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Book Review

The Mughals and the Ahom Raj

History Recollected in Fiction

Azizul Jalil

This is to introduce Abdun Noor's epic of the seventeenth century life in Dhaka under the Mughals. Married to Najma, an Assamese, Noor was inspired to look east in his quest for a romantic story with an authentic underpinning. This led to a research into available historical documents over a period of five years on the relationship between the Mughals and Assam, then known as Ahom Rajjya.

The result of this work of love, inquisitiveness and imagination is a book of four hundred plus pages in Bangla, "Bicholito Somoy". It is a story of romance, intrigue and valour. Aurangzeb's third son, Prince Mohamamd Azam Shah, sent by the emperor as the Subedar to the difficult but rich province of Bengal in 1678, is one of the principal characters. The book was published by Magnum Opus during the last Boi Mela in Dhaka. A worthy feature is that all profits from the sale of this book would be contributed to the Grameen Shikkha Trust of the Grameen Bank for awarding scholarships to poor students in the rural areas.

Primarily a writer of plays and fiction, Abdun Noor has produced a historical novel of great interest to those who are eager to know about Dhaka's ancient history, glory and tragedies. Readers will not be disappointed. The book is rich in historical events, around which the fictional account has been woven, in an intricate tapestry of fine prose. The characters speak softly into the reader's ears, with the author taking the role of a behind the scene prompter and narrator.

The author makes no claim of writing history but is confident of the solid foundations of his two-part novel, the present book being the first part. Prince Azam, a capable general and administrator at the young age of twenty-seven and trusted by his father, did come to Dhaka as the Subedar. He came to replace Shaista Khan, who ruled Bengal with distinction until his enemies spread the word that he was not transferring the collected revenues due to the emperor in Delhi. Aurangzeb sent Azam to enquire into the allegations and clear up the mess. Azam, however, was recalled after only fifteen months when Aurangzeb needed a trustworthy general to lead the Mughal forces in the war in the Deccan. The allegations against Shaista Khan were not conclusively proved, nor was he fully cleared. Since no other suitable person was available for Sube Bangla, known as a punishment posting, he returned to Bengal a second time as the Subedar.

Vulnerable as it was from attacks and assertion of suzerainty by the Mughals from time to time, the Ahom Rajjya often attracted attention of the Mughals for another reason. It was in a strategic position being on the route to China. Aurangzeb had expanded the Mughal supremacy to the farthest corners-from Afghanistan to Burma, and Kashmir to the Deccan. His ambition was to move toward China and had reportedly asked Azam to look into the possibilities. Earlier in 1673, during Mir Zumla's time as Subeder, fearing invasion by the Mughals and the loss of his kingdom, the Hindu Ahom Raja had sent huge sums of money, elephants and also his young daughter, Princess Nangsen Gabharu to Delhi to be kept there as a hostage. Gabharu was brought up as a princess in the palace harem, with all the rights and honour. While she pined for her native land, she also developed affection for the dashing Prince Azam. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Azam also fell in love with the Ahom princess and married her against the wishes of the imperial court.

The fictional part of Bicholito Somoy is the story of the life and times of that era in Dhaka when it was a mixture of the grandeur of the life of the nobles and the hard life and reality of the common people. The Ahom princess, wielding considerable influence in the court via Azam Shah, was both a figure of respect and deference to some and an object of envy and enmity to others. The intrigues from which Gabharu suffered and the ups-and-downs of her tempestuous relationship with the Mughal Prince are narrated in a manner that the story often appears to be real. When Prince Azam left Bengal in 1969, all traces of Nangsen Gabharu vanished. According to folklore, the Ahom Princess was assassinated and buried in the Lalbagh Fort before the departure of Prince Azam. Some say that Pari Bibi's mazar is of none other than Gabharu, who might have been given that name. One of the daughters of Shaista Khan was Iran Dukht, who could also be buried in the Fort.

Part history and part fiction, Bicholito Somoy would be a thoroughly enjoyable reading for the richness of its story and the manner of its telling.


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