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Capturing the Macabre Drama of Mutiny

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The book weaves together the visual and textural histories that underscore the dynamics between the rebels and the oppressors in the mid-19th century episode

Dastan-e-Ghadar 1910
Author: ZahirDehlvi
English translation by RanaSafvi
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs. 599

Reviewed By Dr. M. S. Riyazulla

History is defined as the study of the human past in written documents. When history so described is compounded with an autobiography, it becomes a historical memoir. The book under review is an autobiographical work titled Dastan-e-Ghadar written in Urdu in 1910 by ZaheerDehlvi. It has been translated into English by RanaSafvi. It is about the gloomy fall of the glorious Mughal empire. There has been a plethora of works on this heart-wrenching topic by several renowned historians, bringing to light a host of contradictory views and opinions about the causes of the monumental event. But Zahir Dehlvi’s narrative on the subject is more authentic as it was a real eyewitness account. Zahir Dehlvi deserves encomiums for two prominent reasons. First, being a courtier of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, he has honestly described the dynamics of the falling regime from May 1857 to September 1857; and secondly, for his eidetic memory, which helped him preserve visual images and piece them together at leisure by putting the events in a sequence in graphic detail.
Zahir Dehlvi, a scholastic man, had worked as Darogha-e-Mahi-Marateb in the imposing court of Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was a protégé of the Emperor, an Urdu poet of the time and a close associate of Urdu luminaries like Zauq, Ghalib and Momin.
Dismal Days of Rebellion
The author has vividly portrayed his halcyon days before the revolt and the life of besieged emperor, who was a great calligrapher and an illustrious poet. Dehlvi eulogizes the emperor as an epitome of cultural syncretism and pluralism who even in the tumultuous times was synergistically celebrating the festivals of all the faiths. In the second part, the book wades into the dismal days of rebellion which was spearheaded by the rebels and brutally suppressed by the British forces. The author has lucidly unfolded the macabre scenes of all the four battles and the miasma of death and destruction. There are description of scenes such as corpses being tossed into the air due to blast of cannons. The Mughal forces were ill-equipped, were running out of ammunition and lacked leadership. They began to retreat and accepted defeat. The author narrates how the British tortured the besieged people and how they humiliated the noble emperor. He had to flee from his royal abode and take refuge in Humayun’s tomb before being deported to Rangoon. Before doing so, his two sons were mercilessly slaughtered and their heads were presented to the deposed emperor. Dehlvi was so appalled at the senseless slaughter of the people that in the post-mutiny he forlornly translated his emotions into a couplet. He wrote: ‘It was no less an agony than doomsday. May God never show such a turn again!’
Contradictory Responses
The third aspect of the book pertains to the post-mutiny trials and tribulation for him. Livelihood concerns took him from one city to another and finally he ended up in Hyderabad, where he died. A glance through history reveals the contradictory responses of some of the Indian Muslim intellectuals of the time. Though a few had supported the revolt, Ghalib, Hali and Sir Syed were not in its support due to a perception that some avenues should be built with the British to take advantage of western education. Sir Syed, the unparalleled reformist of his time, wrote a book in 1858 titled, ‘Causes of the Indian Revolt’ (in Urdu Asbab Baghawat e Hind) in which he has tried to clarify the misconception that the revolt was primarily a Muslim conspiracy. In the preface of his book, he has eloquently written that, ‘An honest exposition of native ideas is all that Government requires to enable it to hold the country with the full concurrence of its inhabitants and not merely by the sword’. Further, on page 6 of about 65-page book he says: ‘The English did not obtain the Government of Hindustan in a day. They extended their authority little and little. It commenced from 1757 with the overthrow of Sirajud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey.
Sir Syed’s views could be corroborated by Bahadur Shah Zafar’s own pathetic words, which once he glumly conveyed to his courtiers, ‘My ancestors were emperors, those who had Hindustan under their control. But the monarchy left my house one hundred years ago.’ He further avowed, ‘We have nothing to do with fighting’. From the above account, it appears that the epitaph for the glorious empire had been written a century ago. It was in 1857 that a mortifying burial was given to it.
Though the author was not a professional writer, there is a brilliant sheen in the skill of his narration. The book weaves together the visual and textural histories that underscore the dynamics between the rebels and the oppressors in the mid-19th century episode. The dexterity of the author literally takes the reader to that incredible era. Translator RanaSafvi has strenuously translated the Urdu version of the book into English, reflecting its pristine spirit and literary merit.
(The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based writer. He can be contacted on [email protected] Ph: 90666-85460)