The great revolt

Dastan-e-Ghadar Zahir Dehlvi, translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi Penguin Random House ₹599  

There is something to be said for commemorations. 1857 was celebrated in 1957 with an official publication commissioned from Surendranath Sen, and in 2007 with exhibitions and William Dalrymple’s biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar, The Last Mughal.

There are well over 200 books in English on 1857, less than 50 in Indian languages. Of these, contemporary notes or diaries are the most interesting, and not all of them are available in English. One such is the book under review.

This is the diary and memoirs of the poet Zahir Dehlvi (his date of birth is given in this book as 1835, elsewhere as 1825.) Dalrymple’s book drew copiously from the second edition of Zahir Dehlvi’s account, published in Lahore in 1955; it was also cited in the bibliography of Sitaram Yechury’s The Great Revolt: a Left Appraisal (2008). This may explain why it was reprinted in India in 2009. Now this superb translation into English by Rana Safvi makes it accessible to a very large number of people.

Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. This would describe only half the book.

I am not sure that the second section, of his days ‘in exile’ is not more fascinating than the first.

It is a portrait of ‘princely India’ in the late nineteenth century, a period which in textbooks is dominated by the story of British India.

Vignettes of life

There are vignettes of courtly patronage, of Urdu shairi as a bond between individuals, and the absence of a narrow sense of community based on religion, across north India and in Hyderabad. ‘Vignettes’, not a narrative. This is a photo-album, capturing moments that Dehlvi thought significant, walking us through the tense days from mid-May 1857 in moment-to-moment detail, then in staccato fashion through eventful days till the capture of the city in September, then skimming over years and decades of his sojourns in Rampur, Alwar, Jaipur, Tonk and Hyderabad.

As a young official of the Mughal court, his familiarity with details of protocol and, more importantly, his affection for the troubled emperor, makes the book vivid in a way that writers who have used his book have never been able to do.

Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal has descriptions of the Phulwalon ki Sair, the relations between emperor, rebel soldiers, the local adventurers, but Dehlvi’s account has an immediacy, and is deeply moving (compare the translation on page 97 of Safvi with that on page 224 of Dalrymple, where the direct speech is rendered as indirect). One of the most poignant sections describes Bahadur Shah’s grief at the killing of Europeans, and his stern injunction “You will not kill anyone, of whatever faith.” Of the rebels, he is quoted as saying, “When they could not stay loyal to their masters, how can I expect any loyalty from them?... After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children.”

Violence and bloodshed

The stories of looting in the city, the purbia soldiers insulting Bahadur Shah, the terrible accident when the magazine in Chandni Chowk blew up, the British storming Kashmiri Gate, the cold-blooded murder of the poets and artists of Kucha Chelan, and their wives committing suicide by jumping into wells are worth reading in this first-hand account.

Some pages are calmer, with instances of justice done, like when Dehlvi was able to put a stop to a Kalinath stealing and killing buffaloes. Dehlvi’s investigation showed that he did this because of having been earlier unjustly deprived of his land; with refreshing glimpses of harmony and mutual respect between communities; of Sheikhawani whose people “are spread all over the world, except in the eastern countries. They work in these countries and bring back their earnings to their land, where they build magnificent houses and mansions.”

Safvi is to be congratulated for her very accessible translation. But it deserved a much more careful presentation.

The biographical note on Dehlvi should have been part of the translator’s introduction, instead of being listed at the end with biographies of three other random individuals—Hakim Ahsanullah Khan and the Rajas of Alwar and Jaipur.

Safvi says that in the 1955 edition some of the headings given by the author were changed; she herself retained some, and changed others; these modifications should have been indicated.

The timeline—which is only of the revolt—should have been extended to cover Dehlvi’s life for the next half-century; a map of the towns he lived in would have helped.

An index always enhances the value of a book; and the endnotes should precede the acknowledgements.

Dastan-e-Ghadar; Zahir Dehlvi, translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi, Penguin Random House, ₹599.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:42:47 PM |

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