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Ears On Cobblestones

Two books offer no insight into the enigma of 1857, but, laudably, listen in on marginalised voices and oral lores

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Ears On Cobblestones
Corbis (From Outlook, August 30, 2010)
Ears On Cobblestones
1857: The Oral Tradition
By Pankaj Rag
Rupa | Pages: 212 | Rs: 395
Besieged: Voices From Delhi, 1857
Compiled and Edited by Mahmood Farooqui
Penguin/Viking | Pages: 320 | Rs: 699

India was ‘in peace without and within’, and there appeared to be ‘no quarter from which formidable war could reasonably be expected at present’. This was Dalhousie’s message of comfort to his successor, Canning, in February 1856. The Anglo-Indian press, adopting the same tone, declared India to be profoundly tranquil. But within a year, a complacent British administration had to deal with the first overwhelming tide of disaster.

The cry from the Juma Masjid went out: Allah-o-Akbar! Allah-o-Akbar. The tired voice said it all. It was the sixteenth day of fasting in the month of Ramzan. The qawwal’s loud, melodious voice detailed the ascension of the Prophet through the heavens. This story offered poets an opening to depict the Prophet in all his glory, flying through the heavens on his mount Buraq.

It was May 11, 1857. The clock struck eight. Some spotted soldiers in their French-grey jackets and light dragoon shakos. A party of mounted horsemen, soiled with dust and blood, were soon to appear beneath the walls of the Red Fort. Galloping down the Meerut Road, they headed towards the pontoon bridge spanning the Yamuna near the wall of the Salimgarh Fort. Soon they entered the city. Delhi turned hellish (Sarzamin-i Dilli hashr ka maidan bani hui thi), wrote Zakaullah, a teacher at Delhi College.

Historians have, doubtless, detailed the events of 1857; yet, we know very little, despite the recent proliferation of literature on 1857, why such a violent upheaval took place, and why it petered out so quickly. Was it simply a sepoy mutiny, a people’s resistance, a civil rebellion, the dying groans of an absolute autocracy, or an attempt to turn back the clock of history to feudal isolation and tyranny?  Was it the Indian War of Independence or the last flicker of feudal India?

The two books under review are not meant to answer these questions, but they are nonetheless important interventions. Mahmood Farooqui, who has made a name for himself by reviving the art of Urdu storytelling, has translated some of the Persian documents from the ‘Mutiny Records’. His effort is praiseworthy, but whether or not the fragments from such a vast collection add up to anything significant must await the judgment of historians. My sense is that these vignettes are useful in themselves, but do not reveal anything that we do not know. At any rate, Farooqui should have written an introduction in order to lend coherence to the scattered bits of information. The preface is unsatisfactory.

Farooqui records and translates the ‘Besieged Voices’. But what about those voices which were weighed down by the rebels or the ‘mutineers’? Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, the first major novelist in Urdu, pointed out that the fire was ignited by the bazaari khilqat (vagabonds of the roadside). Zakaullah castigated the ‘black-faced army’ for causing death and destruction. Above all, Mirza Ghalib represented the 1857 rebellion as nothing but an outburst of destructive fury.

The interpretations of that great episode figured prominently, and its lessons lingered on, almost inarticulately, among the various generations. No wonder, the names of the 1857 patriots found a place in the proclamation of the Provincial Government of Azad Hind, headed by Subhas Chandra Bose. But, while savouring the nationalistic rhetoric and paying tribute to the Rani of Jhansi, we must also reflect on the representation of 1857 in the writings of Nazir Ahmad, Zakaullah and Mirza Ghalib. Even if we feel uncomfortable with their analysis, we cannot allow their voices to be submerged beneath the monochrome rationalisation of the ‘freedom struggle’.

Pankaj Rag, an IAS officer, heads the FTII in Pune. He must be complimented for this fascinating volume, which is based on the oral tradition. Scholarship exists outside academia as well. Rag examines folk traditions in eastern UP and adjoining areas of Bihar, in Bundelkhand, in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, and in Awadh. There is the story of Shah Fakir of Rudauli who, even after the defeat in 1857, did not put his sword back in its sheath. And the story about Debi Baksh of Gonda. It is said that Begum Hazrat Mahal sought his help to meet her husband, the exiled Nawab, and was prepared to submit to him as his slave (Abki baar Rajaa swami se milaa do/Cheriyaa main hai hon tumhari ho).

(Mushirul Hasan is Director-General, National Archives of India)

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