R.V. SMITH recalls the story of how a strange group of people, all involved in the 1857 uprising, used to assemble during this time each year

Up to Partition time a strange group functioned in Delhi. They got active from May 1 to recall the events of the 1857 uprising, whose anniversary falls on May 10. Hakim Faiyaz Hussain, Master Ayodhyanath, Chowdhury Abdul Sattar, Lala Brijbhan, Maulana Haroon Baksh, Lala Chunnilal, George Newton, Patterson Singh, Joseph John, Seth Panna Lal and Sadar Joginder Singh would meet every evening after the lamplighters had made their round of the Walled City.

Old haunts

They would then visit their old haunts associated with the uprising. It was not possible to visit all the places the same day, so they would go to only one or two, covering the whole gamut of the experience up to September 1857. There was the shop of a Mithaiwallah whose grandfather and father had taken part in the uprising.

This sweet seller was 88 years old and remembered that a man named Chingga would come every evening to the family shop to report the latest buzz. He had even taken part in the relay to distribute the lotus and the chhappati, which was the signal for the uprising in towns and villages. The relay extended right up to Bengal.

George Newton recalled that his grandfather was an Anglo-Indian officer attached to Gen Hersey, who had effected the arrest of Mangal Pandey, when that hero had exhorted other sepoys to disobey the order at Barrackpore to bite the greased rifle cartridges, as they were suspected to contain the fat of cows and pigs, abhorrent to Hindus and Muslims, respectively.

Chowdhury Abul Sattar's father had heard that a full-scale revolution was around the corner and the Raj would soon be back in Moghul hands. Hakim Faiyaz Hussain's maternal grandfather had treated a man who had been injured while practicing fighting with a sword and when asked what was the purpose of the exercise, had divulged the plan to put Badshah Zafar back on the throne.

Seth Panna Lal's father had been persuaded to lend a large sum of money to a raja who was training his retainers to fight the ‘goras'. Lala Chunnilal's ancestor related an incident in which a Sayyid and a Rajput saw a snake under a banyan tree in the wilderness. The Sayyid picked up a stone to kill it, but the Rajput stopped him, saying that it was sacred to Mahesh and should be allowed to go.

Battle cries

Lala Brijbhan's grandfather had seen a neelkanth (bluejay) swooping down on a fish and carrying it away to the shikara of a temple, signifying that Shivji himself was restive to uproot the firangis. Maulana Haroon Bakshi's predecessor had seen jinns descending on Sooni Masjid at midnight and rising battle cries, even as their shrouded forms rushed hither and thither. Patterson Singh's granduncle had been out for a shoot in the jungle where he met an old white-bearded man riding a white horse. The man shouted to Joshua Patterson to save his bullets for the month of May, when he and his brethren would face murder and mayhem.

Joseph John's grandmother had been told by a fakir to flee to Punjab if she wanted herself and her family to survive the bloody turmoil that was soon to break out. Master Ayodhyanath swore that his ancestor had seen the ghost of a headless Englishman shrieking in pain near the church on the city's outskirts. Sardar Joginder Singh recalled how his father had been asked by a granthi to keep his sword ready for the civil war that was sure to break out in May. All these men visited the sites of the uprising right from the Ridge to Badli-ki-Sarai, where a famous battle was fought, and then Kashmere Gate and its environs. They made it a point to meet at the sweet seller's to relate their experiences.