Sex, Gossip, and Scandal in 1940s Hyderabad: Aziz Ahmad’s Novel Shabnam

By Shefali Jha. Shefali teaches in Humanities and Social Sciences at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar. She has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and is currently working on publishing her doctoral dissertation on Muslim politics in Hyderabad.

Anyone familiar with the zany world of Hyderabadi comedy knows the social fault-lines it deals in: class, young love, and inter-generational encounters with contemporary urban sociality.

The humour consists in inviting identification with ‘types’ of Hyderabadi Muslim characters that make up the city’s Dakhani milieu, whether in cinema or more recent online video-skits performed by amateur groups of comedians. These comedies are major sites for managing anxieties around changing mores of consumption and sexual and familial relationships.

These anxieties are hardly new, though one would be hard-put to find analyses that help us look at earlier instances of this phenomenon in Hyderabadi Muslim society. One such avenue does open up, however, through the Urdu novels and short stories of Aziz Ahmad (1914 – 1978).

Ahmad is better known to English readers as a cultural historian of Islam in South Asia, but he began his career as an Urdu litterateur of many talents— novelist, translator, literary critic, short story writer, sometime poet and playwright. Small wonder that the writer and critic Hasan Farrukh names him ‘Urdu’s only all-rounder.’

One of the major consequences of Asaf Jahi policies— in state employment, for instance— was the emergence of a sizeable Muslim middle class concentrated in the capital city of Hyderabad, by the early decades of the twentieth century.

This legacy continues to shape the present, ensuring a kind of class differentiation among Hyderabadi Muslims, even as the urban poor form the overwhelming majority today. It is a historical fact that the momentous events of the last years of Hyderabad state—the rise of the Ittehad-ul-Muslimin, the spread of disaffection against the Nizam’s regime— were driven by new class and caste alignments in the princely state. Ahmad’s work deals with the social dynamic between the aristocracy and the newly urbanized Muslim middle class of his time, focusing especially on the vicissitudes of desire and sexual relations.  

Following a brief background which attests to Aziz Ahmad’s unique position as a ‘participant-observer’ of Hyderabadi Muslim society, I will discuss here the last of his six novels, titled Shabnam. This is the ‘true story’ of a woman who finds herself at the centre of scandals and gossip that thwart her search for meaningful relationships, in the closed circles of middle-class society on the eve of Police Action (1948).

The Outsider

Aziz Ahmad, undated (Source: Shefali Jha).

Ahmad’s was a life of successive migrations. Born in the Marathwada region of Hyderabad state, in a family of North Indian origin, Ahmad came to Hyderabad to study Persian, Urdu and English at Osmania University in 1928. Here he became a protégé of yet another notable ‘non-mulki’, Maulavi Abdul Haq, and was sent to England on a scholarship in 1936, getting another B.A in English from the University of London. In 1938 he began teaching in the English department at Osmania, and from 1942 to 1946 was deputed to be secretary to the Nizam’s elder daughter-in-law, the Turkish princess Durreshehvar. This entailed annual sojourns in Kashmir and Bombay, among other places.

His best-known novels, Gurez (‘Evasion’), Aag (‘Fire’) and Aisi Bulandi, Aisi Pasti (translated as The Shore and the Wave by Ralph Russell) were written during this time.

Aziz Ahmad went to Pakistan in 1949 and was stationed at the Department of Advertising, Films and Publications, but left for London in 1957 to join the teaching faculty at SOAS, where he taught Urdu, migrating finally to Canada in 1967 to teach at the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto.

Aside from Persian, Arabic, Urdu, English and French, he spoke German and Italian, and brought this linguistic range to his work as a novelist, in the form of a particular style. His earliest novels are experiments in sensibility influenced by his reading: among the literary influences even on ‘my worst novel’ Marmar aur Khoon (‘Marble and Blood’) he counted Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) and Knut Hamsun.

Love and Desire in the City

‘I understand realism (haqiqat nigari) to be like photography. It may happen that the lens is dusty, or the film bad, the light inadequate, or my own perception and understanding different, but I have always critiqued life (zindagi ki tanqid) from within the image of life…’ These words (my translation) appear in a footnote in Ahmad’s novel Aisi Bulandi. The comparison with photography is apt: his last two novels were romans-à-clef, theevents and families easily recognizable by Hyderabadi readers. 

Shabnam, Book Cover (Source:

Shabnam epitomizes the voyeuristic gap between the public and private where his novels place the reader. Set in Hyderabad (‘Farkhundanagar,’ as in the previous novel) of the mid- to late 1940s, the novel tells of a society where gossip and scandal is a major site for the management of changes in gender relations, inaugurated by the spread of higher education and employment opportunities for middle-class women.

The eponymous heroine of the novel is a writer and teacher of Urdu at a local Convent school who is rumoured to have had several romantic relationships, salacious details of which circulate through the middle-class circles of Farkhundanagar. Arshad Ali Khan, himself a single man-about-town and editor of the Deccan Observer (‘Farkhundanagar’s leading English newspaper’) finds himself drawn to this aura. Throughout their relationship, he tries to uncover the truth about her, even as she grows more and more desperate to convince him of her ‘innocence.’

Crucial to the credibility of the gossip are two facts: one, that Shabnam comes from ‘Alamgirnagar’ (probably Aurangabad), the kind of town where ‘everyone knows everyone else.’ And two, that her (paternal) grandmother was a courtesan— ‘a kind of Umrao Jan Ada’, as one of Shabnam’s rumoured lovers says. Thus is Shabnam made into the fantasy of all the major male (and one trans woman) characters in the novel, while suffering from having to choose between romance and respectability. The places where they meet are public and shady: the family section of the ‘Tom hotel’, and the ‘box’ of Roxy cinema hall, notorious for assignations.[1]

A contemporary ‘box’ in the rear section of the Hyderabadi cinema hall Sandhya. These boxes are often removed during renovations or simply not included in new halls (Source: Shefali Jha).

It is through letters, however, that conversation and expression of feelings is carried on: through poetry, Persian and Urdu and through sentimental prose. The circulation of the written word is central to the plot—the newspaper, poetry, short stories authored by Shabnam which are linked with her ‘experiences.’

The letter is the main plot device in Shabnam— they are exchanged, stolen, published, discussed, their contents amplified and distorted. The novel itself participates in this circulation of gossip: it ends with her last letter to Arshad, begging him not to show her letters to anybody else, including his friend Aijaz Hussain (a barely disguised self-portrait by Ahmad), professor of English and infamous writer of ‘obscene’ novels. Thus, the reader is both a party to the scandal and a sympathetic witness to the protagonist’s fate.

The misalignment of the public and private worlds of marriage and desire have different consequences for the characters. For Arshad, who eventually falls out of love, it is a philosophical conundrum— why must love (ishq) give in to family and worldliness, he muses, thinking on Schopenhauer and Ghalib in equal measure. For the heroine, whose fate remains unclear, the relationship adds another scandal to her name.

Shabnam is thus the disquieting portrait of the socio-sexual mores of Hyderabad’s urban society before and after 1948. The city was riven by the contradictions between an emergent urbanity and the residual traces of an earlier publicness—of the tawaif—that haunt this time of transition.

That these contradictions are today the subject of popular comedy than the pathos of a novel is surely a potent sign of what Tocqueville might have called the democratization of mores.   

Acknowledgments: Thanks are due to Mehraj Saeed of Toronto and Akhtar and Latif Sharfan of Yakutmahal Theatre, Hyderabad for the images; to Mohammad Ayub Khan, Syed Mohammed, MA Moid and Madhava Prasad for their help with putting together this piece.

This article was written by a guest contributor and solely reflects the views of the author.

[1] These no longer exist, though two older theatres- ‘Sandhya’ and ‘Ramakrishna’ in Hyderabad- have ‘boxes’ that are more like ‘second’ balcony seating (see image).