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Updated: September 14, 2010 12:36 IST

1857 and the sighs & groans of Delhi

B. Surendra Rao
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The Uprising of 1857 has triggered strong sentiments and spawned lively debates. It has been a subject of scholarly concerns and impassioned invocations, a site of spectacular clash of snarling half-truths and eager political appropriation. If, in the aftermath of the Uprising, the field was almost exclusively occupied by the victorious British, the nationalists grabbed it later with no less alacrity and passion, and this resulted in yet another historiographical divide.

There have, however, been sophisticated departures from the established divide in the overall or specific contexts of the event, but Mahmood Farooqui's book on Delhi in 1857 is at once brilliant and unique in that it gives us a poignant immediacy and feel of one of the sites of the Uprising. The reader is parachuted, as it were, into the besieged city to experience the trauma the people went through in those tumultuous days.

Aspects

The book presents, for the first time, an English translation of the Mutiny Papers on the siege of Delhi in 1857, originally written in Persian and in Shikastah (cursive) Urdu. They represent three aspects of the Uprising: the way it affected the common people; the manner in which the Uprising was organised and managed in the besieged city; and the way Maulvi Baqar, editor of Dehli Urdu Akhbar perceived the events. The documents unfold the overlapping nodes of authority under siege: the Court, the Commander-in-Chief, the Court of Mutineers, and the police that were constantly struggling to maintain order in the face of refractory loyalties of the mutinied soldiers and their intrusive and plundering instincts and habits, and grappling with shortages of food, money, paper, and gun powder, not to speak of the eroding morale and increasing desertions.

Myriad voices

The papers tell us about the unredeemed promises, unpaid salaries, and unclaimed loot. They allow us to eavesdrop into the world of spies, courtesans and prostitutes; they introduce us to the ways of butchers, distillers and sellers of bhang; they give us an idea of the petty domestic infidelities, abductions and elopements, and the ineffective adjudications on them. The reader gets a sense of deja vu as he frequently runs into the picture of a society revelling in corruption even as it is engaged unceasingly in fighting the canker.

The Mutiny Papers turn their antennae to the myriad voices and noises of the city when it was turned upside down — appeals to religion and calls for martyrdom; professions of loyalty and gestures of betrayal; fears of the strong and wails of the weak; moans of pain and screams for help; and a welter of hope and despair. They uncover a palimpsest of experiences and emotions that defies easy generalisations. They capture the sighs and groans of Delhi during the Uprising much the same way the cahiers unravel the moods of the people in France on the eve of the Revolution.

Yet, as Farooqui points out, behind the apparent lawlessness in Delhi there were structures of authority that remained functional, straining themselves to bridle disorder, keeping in check the predatory instincts of the mutinied soldiers or the hated Tilangas, and endeavouring to uphold the bureaucratic traditions of supervision and control. Therefore, as he rightly puts it, the documents not only reflect the moods and predicaments of the Uprising but also constitute “as much a record of rebel governmentality as of medieval and pre-modern modes of governance.”

Crisis

History is normally a heavily mediated recovery of the past, and the historian is its instrument. But Besieged, for a change, transports the reader to the sites of events — in a sort of city-tour — at a time when Delhi was in the throes of an extraordinary crisis. It is eloquent more in the choice of sites and little nudges to draw the reader's attention than in their needless vindication. The poignancy of the story is at times relieved, and sometimes held in high relief, by the quotidian details of human foibles and the comicality of situations. A product of serious research and felicitous translation, the book provides the reader easy access to the ‘besieged city of Delhi' and a freedom to explore it. A commendable effort by the compiler-author.

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