Image and Narrative contributed by Afnan Khan, New Delhi
This is a photograph of my great-great grandfather Fida Husain (seated second from right) along with his five sons and elder brother Ata Husain. It carries within it our ancestral memory of amazing accomplishments and family legends.
In 1715, my ancestor, an Afridi Pathan teacher Husain Khan migrated from Kohat (now Pakistan) to Qaimganj (now Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh). Kohat was mainly a tribal area and Qaimganj was closer to Delhi, the capital of the erstwhile Mughal Empire and may have offered him better employment opportunities. Family legend says he lived for more than a 100 years and was known as ‘Bade Ustaad’ (The Great Teacher). His next three generations (sons, grandsons and great-grand sons) chose to serve in the army.
Husain Khan’s great-great grandson (see photograph) Fida Husain was fond of academics and would borrow books from a lawyer in the neighbourhood that triggered his interest in law. He took the law examination and graduated in first class. Fida Husain then moved to Hyderabad (then ruled by the sixth Nizam), established a successful law practice, and built a house in Begum Bazaar, Hyderabad. He would also regularly send money to his father Ghulam Husain to supervise the building of a family home, a haveli (mansion), in Qaimganj (now Farrukhabad, UP) that he could eventually retire in. The mansion came to be known as ‘Mahal’ which translates literally to ‘Palace’.
The family legend about the mansion is intriguing – During construction, an unfortunate incident took place that changed the course of its legacy. A labourer who was working on the construction site was unwell and was not able to work efficiently. Unaware of the labourer’s health, an irked Ghulam Husain ended up raising his hand at him. It so happened that a much revered saint Karam Ali Shah was passing by and witnessed the incident. Karam Ali then asked Ghulam Husain to immediately halt the construction work, and ordered him to go to a temple in Mathura (UP) lead the life of an ascetic, clean the temple premises and eat only chana (gram) for 40 days. A guilty Ghulam Husain complied, but when he returned Qaimganj, Karam Ali prophesied that the Mahal as a residence had soaked in negative energy because of the incident and while his family and future generations will reach the zenith in their careers, the house itself would not allow the family to thrive in it.
My great-great grandfather Fida Husain never got to live in the house he had hoped to. He died of Tuberculosis at the age of 39 in 1907. His wife Nazneen Begum moved back to Qaimganj to live in the Mahal with her children but died four years later in 1911 of the plague. Nazneen Begum eventually came to be known as Garbh-Ratani (bearer of gems) by the people of Qaimganj because she bore children who found great recognition in their careers, and her sons and grandsons did indeed rise to prominence in their respective fields.
Her eldest, Muzaffar Husain (extreme left) grew up to become a judge but contracted Tuberculosis. He returned to the Mahal for recovery but died soon at the age of 28. Muzaffar Husain’s son (my grandfather) Masud Husain was Aligarh Muslim University’s first Professor Emeritus in Social Sciences and went on to become the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia. He was a Sahitya Akademi award recipient, and is regarded as the Father of Urdu-Linguistics. Abid Husain (extreme right) was still a student when he too contracted Tuberculosis and passed away. Zakir Husain (third from left) was the Vice-Chancellor of both Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia (that he also founded) and eventually became India’s third President. Zahid Husain (third from right) also contracted Tuberculosis while he was in the first year of intermediate and passed away. Yousuf Husain (fourth from left) was a historian who became Aligarh Muslim University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor. He too was a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award. Mahmud Husain who is not in the picture was a Vice-Chancellor at Dhaka University and Karachi University. He also served as the Minister of Education in the Government of Pakistan. His son Anwar Husain was the Managing Director of Pakistani Television PTV. With four Vice-Chancellors to four different universities across the Indian sub-continent, the family came to be known as the “Family of Vice Chancellors”.
People in the family still remember the bittersweet prophecy, a part-blessing and a part-curse. My grandparents’ generation associates the deaths of Fida Husain Khan, his wife Nazneen Begum, and their sons Muzaffar, Abid and Zahid with the curse-part of the prophecy, while the success of Zakir, Yusuf, Mahmud and Masud is attributed to the blessing-part of the prophecy. I can understand how strongly ingrained in their minds is that the Mahal was jinxed, which is why it they began to use it only for special occasions like weddings.
When I visited the the Mahal, the zenana (female section of the house) was typical of the other houses in Qaimganj (now Farrukhabad). But, the mardana (male section of the house) was inspired by Hyderabadi style of architecture. This unique fusion made the Mahal different from the other havelis (mansions) in the region, a good reason for why it was called the Mahal. This one time we brought back a brick from the Mahal for my grandfather Masud who couldn’t travel all the way to visit, due to old age. A few days later, he fell ill and a few family members wondered if the curse had something to do with this. Nonetheless, my grandfather got better again.
The younger generations in the family feel more rational, so we do not attach much relevance to the prophecy. Our nonchalant attitude could also be explained by the fact that none of us see ourselves ever living in Farrukhabad. But, as a child I would listen to my grandparents in awe whenever they narrated this story, and would be transfixed when they linked the tragedies and the successes to the prophecy.
Today, the ‘Mahal’ houses a museum dedicated to the memory of the third president of India and my grand-uncle, Dr. Zakir Husain.
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