Book Review: The Break of Dawn by Khan Mahboob Tarzi (Translated by Dr Ali Khan Mahmodabad)


The Break of Dawn (Penguin Random House, India, 2021), a recently published book, translated from Urdu by Ali Khan Mahmudabad is simple, sharp and an indispensable read. The original book Aghaaz-e-Sahar (1957) is a novel written by khan Mahboob Tarzi, set around the region of Awadh (present Lucknow), Faizabad, Mahmudabad and the adjacent areas located in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Tarzi was a prolific writer and has numerous novels to his name. He was educated in Aligarh and considered writing as ‘ibadah or prayer. He wrote numerous novels like Dulhan, Muqabla, Rooh-e-Nishat, TareekhiDuniya and some estimates state the total numbers to be around hundreds with variegated themes such as romance, thriller, detective, historical, social and political. He is acclaimed to be the ‘earliest science fiction writer in Urdu’ by notable critics like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (Khan, xxv).

The story revolves around a young soldier named Riyaz Ahmad Khan of Mahmudabad, his companions and their struggle for freedom against the British. The plot also involves a pulsating love story between Riyaz and a British woman named Alice, who plays an important role in Riyaz and the company’s struggle against the British establishment. However, the most enticing factor of the otherwise simple read is the crafting of its character, who act in accordance with the laws of moral uprightness, despite their racial, cultural, religious, or geographical divide. 

The world created by Tarzi is one that comes to life with its fast-paced and colloquial style of dialogue. The precise descriptions of the war field, scheme, and strategies lend the story with a palpable realism that enables the creation of an existing – breathing world with characters of flesh and blood. The story, based and inspired by actual historical events suffuses the story with a solid framework that contributes immensely to the polemical debates of loyalty, nationalism, patriotism in the present times.

As the translator, Prof. Mahmudabad discusses briefly in the introduction of the book the literary outputs revolving around the 1857 war of Independence, however, this translation is one of the firsts of its kind that is available for readers in the English language. The uniqueness of the plot lies in it being pivoted at a specific time in history i.e. 1857 ‘War of Independence. The multicultural, pluralistic, and harmonious culture that stemmed from the cooperation of the two communities i.e. Hindus and Muslims is brilliantly captured in the book. 

The event is contextualized further by Prof. Mahmudabad who meticulously weaves personal anecdotes and historical references from his family history into the central theme of the book, offering readers a vast spectrum of information, which makes it rich and interesting read. The translated book is a timely intervention at a time when the Muslim community is being targeted and their loyalty is being scrutinized and questions pertaining to their allegiance to the national cause is being questioned incessantly and ruthlessly. The idea of a cosmopolitan, pluralistic society that strove together towards Independence is hitherto undiscussed and written about in the mainstream English writings in India.

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Historically, the shifting contours of South Asian states owe much of their transformation to the events that erupted in these lands. The watershed events entailed blood and violence as their aftermath, and the traumatic festering wounds flow into the pages of the writers and poets. The shadows of the often painful memories lurk and peep from each word. As history proceeded, the fluctuating epochal shifts registered themselves in the contemporary literary history, carving out a niche of writers, who relentlessly chronicled the whereabouts of their times. Although, various forms of literature chronicle these shifts, novel as a form became one of the most potent sites of registrations. 

A generation of writers springing from the pre and post-independence era penned the pain deeper than the oceans surrounding these countries. We find numerous books that have been published in India regarding the independence, pangs of partition and various other movements, however, we do not find any mainstream writings in English that deal with the 1857 revolt with a Muslim protagonist, especially. The Break of Dawn successfully manages to fill the gap present in the Indian English writing, where we do not see any other Muslim protagonist fighting for the national cause with such verve and gusto. I remember questioning myself repeatedly after reading Kanthapura by Raja Rao in my Indian Writings in English course about a Muslim character Imam Khan. 

The uneasiness which I found in the read was such an ephemeral or tokenistic inclusion of a Muslim character in the larger narrative of freedom struggle. I was restless to know more, to dive deeper into the emotions and psyche of Muslims at those times. The historical accounts provide enough data of the contribution by the Muslim community, however, literature lets us know of the emotions and the feelings they felt at the time. The Break of Dawn does exactly the same, it gives an insight into the real emotions of the people at the time. Other fictions written around the same theme have not been able to strike a balance between the portrayals of the characters from both communities. The success of the novel lies in its ease in portraying the two communities, who were grounded in their religion and yet their humanitarian code of conduct was drawn from the respective religious beliefs and faith.

The most important aspect of the book is its giving primacy to religion as a source of harmony, which is quite unlikely in the current times, where a perception exists that the chief divider is religion. The translation of the book is so smooth that one might forget at a point that it was originally written in another language. 

All in all, The Break of Dawn is a simple read, which might turn out to be a little boring at times with abundant details of war and strategy, but, the love story germinating between Alice and Riyaz was something that worked for me and forced me to turn the pages with acute interest. However, the fact that makes this book a must-read is its speaking of a time when religion was a source of harmony and not divide; times when the countless possibilities of human love bound us together in an amazing camaraderie. The Break of Dawn is a reminder of everything we were as a society, softly nudging us to rethink our current choices and opinions. The novel is a must-read.

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