The Last Nawab

General Harun-ur-Rashid, president for ten years, rested uneasily on my cane sofa, deposed, in mufti.

"This is the first election I'll be fighting, Zafar, and, as my philosopher-adviser, I expect you to win it for me."

"Being an equal stranger to democracy, sir, I appreciate your fears, but I believe I understand the needs of the people well enough to offer them, not only a leader, but a statesman."

"But how on earth are you going to get them to vote for me by showing them a cinema?"

I took the opportunity offered by my cup of coffee on the glass-topped cane table to pause, by picking it up and taking a long sip. I surveyed the General again - the close-cropped black-and-grey crown, the large, protruding nose (a terrible temptation to cartoonists, that), deep-set eyes, bushy moustache concealing a wide mouth, the heavy jowls, the sturdy frame on which all these were set. How, I wondered, was I going to explain to this citadel of practicality and probity that the cinema was the modern amphitheatre, but that here, in our country, the slaves were in the auditorium, and the free men outside?

I was saved by the bell.

On answering the door, I found that a houri (albeit Europeanised) had floated up to my apartment on the fifth floor, past the concierge.

"You must be Zafar!" she exclaimed, nearly clapping her hands but for the newspaper fluttering between her pale, attenuated fingers. "The trusted vizier of" - her long legs, enclosed in a chequered skirt, took long strides towards the General - "the Caliph Harun-ur-Rashid!"

Entranced by her discovery, she looked from one of us to the other, her dark, shoulder-length hair swirling in a black mass. The General stared at the exquisitely fair creature with the ebony eyes and Arabian features.

"A most unfortunate parallel, I'm afraid," I observed, "as the trusted vizier was ultimately beheaded by the doubting Caliph."

"Oh!" she nearly screamed, dropping the newspaper. I noticed the advertisement I'd placed for a role in the film.

"And since you seem to be familiar with our names, if not our titles, perhaps you'd like to tell us your name," I suggested.

"Abbasah," she mumbled.

I coughed, and the General turned a deeper shade of pink. "Named after the sister of that Caliph of Baghdad, no doubt."

"Yes!" She brightened immediately, her dark eyes glistening in contrast to a dazzling set of white teeth. "And I want to play the wife of The Last Nawab."

The General hadn't uttered a word so far. Now, with a loud harrumph, he rose and politely excused himself. Stepping up close to me, he muttered, "I hope you know what you're doing, Zafar."

"I hope so, sir."

He descended the stairs, repeating incredulously, "Caliph! Caliph! Baghdad! Caliph of Baghdad! Abbasah!......."

My gorgeous guest, meanwhile, had ensconced herself in the General's vacated seat, legs crossed, revealing a pair of white ankles. I occupied the same sofa, this time - she was terribly attractive - after picking up the newspaper containing the ad.

"So you want to play the wife of The Last Nawab, do you?"

"That's right."


"I want to feel her suffering as she watches the East India Company come into her husband's kingdom, bribe her relatives and generals and take it over." Her slender fingers bunched into a fist as her brows knitted.

An instinct told me that I could use her, but not as the Nawab's wife. I had not advertised for that role, anyway, but one infinitely more demanding. For some reason, however, she had chosen to ignore the ad in this respect.

"Can you dance?"

She looked at me uncomprehendingly.

"Like in a disco?" she asked, finally.

"Heavens, no! Like in the local films."

"Why, does the Begum dance like that...?"

"Like what?"

"You know," she shrugged a shoulder, looking as if she were handling a very dirty matter.

"You mean, obscenely," I suggested.

She nodded.

"Never mind that right now, let me see what you can do."

"Anything you say."

We moved the furniture around a little, and I put on some music, and sat back. I watched her fleet slap the floor, her skirt swirl around the room, and caught breathtaking glimpses of white panties and lean, creamy thighs. She had three drawbacks - she was too skinny, rather flat-chested and couldn't dance to save her life. As the white armpits of her shirt began to perspire, she collapsed, panting - into my lap. I encircled her in my arms and raised my mouth as she lowered hers. What happened next decided for me unerringly that only she could play the character I had in mind - an eighteenth-century nautch-girl.

She jumped off my lap as though an electric charge had run through her. I looked silly for a few seconds with my arms in the air.

"Something wrong?" I managed to ask.

She had grown even more pallid, her nostrils, at the end of a ruler-straight nose, flaring. She sat clumsily.

"I can't make love to local boys."

 I don't know which I objected to more, the ‘local' or ‘boys'.

"Only with foreigners, eh?"

"I must have been to bed with every diplomat in Baridhara." Baridhara was a sort of diplomatic enclave, posh and white. I had a vision of those naked limbs flailing around some ecstatic chargé-d'affaires while his wife bought the souvenirs which would later, somewhere in Europe, recall that moment to her husband. Sheer envy.

"What's your real name?"


"Lovely Persian word."

"Really?" She brightened a little.

"Means ‘country'."

She looked far out beyond the verandah into the sun.

"Country!" She hugged the word.

"Well, now I understand why you want to play the Nawab's anguished Begum."

"Yes, you do, don't you? Please give me the part!" She rose, hands joined imploringly.

"But I did not advertise for that role, Keshwar."

"I know! But I want the respect that goes with the title of Begum!"

"And the agony that goes with this particular one."

"You understand!" The colour began to seep back into her face.

I understood perfectly well, of course, and I could also envisage at the end of this rainbow not only a great film but the director's usual prerogative of sleeping with his leading lady. Naturally, I didn't let the latter cloud my judgement about the former. Besides, playing the Begum wouldn't be the right cathartic; and, consequently, the wrong step in both directions.

Getting up, I said, "All right, you can have the role," and found myself in a grateful pair of arms. Tearing myself loose, I clarified, "You'll play Aleya."

"That whore!"

Keshwar slapped me so hard that I couldn't even see her slam the door.



The vendor came round to where we were - the only people in the dress-circle - and produced two choc bars. I shook my head at him, raised one finger, and pointed it at Keshwar.

"Why ice-cream?"

"Bury those collar bones. I want you to put on several pounds before the summer's out."

How did I get her inside a cinema hall? Well, it wasn't hard. I knew she would call me within a few hours of her stormy departure. We agreed on a quid pro quo: she gives me a chance to change her mind while I get more time to see things from her angle. So there she was, right next to me in the deserted DC of a local hall, much changed in her outer appearance: she had a printed, red kameez and white shalwar on, with a white dupatta. Her hair, parted in the middle, hung in a pony-tail. She looked as delectable as the ice-cream she bit off in that hot, stuffy latter-day amphitheatre.

The idea of freedom had turned the circular, Greek amphitheatre - where all were equal like at King Arthur's round table - into an elongated two-storied structure where the classes sat apart, no longer free-unfree, but rich-poor. As I was trying to explain to the General, in this country, the rich stayed perversely out of the movie theatres altogether. We could hear the other half pouring noisily into the rear and front stalls below.

 "I don't get it. Why do I have to gain weight?"

"For the masses, dear girl, for the toilers of the land, rickshawpullers and day-labourers. Look around you: do you see anyone who would share your taste for an anorexic star? In the United States, a third of all adults are overweight, so you have Cindy Crawford. Here, the impoverished rickshawpuller doesn't want his wife - his experience, his reality - reflected on that screen. Imagination is the reverse of memory."

"But why aren't they here, you know, people like - us?"

"Because we share neither their memory, nor their imagination. The audience below is illiterate to the last person. They have no hope of ever clambering up here - from grandfather to father to son, the inheritance of poverty has continued. And we don't want our children to join them down below, do we? No snakes-and-ladders business here, thank you."

"I think I'll have another one of these."

And the film began.

Three hours later we were collectively disgorged.

"Boy, it sure is cool outside compared to in there!"

"The air-conditioner was off," I explained, "to save on electricity and taxes, because people who live in slums don't mind the heat."

"Or the smoke," she added, with a grin.

"Rich boy meets poor girl, or poor girl meets rich boy - I could have told you the plot before we even went in there. Just look at their contented faces as they come out. They've seen a few dances and justice done. Why, didn't the boy marry the girl in the end? And didn't the villain get what was coming to him?"

"But the girl wasn't poor; she was, in fact, the daughter of a very rich man, who had kicked his wife out without knowing she was pregnant, so it turned out."

"The deus ex machina."

"The what?"

"The god brought on the stage to restore equilibrium. A rickshawpuller must not even be allowed to imagine that a poor girl can aspire to marry a rich man's son. That would be too revolutionary a rejection of his memory."

"You mean, it would be like a right...?"

"The two classes interacting - that's your rich girl and poor boy. Their union would imply social justice. You see that queue of rickshawpullers and garment-factory girls at the box-office? You'll see them queue up again on election day, only there will be gentlemen and ladies like ourselves among them. And what will we vote for?"

"To keep things as they are, of course!"

"Exactly. The two classes that cannot interact on stage are forced to interact every five years on the national theatre."

"But the General stands for social justice."

"And more, which is why he doesn't stand a chance."

We walked away from the cinema hall. Rickshaws, autorickshaws and cars killed all conversation. Only, I pointed out a herd of black goats being led by a goat-herder, in a lungi and vest, carrying a stick.

"Remember that," I shouted above the noise.

"What about the goats?" she asked, when we were back in my flat, under a fan, sipping cold mango juice.

"The most vivid image of an idiot nation led by crafty aliens I could think of."

"Now, you've really lost me."

"Do you remember how the General was overthrown?"

"In a mass movement, I read."

"Rubbish. The masses are too busy digging or pedalling to interfere in politics. By the parties, Keshwar, and" - I paused significantly - "the donors".

She put her glass down, looking visibly flustered.

"You mean," she gulped, "the people I've been sleeping with."

I nodded, polishing off my mango juice.

"I'm sure you're somewhat familiar with international politics from your pillow-talk."

"No need to rub it in."

"You see, so long as the Berlin Wall was there, the General was indispensable to foreigners. When the Wall collapsed, so did the General's fortunes. ‘Here's to the opposition and democracy,' chorused the donors." I raised my empty glass. "And the ten years in which the General had tried to make the people literate, healthy and proud were reversed in five."

"What can we do?"

"Bring the nation together, not two nations at war, rich and poor, but one, with a shared memory and a shared imagination. That memory will be the Battle of Plassey when the last, free Nawab was defeated by the East India Company. We must tell the people that today the donors are playing the role of the East India Company, deposing one ruler, installing another, and keeping the country dependent on aid, with which we are forced to buy their stuff and hire their people, the old exploitation with a modern twist. As for the political parties, they are the treacherous relatives and generals of the Nawab, men who sold their country in the international marketplace."

"So I suppose I am really cut out for Aleya's role." A cynical smile played at the corner of her mouth.

"Aleya was kidnapped by the Portuguese, and raped. Her class refused to accept her. She became an outcast, déclassée, a nautch-girl - and a spy. Her profession and her fatal beauty gained her intimacy with foreigners and natives alike, and their secrets. Her redemption was the Nawab, to whom she reported every morning."

Neither of us spoke for a while. The summer light began to fail, and through the twilight floated the muezzin's call.

"What does her name mean?"

"Will-o'-the-wisp, ignis fatuus. She's the foolish fire the audience must follow as she follows the last Nawab to his ruin. I want to show the Nawab as suffering from a character defect, a fatal flaw - trust. He trusted the English and his relatives, with tragic consequences. Our message: you can trust the General because he trusts no one. Imagination being the reverse of reality, the audience must reject trust in their imagination, in order to choose the General in real life. We'll use the catharsis of tragedy."

"What happens to her in the end?"

After a pause, I said, "She hangs."

Keshwar rose ever so slowly. Seemingly reluctant, she walked to the door in the semi-darkness. I heard it open.

"If I have to play Aleya to turn goats into human beings, let's go out and get more ice-cream.'


"Now, remember, you're trying to seduce Shah Miron, the son of the arch-traitor, Mir Zafar Ali Khan. But he refuses to take you to Kashim Bazaar Cottage, where all the conspirators are meeting tonight - Mir Zafar, the Nawab's uncle, Jagath Seth, the banker, the English officers. You're hell-bent on getting there, so you dance like Salome to get him to take you along. Two emotions struggle for mastery within you - your hatred for the treacherous man and his ilk, and your love for Nawab Siraj-ud-dowla. Together, they inspire your most magnificent dance in the play."

Keshwar stood before me now as Aleya - heavier, in crimson shalwar-kameez, bejewelled, besequined, sparkling like the diamond in her heart. She wore false, braided hair, reaching her waist, and, at the same time, anachronistic make-up, from lipstick to eye-shadow, since the audience of yokels would insist on the works. I was giving her a talk to dissipate any feelings she had of being a painted trollop. We stood facing each other, my hands on her shoulders, in a makeshift greenroom, which, tomorrow morning, would revert to its usual function as classroom in a village school.

"Don't worry for me, Zafar. I'll be proud to dance before the village-folk you call yokels. Isn't this the General's native village, where he grew up? I'll think only of them when I dance for that bastard."

Both of us looked in the direction of the General's voice as it boomed out of the megaphones from every corner of the school-yard, the size of a soccer-field. Several thousand people, clad only in lungi and shawl, huddled on the grass beneath a cloudless, winter sky, a rural amphitheatre. The General, wrapped in a green jacket, stood on the raised platform of planks, covered with an awning, and enclosed on three sides with sheets of cloth, apart from a rear-entrance not directly visible to the audience. A multitude of fluorescent lamps lit up the bare interior. The only prop was a gaudy, maroon throne.

"My beloved countrymen! I interrupt your drama right before the meeting of the traitors because the scene should remind you of what happened in this country, not only two hundred and fifty years ago, but also five years ago. Like the Nawab, I was once a ruler. Like him, I lost my throne. Who betrayed the Nawab in 1757? His own relatives, who sold the country to the East India company. And who betrayed me? Our own people, the political parties, and the so-called educated ladies and gentlemen who would not sit down to watch this play with you. Their ideas and their entertainment come from abroad. And the idea that toppled me from power was democracy. But I ask you today: was it a people's movement? Did you leave your fields and your homes to march to the capital to demand my downfall? Did you, I ask you today?"

"No!" went up, in unison, towards the stars. "No! No!"

"I know!" resumed the General, choking with suppressed tears. "And I knew it! And I will always know it to be true! The political parties, with their mercenary followers, knifed me in the back, as Mohammedi Beg, the hired executioner, will strangle the Nawab tonight. And who encouraged them? The East India Company of today - the foreign donors. If the foreign donors tell us to stand, we stand, if they tell us to sit, we sit - and if they tell us to dethrone our leader, we do that as well. Are we slaves or free men? Can we create a country that will not depend on foreigners?"

"Yes!" rose up from every throat, the warm breath smoking in the cold.

"Can we build a nation where the poor man will not be ashamed before the rich, nor the rich man proud before the poor?"


"Can we sit down, rich and poor together, and not be divided by foreign ideas and foreign money?"

"Yes! Yes! Yes!"

They were all on their feet, shaking their fists, smiling their ingenuous, rustic smile. Yet if they decided to give the General at least three consecutive terms in power, the classroom from which Aleya now went forth would school them out of their rural simplicity.

The tour was obviously going to be a success. And after the jatras (as these village plays are called) would begin the shooting for the movie, to be released in every cinema hall in the country, to run for months before polling-day, a box-office hit. The masses have been coming to these jatras since time lost to memory, The Last Nawab being their favourite for generations. Let's just say I transformed a tradition into an electoral strategy.


Surprise, observed a philosopher, is the test of truth, so my assumption that Keshwar was still in bed with me proved false when I reached out for her. I looked swiftly round the bedroom. Her clothes weren't there. Getting into my dressing-gown, I made sure she wasn't in the flat before starting to worry. I began, for some reason, to look for a message.

It read like a suicide note. It had been signed twice, and both signatures had been cancelled: Abbasah, then Aleya. "They hit me where it hurt, Zafar, but at least I had one night with my local boy."

The crumpled newspaper on my table, next to the note, proclaimed in its headline where ‘they' had hit her. KESHWAR A WHORE OFF-SCREEN, AS WELL, SAY PARTY-LEADERS.

The champions of democracy had held a press conference yesterday evening. "Party leaders, while admiring Keshwar's performance in the film The Last Nawab, which was released yesterday in cinema halls all over the country, said that her convincing portrayal of Aleya was due to the fact that in real life she preferred to sleep with foreigners...."

I stepped out into the verandah for some fresh air. After a few minutes, or perhaps a few hours, I heard the phone ring. But the General and I hardly talked. I stepped back into the verandah.

In the afternoon, the western sky darkened. It was like broken pieces of slate set in silver. An invisible artist added imperceptibly to the bits of slate, as though he were angry. The clouds plodded eastward. A wind rose. The mango and jak-fruit trees between the buildings began their frenzied dance. The new year had begun.

I dressed hurriedly for a walk. The rain started, in tiny droplets, hesitatingly. Keshwar was everywhere. Tall posters had been pasted on walls all over town. She stood in an attitude of dance, teasing pedestrians, slowing them down. The Nawab on horseback, and, in miniature portraits, his trusted lieutenants and treasonous generals surrounded her.

The sky had promised a flood, but performed only a drizzle, as if checked by a sudden clemency. The cinema hall where she and I had watched our first film together appeared abruptly before me. The gallery of rogues and heroes graced the facade of the building, and, larger than life, Aleya danced above them. The trees reached the end of their dervish-like ecstasy, and the dust settled in the rain.

Two queues of men and women waited patiently, a little wet, before the two counters - one for the dress circle, the other for the rear and front stalls. The women in the former column exuded perfume and good breeding, while the men hovered proprietorially around them, listening to hand-held radios.

"Any news of Keshwar?" I heard one of the ladies ask gloomily. Her husband shook his head.

An instinct urged me up the flight of stairs to the dress circle. Behind me, I heard somebody yell. " - Found - hotel room - overdose - alcohol and sleeping tablets - ," reached me.

The matinée was nearly over when I stepped into the semi-darkness. The DC was full. I heard women snuffle and caught glimpses of white handkerchiefs. They were hanging Aleya.

"They killed her in real life, too!" said an angry male voice.

"No!" came the feminine denial. "No! She'll never die!"

Iftekhar Sayeed