The dai had recently diagnosed Feroza’s pregnancy after two years of Unani medicines and rustic cures. It was a cause of great happiness but Zubeida Begum was worried that some calamity might befall the unborn child during Feroza’s Sawan visit.

“If I had known that she was with child, I would never have called her,” Zubeida Begum sighed. The girl was quite a handful and never took heed of the warnings constantly thrown at her throughout the day by Zubeida Begum and Akbari Bua, Feroza’s wet nurse.

Even today in Sherpur there is a tradition of married daughters spending the month of Sawan at their parents’ place. So Zubeida had invited both her stepdaughters home. If she didn’t, there would be much criticism from relatives. Gauhar, married to a rich nobleman, was to arrive a few days later and the girls would celebrate the monsoon in their paternal home.

Zubeida, whose existence revolved around pre-empting and dodging unprovoked, fault-finding remarks by her in-laws, had sent Nausha to fetch Feroza in the new buggy, laden with fruits, sweets, pattey, puris, and a light green monsoon ensemble for Feroza.

“Begum, you don’t worry. I have prayed at Baghdadi Sahib’s dargah. All will be well for Feroza,” said Akbari Bua adding extra tobacco to Zubeida’s paan to soothe her nerves. Zubeida handled the troubles at home – the bitter edge of tongues and frayed tempers – with an extra pinch of tobacco.

It was customary for girls to take their personal servants with them when they got married and shifted into their husband’s home. So, when Feroza got married, Akbari Bua and her daughter Tabassum, “Tabu” for short, had settled down with Feroza at her in-laws’ place. Bua took charge of everything relating to Feroza. Bua and Tabu, Feroza’s milk-sister and confidante, were the two pillars of her domestic life.

“When will this girl show some maturity? Since yesterday she has been arguing with her father to send her to the Nawab’s sawani,” said Zubeida Begum, ruminating her paan. It was Nausha’s fault. He had attended the sawani with his father a year ago and spoken endlessly about the singers, poets and dancers who came to perform from Lucknow and Delhi, the mind-boggling dishes served and the fun ladies had had on the swings.

Feroza was fanatic about music and poetry. She enjoyed attending ladies singing events and writing ghazals. Her voice, though untrained, was sweet and tuneful and she often led the chorus. She particularly loved singing Dagh Dehlvi’s passionate love compositions though they were considered a bit bold for a woman singer.

“Ooi Begum, doesn’t Feroza Bibi know that Pathan women from good families don’t go to the Nawab’s palace? He gets after all kinds of women and our Feroza’s beauty is such that all the royal Begums will fall at her feet!” Akbari Bua carefully covered the paan leaves with a wet rag to keep them fresh.

Zubeida Begum sighed again, fanning herself rapidly, anxiety and extra tobacco inducing a tide of sweat to drip down her back. She couldn’t imagine how Feroza could challenge her father’s towering rage.

“You are as stubborn as your mother and...and shameless. How dare you throw your marriage at my face!” Miya Jan had roared.

“But Abba, Murtaza doesn’t have any problem with my going there. Women from his family are allowed to attend the zenana durbar,” Feroza had retorted.

“Ya Allah, don’t take the name of your husband. It will reduce his life!” Zubeida Begum had warned, touching her cheeks alternately, begging forgiveness from the all-listening god ready to shower misfortune because of a single unthoughtful utterance.

“Beti, your Abba is right. Pathan women don’t go there because of the Nawab’s misdemeanours. It is for our own safety...”

Feroza ignored her and continued, “Abba, you never let us go to the durbar. What would the Nawab do to a married woman?”

“Go when you are old and toothless! This Nawab is already showing his true colours. He is a debauch drunk on power. He takes away women from their homes!”

“I promise I shall keep away. He won’t see me.”

“How will you stop him from coming into the zenana? I’m from the family of Nawab Nasrullah Khan and I won’t parade my women at the court!”

He stormed out of the zenana to his peaceful male quarters, sending for his friends to rant about Feroza’s latest tantrum.

Excerpted with permission from The Begum and the Dastan, Tarana Husain Khan, Tranquebar.