Sunday, September 18, 2016

The 'Begum' who was almost famous

Feroza Dulhan Begum.

On 23 September, 1932 a private and confidential letter written by the Countess of Willingdon, the wife of Viceroy Willingdon was delivered to Feroza Dulhan Begum to her hotel room in Shimla. A runner had hand-delivered the letter straight from the majestic Viceregal Lodge. It assured the Begum that the Countess had spoken to the Nawab of Bhopal who promised to do whatever he could. The 26-year-old Begum was the widow of Prince Habibullah of Bhopal and had requested the Viceroy’s wife to intervene on her behalf regarding her share in estates and maintenance.

Shimla provided the perfect setting to get personal grievances addressed and offered a better chance of eliciting a response from the high and mighty in colonial times. The British summer capital was not just a venue for high politics and tough negotiations, as serious historians would have us believed, but also served as the ideal venue for individuals like Feroza Begum to put pressure on powerful opponents.

The Begum had married Prince Habibullah of Bhopal in April 1930 and after his death in June 1930, went on to become the love interest of the horse-race loving influential Maharaja of Idar. In 1949, she moved to London after marrying Stanley Thomson, dashing Navy captain. But before these romantic liaisons, she had to fight a battle to extract the best possible maintenance from the wealthy Nawab of Bhopal. And this fierce battle made her a regular at the best hotels in Shimla, Delhi and Bombay as she shadowed key officials and prominent journalists to plead her case. 

Her fascinating life, fragments of which come alive through the archives in London, is a remarkable journey of a confident and an adventurous lady. According to her passport, her maiden name was P. Wadia, the full name as we found out was Phiroza Wadia, and she was the eldest daughter of D M Wadia, a Parsi millowner. She was born on Sept 20, 1906; was five feet in height and had a mole on her upper lip. Not much is known about her education, but it can be safely assumed that she attended school in Bombay or was taught privately by a personal tutor.

Prince Habibullah was heir to the throne of Bhopal after the death of his father Nasrullah Khan in 1924. However, in the power struggle and court intrigue he lost out to Hamidullah Khan, his uncle who became the last Nawab of Bhopal. A forlorn Habibullah made Pune his new home and, some accounts suggest, vowed to never return to Bhopal. Unfortunately by the end of 1929, Habibullah developed tuberculosis and it became clear that he won’t live for long.

Despite the knowledge of Habibulla’s imminent death, Phiroza Wadia became Feroza Dulhan Begum and they married in April 1930. The details of the marriage were kept under wraps. Though the father, mother and the sister of Feroza attended the marriage, they had no idea of the venue till an hour before the ceremony. Expectedly, the marriage caused considerable consternation in the Parsi community. This was perhaps the second high profile marriage of a Parsi lady to a Muslim man in Western India after Jinnah famously married Ruttie Petit in 1918. But unlike Ruttie’s parents, Phiroza’s family supported her decision.              

The honeymoon to Mahableshwar was cut short due to Habibullah’s illness. The newly-wed returned to Pune, where Habibullah died in June 1930 at his residence in Bund Garden. After few months, Feroza Begum started inserting notices in newspapers warning public not to deal in estates and shares belonging to her late husband. Very soon she found herself making the rounds of courts in Bhopal where she filed a law suit for a share in Habibullah’s intestate estate.

While her claim to the intestate estate was settled, the officials at Bhopal court refused to give her share in her husband’s estate which he had mentioned in his will. “The widows of Jagirdars in the ruling family are not entitled to an inheritance from the jagirs of their deceased husbands, according to the usage of the State,” is the terse reply she received to her enquiries. She also asserted her right to a widow’s maintenance according to the “family customs of the ruling house of Bhopal” which fell on deaf ears. She then decided to take her struggle to another level.

Diwan Singh Maftoon, the legendary editor of Riyasat, an illustrated Urdu weekly which boasted of an office on London’s Fleet Street, started writing letters to key officials on her behalf. “…this poor lady is not allowed to take a single pie from the very state of her late husband which yields a gross revenue of Rs 6,00,00,000.” One such letter by Maftoon was addressed to Charles Watson the political secretary to the Government. It ends by making an appeal to “…save a human life from starvation and miseries.” Records suggest that she managed to get a lump sum of Rs 35,000 and an allowance of Rs 500 per month but remained convinced that this was nowhere close to the usual Darbar allowance to a widow.

In September 1933, the Maharaja of Idar booked a suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where Feroza       Begum too was already staying. This sent the city’s gossip mills into an overdrive. But her constant companionship with the Maharaja soon turned into a headache to the protocol obsessed English administration. After the Nawab of Bhopal, it was the office of the Bombay’s Governor who found her too hot to handle.

The Maharaja used to spend a lot of time in Bombay and would have Feroza Begum by her side even on official functions and dinner. But her not so well-defined relationship with the Maharaja unsettled Roger Lumley, Bombay’s Governor. The Maharaja was an avid race enthusiast and would be in Pune and Bombay for the entire racing season. This further added to the misery of the Governor who recorded “I frequently meet the Begum on the racecourse and have sat next to her on meals. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult for me to go on meeting His Highness without being able to extend an invitation or to offer hospitality to the Begum.”

A perplexed Lumley and his staff were also unable to come to terms that she continued to use Begum while going around with the Maharaja. “It seems quite out of character for the lady to be recognised as Begum attached to a Hindu ruler,” pointed out the befuddled Governor. However, the fact that Feroza Dulhan Begum transformed into Begum Shri Paswanji Sahiba of Idar didn’t seem to have helped matters.

Unknown to her, she had become a subject of discussion between the Governor and Viceroy. The hapless Governor made it clear that he does not desire to “cast stones at the ‘Paswanji’” but that it would be hardly “in keeping with the dignity of the Governor that he should invite her to Governor’s House.” Even Viceroy Linlithgow (who had succeeded Willingdon to whom Feroza’s case was known) opined that it cannot be possible to recognise a lady as a Begum attached to a Hindu ruler. But the Maharaja had different plans. He kept on raising the issue of the “position of Begum Shri Paswanji of Idar,” and given his loyalty to the Raj, the Governor had to devise a way out. Eventually, Governor Lumley came up with a solution. He suggested that he could establish personal rather than official relations with the Begum which would mean that she could be invited to a private lunch once or twice a year, while still keeping her away from official functions. 

Just after Independence she married Stanley Thomson, a senior naval officer who also enquired into the Bombay naval mutiny. The couple shifted to UK where she was a successful businesswoman and died in 2001 aged 95. Feroza Begum was neither a social activist nor a participant in the freedom struggle, factors that combine to delegitimise stories like hers in colonial India. Her life is in so many ways reflective of the unusual trajectories that brought her in close contact to the corridors of power and aristocracy and yet she remained away from it. 
(First published in Mumbai Mirror)

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