Unique to the royalty of those days, the princely state of Bhopal was ruled by women for almost four successive generations. Veiled and regal, when Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum sat on her imperial throne, members of her cabinet – from ministers to wealthy dignitaries – came and presented their courteous salaams one by one, to Sarkar Aliya.

Despite being powerful in their own way, these men stood in her presence till such time as she majestically nodded for them to be seated. The unexpected result of having a woman as monarch was that by default the status of the fairer sex within this society improved. The suffocation women felt in the North Indian state of Awadh, where deep-rooted conservative values were being followed blindly, was completely missing in Bhopal.

As the sovereign of Bhopal, Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum was eager to prove she could match any man in intelligence and capability. She was worried about the wellbeing of her female subjects and wanted to eradicate ignorance from their lives by making provisions for them to receive a proper education. She was also keen to liberate women from a life of social confinement. One day Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum called my father and said,...

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