Moin Mir's latest book talks about a prince who fought for his daughters' rights

07 January,2018 08:40 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Jane Borges

A new historical non-fiction revisits the forgotten story of the brave Nawab of Surat, who waged an epic courtroom battle against the East India Company, for the inheritance rights of his two daughters

Besides the personal journey of his ancestor, the book by Moin Mir also traces the systematic plundering of Surat by the East India Company. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Moin Mir was celebrating his 15th birthday when he received a rather unusual gift for someone his age. "My grandfather gave me a book titled Nawab of Surat Treaty Bill in the House of Commons, 1856. At the time, I didn't think much of that antique book," he recalls. But, subsequently as life went on, and Mir's interest in history grew, he began picking through that old relic of a book. "And, as I browsed through it, I realised that this was a fascinating story of an incredible man, who voyaged to England, first in 1844 and then in 1853, to challenge the East India Company on their corrupt practices in India."

Even as Mir narrates this story, the affection and regard he holds for the hero of this tale, can't go unnoticed. That the protagonist in question, Meer Jafar Ali Khan, is someone he shares blood ties with - Mir is Meer Jafar Ali Khan's fifth generation descendant and member of the royal family of Kamadhia and Surat - could partially explain his obsession with this narrative, there's also another reason. "Never had a Hindustani prince challenged the Company on their home soil and in their Parliament," says Mir. But, who remembers this event in history? "Almost nobody," insists Mir, who shuttles between Mumbai and London, where he works in the design and communications industry.

Mir's new historical non-fiction titled, Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince (Roli Books), revisits this momentous, but otherwise forgotten chapter in India's colonial history. At the heart of this story is Meer Jafar Ali Khan, the Last Custodian of the House of Surat and the ruling Darbar Shree of Kamandiyah State in Kathiawar, Gujarat, in the mid-1800s, who fought a brave and epic battle on foreign soil for his two daughters, Ladli and Rahimun, whose rights to a pension had been denied by the East India Company, thus putting them at risk of destitution.

The book traces the systematic plundering of Surat - one of Hindustan's greatest cities, its subsequent brutal annexation and treaty violations of 1800 by the Company. "At 26, he [Meer Jafar Ali Khan] was facing his greatest challenge, one that would define the purpose of his existence. His frail wife and young offspring had been stripped of their means of sustenance. The rights of the family stood violated. Hounded by terrible thoughts of what might befall his girls and the estates, he passed innumerable sleepless nights, sometimes pacing down palace corridors, on other occasions mounting his horse and galloping down the banks of the Tapti," Mir writes in the book. "A new Agent to the Governor had taken over…His first move would be the seizure and illegal sequestration of the private estates with the objective to publicly auction them and fill Company coffers. This would immediately lead to the confinement of Jafar and his family in miniscule quarters. He would soon have to fight for the honour of his wife and infant children," it reads further.

It's this fight that took Meer Jafar Ali Khan to England twice, and an ultimate victory in 1856, barely a year before the country's first struggle for Independence was crushed brutally. It's also possibly why this story got buried within the British archives. "The English were good at confining anyone who opposed them, to the archives. They were either reduced to a footnote [in a book] or not given their rightful due in terms of the arguments they were portraying. At the end of the day, they were writing their own history," says Mir.

This also made Mir's task of putting together a historically accurate work quite arduous. He spent over six years researching and writing this book. While the original material for the non-fiction came from the minutes of a Parliamentary debate recorded in the 1856 book - an important family heirloom that he had been gifted - he spent hours reading up on the annexation and fall of Surat at the British Library at Kings Cross and Asiatic Society Library in Mumbai. "A vast number of correspondence that happened between Meer Jafar Ali Khan and the British establishment is available at the library in Kings Cross," says Mir.

Another very interesting aspect of his life, which has almost, poetically been captured by Mir, is his love affair with Mary Jane, an English theatre actor, he met during his four-year stay in London - between 1853-56 - to rally support within the English press and government, for his cause. For this account, Mir relied on family archives. "Jafar found Mary Jane's life fascinating. Here was a woman who had been orphaned at an early age and, instead of capitulating under the weight of emotional and financial hardships, she had gone out into the world pursued her interest in acting and although she hadn't made quite a success of her career, Jafar found her spirit for life appealing," Mir writes in the book. Mary Jane eventually returned with him to Surat, and was the last person, he saw before he died in his mid 40s.
Speaking of this romance, Mir says, "The beauty of the story is that while Meer Jafar Ali Khan takes on the empire in Victorian England, he loses his heart to an Englishwoman. And, so while he is righteous in one cause, he falls in love despite being married to someone else [Basti, his second wife]. He is a hero, but also vulnerable. I found that to be incredibly interesting, it only throws more light on his multi-dimensional personality."

At a personal level, Mir says, writing this book has been a most moving experience. "I am a father of two girls myself, and after I read the documentation, you really feel how the English East India Company was, even if that meant trampling over the birth rights of little girls. When you read the correspondence, you empathise with the father's fight for justice for his little girls. I think it's why this story was important for me to tell," ends Mir.

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