August 07, 2020
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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.

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On Blackened Marblestones
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On Blackened Marblestones
Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny
By Zahir Dehlvi Translated from Urdu by Rana Safvi
Penguin | Pages: xxvi + 322 | Rs. 599

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.

It may also be mentioned that the aut­hor’s subsequent long experience of service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are of interest in the light they throw on conditions of administration there, and local historians too may find much material of value here.

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

For forms of ordinary speech in Delhi, accounts of the court, victors and victims, the original Urdu must be consulted. But Safvi’s translation should satisfy general readers.

Such looseness in translation, unfortunately, continues in the main text, like rendering najjar on p. 161 as ‘artisan’, not ‘carpenter’. This may be held to be not of much consequence, but it may happen that one slight slip makes the rendering lose some of the real import. The author, obviously trying to make a man whom he took (mistakenly) for the rebel commander Bakht Khan, sound rustic in the extreme, says that he told Bahdur Shah, “Hear me, old man, we have made you ‘Basa’” (Urdu ed., p. 140), as if he could not even say ‘Badshah’. This aspersion of illiteracy is lost in the translation, when he is just made to say, “Listen, you, old man, we have made you the emperor” (p. 115). Nor is it clear why some Urdu words like the exclamation arre (Oh) or the phrase fauj-e-baghiya (Rebel Army) are frequently reproduced as if they are English words.

No translation, however cons­ci­entious be the translator, can fully substitute for the original. For all the nuances, the terminology of the day, the forms of ordinary speech in Delhi in the 1850s, the descriptions of the court, the rebels and of the victims and victors, the historian will need always to go to the original Urdu text. But Rana Safvi has still given us a translation that should serve to satisfy the general readers’ interest. She has enriched it by biographical notices of the author and three of his patrons (pp. 272-76), a description of the Red Fort (pp. 277-82), a useful glossary (pp. 283-88) and end-notes (nos. 6 and 136 missing) (pp. 300-322). The review copy contains no index.

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