River of memory

Amit Sengupta

“The morning of 12 May saw Delhi almost completely emptied of the British, who had dominated it since the British defeated the Marathas in 1803… As Theo woke in ill-fitting Hindustani clothes, hidden in a backroom in the house of a stranger; as the Tytlers in Karnal and the Wagentriebers in  Panipat wolfed down their breakfasts; as James Morley, swaying on his bullock cart, pondered life without his wife and family; as Edward Vibart and his party hid in a bunch of tall grass in the fields towards Meerut, avoiding the sepoy search  parties out looking for British refugees; as Ghalib peered disapprovingly through his lattices at the sepoys swaggering through his muhalla of Ballimaran; as Maulvi Muhammad Baqar began writing up for the Dihli Urdu Akbhar all the strange sights and portents that he had seen the day before; as the young Muhammad Husain Azad composed his poem on the uprising; as Zahir Dehlavi and Hakim Ahsanullah Khan began trying to remove the sepoys from the most crucial ceremonial parts of the Palace; as all this was happening (Bahadurshah) Zafar too was anxiously trying to envisage his future… The night before he had sheltered the forty-odd British prisoners brought in by Muin ud Din…”

If William Dalrymple is not a historian, then what is he? The wordsmith of magic fiction historical realism? Or simply, an elegant storyteller with a beginning and an end?

It’s just that there is no end to this story, even after the British attacked the Kashmere Gate and massacred the rebels and citizens alike, that is, painted the walled city red. Read the above paragraph, quoted for the belief that this review is not an acidic rendition from a high moral ground, and you realise that the magic of history lies in the literary cobwebs of time-past and time-future, running like a river with memories of the dead and alive, the human and inhuman, in present continuous. The unfinished story of a turbulent morning of stillness during the chaotic waves of the great sepoy mutiny of 1857, which Karl Marx called the first war of independence in India, and which we must celebrate on its 150th anniversary next year. Perhaps, even in a fleeting flashback, that morning might come back, the morning of 12 May, like a symphony, sometimes jarring and broken, sometimes tragic, sometimes nothing but pure humanity, as the incredible dilemma of Zafar, the poet, mystic, calligrapher, emperor, the last Mughal.

That is why Dalrymple’s meticulously researched and empirically documented narrative of that impossible, chaotic, restless, bloody rebellion is many things at one time, weaving a singular thread but moving into unpredictable layers of unfinished circles: fiction, literature, documentary, history, short film, long film, biography, essay, anecdote, oral tradition, art, craft, draft. For instance, the account of the massacre of the British prisoners by the rebels, despite pleas by the emperor not to kill innocent people, “their murder can’t be allowed”, the sepoys were in mood to heed.  “Then the King ordered the sepoys to separate into parties, Mahommedans and Hindus, and he appealed to each to consult their religious advisers to see if there was any authority for the slaughter of helpless men and women and children.”

But the Sepoys wanted to make Zafar an accomplice, to send a signal to the British. It is recorded that “the king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them, ‘take care – for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?’”

Dalrymple writes, “For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. They (sepoys) were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.”

For instance, a written anecdote shows a picture of contrast, different from the hazy folk narratives of the oral tradition, how the rebels had kind of degenerated into mass looting and ravaging and burning, rudderless, leaderless, almost visionless, as if without a future. That they were “living in luxury, drinking a lot of bhang, eating a lot of laddoo peras (sweetmeats)… they fed on delicious puri kachoris and sweets and slept a peaceful sleep… They took control of Delhi and did whatever they wanted: there was no one who we could appeal to. It was like andher nagri chaupat raj (the proverbial city of darkness with an incompetent ruler?) 

So much so, Zafar threatened to leave the city, visit the sufi Khwaja Sahab’s dargah in Mehrauli and spend his last days in prayer and peace in Mecca. He even tried a kind of non-cooperation by shutting himself off in a room.

There are of course several testimonies of the essential secular and pluralist unity of Hindus and Muslims in the mutiny. In a tangential turn, Dalrymple records an interesting episode during the state of anarchy, ruin and plunder witnessed in Delhi during the uprising. On 19 May an orthodox mullah of Delhi set up a “standard of jihad in the Jama Masjid, in an apparent effort to turn the uprising into an exclusively Muslim Holy War. Zafar immediately ordered it to be taken down ‘because such a display of fanaticism would only tend to exasperate the Hindus’.”

The twists and turns move through a crisis of humanity, between despair and hope. The Last Mughal is as much a testimony of truth as the desire to unravel the hazy layers of twilight zones of our shared past. A must read. As the literature of history, as the history of rebellion, as the rebellion of freedom, and as freedom, crushed, yet again.

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