Literary Review

Through 1857

When Vishnubhat Godse of Versai set off for Hindustan in pursuit of a livelihood to lift his family from acute poverty, little did he expect the adventures in store for him and his elderly paternal uncle. That the duo’s travels through the cities and jungles of India’s heartland would become the first eyewitness account of the 1857 rebellion by an Indian was further still in imagination. This fantastic memoir of a young Brahmin and his uncle, a travelogue from a battleground, offers a unique perspective of the event and reads like a picaresque novel.

There does, in fact, exist a part-fictional version with the creative inputs of Chintaman Vinayak Vaidya, the man responsible for persuading Godse to pen his account. This version, translated in Hindi, was further translated recently as 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising (Harper Perennial, 2011). While it includes bizarre descriptions of Rani Laxmibai’s parade through the streets of Jhansi that are missing in the original, Adventures of a Brahmin Priest (the first English translation of the original text) surprises us with information omitted in Vaidya’s version, such as the impotent men of Jhansi and the ensuing sexual freedom of their women.

While Mazha Pravas — the original Marathi title — reads simply as ‘My Journey’, the travelogue is much more than that. A socio-political treatise of the time by a travelling priest caught in the throes of India’s first war of Independence, Godse would find himself swept along with the tide of the Rebellion. In Bithur when the Peshwa family flees by setting sail on the Ganga; to employment and residence at the palace of Jhansi during its siege; being mistaken for rebels and narrowly escaping the noose to finally ending the journey with a pilgrimage to Kashi, the book is strewn with historical nuggets and observations. Godse has a penchant for an almost omniscient narration whose simple, matter-of-fact style has been skilfully interpreted in English by the translators, Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhale.

Having departed in search of wealth, the two eventually return as penniless as before; they are only richer for the experience. What stands out is Godse’s description of Jhansi and details of Laxmibai’s unusual life (including a cross-dressing husband). Her suicidal thoughts at imminent defeat, hosting a haldi-kumkum ceremony before bravely leading an army of Arabs into battle and then later, found weeping outside Kalpi on getting her period, show her as both a vulnerable woman and a valiant leader.

We see, through Godse’s eyes, the status of widows, and know the price of telescopes (Rs. 2000-2,700), the vast sums of money earned by the wealthy and sexual escapades of Brahmins. Equally interesting is the story of the Gujarati moneylender who demanded that his money be returned with interest after the British looted Jhansi (and got it back) or the fact that “Madrasi” soldiers accompanying British soldiers were given shoot-at-sight orders if the latter were found “polluting” an Indian woman.

The account is both comical (in the thick of the Rebellion “there was no tobacco to chew”) and philosophical (attributing defeat to the killing of Englishwomen and children “war upon women is not the Vedas”). Godse’s concludes that “Thinking about our travels, I have realised that earning money is a difficult thing”. Considering that he has readily squandered money on the Muslim singers of Lucknow, this is both amusing and ironic. Add to that his encounters with Bengali entertainers and hypnotists, and decision to visit Kashi when he could have chosen to turn back leads one to wonder if he had not, indeed, set out for adventure in the first place.

Adventures of a Brahmin Priest (Mazha Pravas); Vishnubhat Godse, Trs Shanta Gokhale & Priya Adarkar, OUP, Rs.650

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Printable version | Jul 20, 2021 9:47:55 PM |

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