One of the Indian subcontinent’s many paradoxes is that its menfolk still tend to regard the female sex as subservient to them while at the same time idolising women who refuse to play second fiddle. It explains the extraordinary hold that some women politicians have over the popular electorate, from Sonia Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu – all strong-minded, determined women who brook no nonsense from those who touch their feet as quasi-goddesses.
The subject of this book was one such woman, Farzana, better known as the Begum Sumru. Among the titles bestowed on her by the Mogul emperor were ‘Jewel among Women’, ‘Most Beloved Daughter’ and ‘Pillar of the State’. Granted, Mogul emperors tended to dish out honorifics as a host might hand round canapés at a drinks party – particularly in hard times, when titles cost nothing – but Begum Sumru certainly deserved her share. She was a temptress in her youth, a warrior queen in her widowhood, seemingly a witch in her old age, but, above all, a fighter and survivor.
Two hundred years ago Delhi and its surrounds were in a mess. For six centuries the city and the ruler at its heart had been the axle around which India turned. But the death in 1707 of Emperor Aurangzeb, last of the Mogul strongmen, created a vacuum at the centre