Friday, Sep 30, 2022
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On Blackened Marblestones

Zahir Dehlvi isn’t a very reliable narrator, but his memoir describes the Mutiny in Delhi vividly. This is a loose translation of an important source.

On Blackened Marblestones Photograph by Getty Images

This is a translation of the Urdu autobiography of Zahir (pronounced ‘Zaheer’) of Delhi, whose full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume. From what he tells us it seems he was born in 1835; and is said to have died in 1911 at Hyderabad (Deccan). He began writing his memoirs very late in life, with little in the form of written material available to him. The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (which alone is available to this rev­iewer). The title Dastan-i Ghadr (not Ghadar!) has been given to the text by his editors, not by the author, as the translator Rana Safvi notes (p. xx).

It is the account of the rebellion of 1857, including the account of Delhi on the eve of it, and of the devastation of the city by the victorious ‘Gora’ (‘White’) troops, that has mainly drawn scholarly attention to the work so far. It is, however, always necessary to remember while evaluating the accuracy of some of Zahir’s statements that he was taxing his memory some fifty years after the event. Except for dates in Ramazan (the Muslim fasting month), during which the mutineers occupied Delhi, he does not give any dates at all. It is clear that, as far as he was concerned, he was writing mainly of his own experiences in the Mutiny and its aftermath (when his life was placed in danger repeatedly) and this engenders in him a prejudice against the rebel sepoys who started it all, and then, a consuming fear of the White victors, who took such a fearful revenge (with much individual loot in the bargain). Nonetheless, even his acc­ount of his flight from Delhi via Panipat and rebel-held Bareilly to the princely state of Rampur during 1857-58, gives us a vivid impression of conditions on the ground, which the victors’ reports alone cannot provide.

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