01 January 1970

Book Review: Attribution Before The Storm

Weekend Reads

Book Review: Attribution Before The Storm

The book takes its title from verses by Qadir Baksh a lesser-known Urdu poet who wrote under the takhallus ‘Sabir’ and who referred to the number of houses that the British razed in Delhi, making Liddle’s account of the time a broken script indeed.  

An old-Delhi view.
An old-Delhi view. Getty Images

The Broken Script
Swapna Liddle
Speaking Tiger
INR 899/


This is a book that describes the gradual wearing away of the old city of  Delhi, by the British who had been brought in by the Mughals to protect them from the marauding Marathas. Dr Swapna Liddle in The Broken Script describes the gradual growth of British power set against the cultural and political scenario that prevailed in Delhi between 1805 to the final downfall in 1857. Her detailed research takes the reader through the rules of Akbar II and Bahadur Shah Safar. It is an account of minutiae, a dwindling of respect and the inexorable encroachment of power and territory so much so that at one point a drunken British official even sat on the Emperor’s throne and abused the fan bearer who attempted to stop him. 

There are many anecdotes like this, Jehangir Akbar’s favoured younger son adopted the British way of life in Allahabad and generally shocked his royal relatives. Or there is the story of an akhbardar who walked into a British official’s dining room and rattled off the morning news at top speed. Some of it was funny, a lot was poignant. What comes through is the fact that the Mughals were unfailingly polite in the face of British arrogance, sending gifts of game and food while officials debated their right to send khilats and nazars. It was a tussle for power with the Mughals emphatically on the losing side.

Akbar II sent Raja Rammohan Roy to England as his emissary, a venture that led to nothing beyond a title for Rammohan Roy.  Nor were the attempts of Qudsia Begum and the Mughal ladies to intervene any more successful. What remained constant though was the popularity of the Mughal rulers who seemed to have the common touch. Their gifts – allowing a retainer to borrow an elephant to visit the Ram Lila for example – and the equal treatment they gave their Hindu and Muslim subjects, naming the children of Hindu retainers on request, kept them uppermost in the minds of their subjects. Whereas the British seemed to characterise themselves by meanness and insolence – one official was even referred to as ‘ghamand sahab’.

James Fraser was murdered successfully after several failed attempts and his trail kept Delhi agog for a while, even though the case against the accused was most probably made by the British officials and one of the chief witnesses later wrote in demanding money for services rendered.
Despite the attrition, it was a modern society, enlightened, scholarly and full of intellectual curiosity because of the clash between old and new.

Along the way, Liddle also documents the changing of the poetry of the time – Bahadur Shah Zafar was himself a noted poet who wrote in both Persian and Hindi and there was Ghalib who was secretly working with the British but who was, nonetheless the leading poet of his time. It was also the time when Urdu – known as ‘the language of the exalted camp’ - came to be used more frequently than  Persian in literature while Delhiites spoke in Khari Bol. The Fort William College in Calcutta in fact promoted the use of simple Urdu.   

This dovetails into the engrossing history of Delhi College which set the standard for higher education but began with misdistribution of funds – since the British believed that Oriental studies did not need great funding and therefore divided a grant between English and Oriental studies, against the donor’s wishes. Ultimately, there were course corrections as well as the influence of A French Levantine Principal who took the institution to the next level, initiating the teaching of science in Urdu and influencing the rise of luminaries like the first Urdu journalist.

The book takes its title from verses by Qadir Baksh a lesser-known Urdu poet who wrote under the takhallus ‘Sabir’ and who referred to the number of houses that the British razed in Delhi, making Liddle’s account of the time a broken script indeed.  What makes the narrative even more fascinating is the fact that it is a story of a doomed time – well all know what 1857 brought and how the destruction of the Delhi that Liddle describes was completed – though the process began inch by inch over the preceding decades.