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Tale of A Formidable Matriarch

Ellora Puri

By Nyla Ali Khan
Palgrave Pivot, New York, 2014, pp. 100, $70.95


Here is a public figure who was the subject of unbridled encomiums and equally intemperate condemnation, who was at the epicenter of the intensely convoluted politics of the space and time she inhabited, around whom a country’s full-fledged intelligence apparatus claimed to have a ‘rock-solid’ case implicating her and a large network of associated political personalities in a foreign-sponsored conspiracy to foment a coup.  Here is a woman with a fascinating personal history, whose prosperous Austrian father converted to Islam to wed her Gujjar mother, who married a young Kashmiri Muslim political rebel, who was rumoured to have been married to Lawrence of Arabia before that, who relinquished her traditionally ascribed role as a homemaker in a status household to become an active participant in her husband’s politics, who was the matriarch of a family which produced four heads of government.  Many an absorbing work—fictional or non-fictional—have been written on much less. That Begum Akbar Jehan, the subject of the book under review, wife and partner of Sheikh Abdullah, has not attracted such attention of chroniclers of her times speaks to us of a rarely broken silence that has long been associated with the contemporary history of Jammu and Kashmir. There are a number of reasons, paradoxical in nature, for this elision. The region is peripheral to the historical imagination of the subcontinent, so it does not find a mention in its mainstream historiography. Yet, its territory occupies the competing post-1947 geographical imaginations of the two nation states, India and Pakistan. Both have vied with each other to make the task of scholars to intellectually and honestly engage with persons, events, and material of this period arduous. To add to the mix, the contested nature of this region and its constantly in flux politics lead to unending questions of authenticity of both the scholarship as well as subject(s) of study.  This silence, however, is fast being filled by raconteurs from various fields—in academia, in fiction, in filmmaking, in art, and in political documentation. Where only a handful of committed voices fought to be heard, now there is a loud variety—some symphonious and many discordant—to choose from.  One such voice is of Nyla Ali Khan’s, the biographer and grand-daughter of Begum Akbar Jehan. In her previous writings, Khan has attempted to use her unique vantage point to have a self-reflexive conversation about ...

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