My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When Vivek said this book was up for grabs for review, the title and the subtext intrigued me! Of course, a lot of us knew about Liaquat Ali Khan as the first Prime Minister of Pakistan after the partition. But I was not aware of the life of his wife – Ra’ana (formerly Irene Ruth Margaret Pant) – which more often is the case with most spouses of political leaders with the exception of Rajiv Gandhi in India or say Barack Obama in recent times. Of course the media attention to the details of the private lives of the politicians and their spouses has made it easy for us to know a lot more about them. But such was not the case in British India or even a pre-internet era India.
The Begum is split into two parts – the first half by Deepa Agarwal taking a lot at Irene’s life as child in India, her marriage with Liaquat Ali Khan and the political career till the partition, and the second half by Tahmina Aziz Ayub which takes a look at her post the partition particularly after her husband’s untimely death in 1951. As with any multi-author books or multi-director movie montage, this book definitely will have the reader comparing the first half with the second half, and one clearly can see the stronger half.
Deepa Agarwal perhaps benefits with the meat of Irene and Ra’ana’s life prior to the death of Liaquat Ali Khan. The book traverses history of the Pant family from the point they were Hindus who converted to Christians, the upbringing of Irene, the various schools she went to, the region that Pants would spend their summer vacations in, initiation of Irene and Liaquat’s romance, their marriage till the partition, and most importantly the influence of Jinnah on their life including them needing to leave their prized possessions in India post the partition. This is a very very easy read and you also get to know ‘The Begum’ as a person and connect to the person very easily.
The second part of the book by Tahmina Aziz Ayub suffers from a documentary/literary survey type writing and there is unfortunately no soul in this writing unlike the first half and one is forced to treat the book as chapters in a history text book. There is definitely good research and good information about the Begum, but not as a portrait as the book claims to be.
One of the key takeaway from this book as getting to know how Pakistan had to start from scratch with respect to a lot of things and the first Prime Minister did not have the luxuries that his Indian counterpart had. In addition, he had a bigger task of putting his country on the map and fight unrest among people (the latter was a task for Nehru too and how he handled is a discussion for another day).
This portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, the Begum, starts out well and is worthy of a read for its first half definitely!