Rana Safvi’s debut novel, set against the turmoil of the First War of Independence, and the decline of Mughal Empire, brings alive a lost way of life on the streets of Old Delhi

The events in Rana Safvi’s debut novel, Firestorm in Paradise (Penguin), centred on the 1857 Uprising, take place in and around the city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), which was established by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) when he shifted the imperial capital from Agra to Delhi. Set against the backdrop of simmering discontent against the British colonial power, the novel brings into vivid relief the author’s deep knowledge about history, fables and the spaces that collectively make up the city of Delhi, as also the events that led up to the First War of Independence.

In the introduction to the book, Safvi writes about how her research and readings on Delhi for her translations and books revealed the syncretic culture and ethos of the city that welcomed everyone in its embrace even as it maintained its status as a place of immense power and prestige. She felt that the city had more stories woven into existence that needed to be told. She writes: “There were so many other accounts that needed to be brought to public notice, but remained buried in archives, untranslated, if not lost to history altogether. This made me think of writing a novel where I could incorporate all this wealth of detail…”

The Old Delhi atmosphere

The novel, populated with real historical figures, is built around the lives of fictional characters who navigate life amidst the decline of the Mughal empire. It also serves to keep alive the memory of the uprising of 1857, as it not only gave the colonial powers an idea of what the people felt about their oppressive rule but also brought an end to not just an empire but a way of life. At its heart is the love story between Falak Ara and Mirza Qaiser whose father was a cousin of the Emperor. Apart from being the centre of the budding romance, Falak Ara, the daughter of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Dil Ruba, a palace attendant, is also a person of interest as someone holding the key to a vast hidden treasure.

This makes her an unwitting target of people who have been searching for the rumoured treasure. As expected, this draws blood at a time when the city itself is thrown into turmoil as the First War of Independence gets underway. As the fictitious life of Falak Ara quivers and shakes in the face of danger, it echoes the violence that accompanies the inescapable transition of power from the Mughals into the hands of the British. The drama unfolds in various parts of the city — within the walls of the haram where the women live, the Meena bazaars organised for the women of the haram to shop, the festivals on the banks of the Yamuna, the orchards and gardens where people congregate, the gaiety and pageantry of the Mughals though diminished, thrumming amidst secret plans to create mischief.

Safvi brings alive the era for the readers through verses from poems, descriptions of the beautiful adornments of the young Mughal princesses, the wisdom of the older women, and the firm rules of propriety enforced on the women. She also uses the lens of food to showcase the atmosphere of the city of Delhi — whether it is food served to the Emperor and the royal women living in the haram or those sold on the streets and in the bazaars: “The sweetmeat sellers, breadmakers, and kabab-sellers had set up shop in the area around the dargah and were doing brisk business. The sweet shops, with big kadhais, or woks, full of ghee heating on the fire, in which sweet and savoury snacks are prepared, were crowded with hungry people.”

The ethos of the time

The Chapati mystery, a key element during the 1857 uprising, has also been woven into the narrative, signifying the role of the staple bread circulated among people, which became a sign of discontent and paved the way for uncertainty across the region. Aligning with the rich literary ambiance of the era, each chapter begins with a verse written by poets of the era. Aurangzeb’s daughter, Zebunnisa, is repeatedly evoked in the story through her poems and her persona as “Makfi,” the veiled one, alluding to the concealed lives of women in the harem, bound by strict laws to keep them hidden from the public eye.

Safvi evokes the ethos of the times through the minutiae of the characters’ lives. She transports readers back in time through evocative prose, etching out the atmosphere, detailing the customs, traditions and the culture that prevailed during the time. At times, the many names of the characters, which bear close resemblance to each other, becomes a bit challenging to follow. Yet, it is through these details that the author maintains authenticity, as only someone with a grip on the subject can do.

While the first half of the novel revolves around the lives of Falak Ara and her beau, the tone and atmosphere shift in the second half as the book takes readers through the disquiet arising in the subcontinent against the oppressive rules imposed by the colonial powers. By setting a romance tinged with intriguing mystery during the time of the 1857 uprising, Safvi showcases effectively how the events impacted the lives of the Mughals as well as ordinary people. Whether fiction or nonfiction, Safvi proves her mettle in recounting history. Like her earlier works, in Firestorm in Paradise, she ensures that the events of the past remain accessible to those who wish to explore them.

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