Skip to content

Negotiating Literary Silences: The Mutiny of 1857

This text is a long version of the one published in Tehelka.

That the railways influenced the political destiny of the Indian people is a sober thought that does not enter my mind as the Shiv Ganga Express rushes through a dusk landscape towards Varanasi.  For  I have yet not  read “ Wheels of Death; Train journeys in partition narratives,”  by  Chandigarh- based Professor,  Vijaya Singh. Neither have the seven  Taiwanese tourists eating their dinner out of thermacol trays, exclaiming, “ But it is good!”  Nor the suited-booted  execs on the lower berth muttering sales targets.

But when I reach the city of Tulsidas and Kabir, specifically the Benaras Hindu University, I will learn  that in 1947 over 2 lakh people were moved on a relatively small number of trains. Not that the railways were short of them– 10, 000 locomotives were in operation– but figures speak of  colonial callousness in providing safety to a migrating population. They hint at  obstructive institutional control and sabotage at a historical moment  when trains had become the time keepers of the Indian nation. They tell of whole villages seeking security in what was to become a mere  illusion of safety.

In 1856, a year before the Mutiny, Governor General Dalhousie set  the course of the Indian railways in motion not knowing this encounter with technology would lead to  whole scale massacre and carnage  a century later.

But while 20th century Indian literature has been articulate about most major events of the Freedom Struggle (Manto, Kishan Chander, Premchand Tagore, Acharya Chatursen, Prafulla Das et al)  of 1857 itself  there has been singular silence. Why has mainstream literature not sufficiently dealt with that memory?  It is almost as if it has  exorcised that event. Today it is Bollywood coming to the rescue, using Ketan Mehta’s epic `Mangal Pandey’  to represent the subaltern view as stated by,  Angelie Mulchandani of Delhi’s IIT.  As if to make up even Dalit literature is footnoting Mangal’s act of courage with the role of  his associate, Dalit  Matadeen,  and Wesleyan University’s William R. Pinch has a discussion on  the akhadas of sadhu-saints as  instigators of the Meerut uprising of 1857.  But then, 50 years after the event there  had been  an ominous silence.

Literary scholars from different parts of the globe affiliated to the Association of Commonwealth Literature painfully lament  this in the holy city of Varanasi.  Some conjecture the events were repressed and relegated as in the case of trauma. Or the fear of incurring the displeasure of colonial masters.  Some conjecture literary amnesia prevailed because of the control of the Bengali intelligentsia,  themselves committed to colonial rule which they perceived as emancipating. It is the eyewitness accounts translated into Hindi by Amritlal Nagar, a century after the event,  as `Ankhon dekha Gadar’, in  memoirs collected as `Gadar ke Phool’ that  we have to go by. Therefore  this august  Seminar in mid January 2007–“ 1857 and After: Colonialism, Violence and Literature.”  continues the battle to correct a historical wrong and it is no accident that Varanasi was chosen as the venue for  Hindi and Urdu were the 2 main spoken languages of the uprising.

Says  Professor Harish Trivedi, currently Indian Chapter President of ACLALS, “Shameful that the events of 1857 have largely been written by people who never knew a single Indian language,  or visited a single Indian archive.” The poetic resonance of “khub ladi mardani woh tho jhansi wali rani thi” rings truer in local dialect than  the gross annotated text–“ Main apni Jhansi nahin dega” a sentence attributed to the Rani  in the conqueror’s version and tongue. Were it not for  Mahashweta devi’s seminal work  the Rani may not have been lifted from this travesty of reference.

It was Veer Savarkar who first described the Sepoy Mutiny as a War of Independence. Violence is inherent in the idea of colonialism To describe the Freedom Struggle as non- violent would be to ignore these impetuses, and to isolate emerging patterns of colonial violence from their repartees.  It was the seeds  of this that germinated into the Gadar Party and subsequently in the acts of Azad and Bhagat to erupt in the violence that accompanied the Quit India movement of 1942. Thus 1857 was not a dot, an isolated event,  but a line, explains Professor R.K Mishra of B.H.U.

But  a good historical novelist  must execute a fine balance said Keki Daruwalla in exemplifying the work of writer Manohar Mulgaonkar. He has to transcend the trap of being burdened with  the narration of facts yet being rooted in them, just  as Mulgaokar carries his message unequivocally in his moving account of Nana Sahib’s  rise and tragic fall in “ The Devil’s Wind.”

To correct the imperfections of recall, to recover and rediscover literature’s response to that hour 160 years after, papers were presented by Fulbright scholar Karen Volland Waters in, “ Harems and Cannibals: Images of 19th century western colonial power”;   by G.L. Gautam in  “Karl Marx and Frederic Engels on the Colonial question in Marxist Epistemology” that elaborated on Marx’s famous Letter on India to the New York Daily Tribune. It was also done through references to   Versaiker’s “Maajha Pravaas” and Ruskin Bond’s “Flight of the Pigeons”. In  Dinabandhu Mitra’s “Neeldarpan”, to Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s novel, “Anand Math”, and even  to William Dalrymple’s “The Last Moghal”.

In 1857 protest  was strongest in Avadh, yet surprisingly contemporary writers chose to be silent. It was  through the testimony of oral songs that  the deeds of the heroes have been valorized.  Using the metaphor of the city, Soofiya Siddique’s “ Violence, Memory and Contol: The City and the Revolt of 1857” mapped the articulation of loss through the  landscape. In 1824 Bishop Heber passing through Lucknow had called the Imambaras the best architectural  structures in the world, but by 1859,  Ghalib was to mourn them. Lucknow University Professor Ranu Unniyal’s “ After 1857; Culture and confrontation and the literature on Lucknow.” discussed the significance of violence in the  writings of Abdul Halim Sharar and Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Siddique said that from then on the  literature of Luck now was basically a lament Much  like the humming of a  train, I think.

But for evidence of that middle voice, the intimate voice,  it would be the oral and written literature of the dialects that would be the authentic heartbeat stated Professor Vijay Mishra of Murdoch University, Perth, in “ Years after 1857 when the Subaltern spoke.” Translating a current  rendition of Bhojpuri– `coup maar dis’ and the response, `yahi time raha coup maarne ka’, he chuckled at the inventive turn of phrase. It is the local idiom, the play with words, of tradesmen and hawkers, as in Akbar Jahangirabadi’s  “ laila ki unglia, Majnoon ki pasliya, lay lo kakdiyan” that evocatively capture moods of the times more than any formal tongue.

But though there are not many literary sources, through the inversion of visual records much can be read,   said Paris University’s Professor E Hanquart Turner. One of the first historical books on the Mutiny  to have been written was a 666 page tome with 82 engravings by Charles Ball. It was published in London. In making an Iconographic Analysis of the engravings she  showed how the very  bias of their artistic rendition spoke volumes. In them Indians  were depicted as decadent  and backward in contrast to the enlightened British mind. Indian monarchs were over- bedecked with ornamentation and pearls, profligate and  effete. Take the case of Bahadur Shah Zafar and his young wife who appear a strange couple indeed. When contrasted with the almost meek and non-descript portraiture of British Governor General Canning and Lord Palmerston the Mughal Emperor appears feeble, his wife with a full pretty face, representing a fossilized aristocracy that behaved as if the city belonged to them. Battle scenes have a dramatic quality in which natives are  veteran carnivores, with rolling eyes full of  naked savagery, almost justifying the future onset of evangelical zeal to rescue natives.

Even in landscapes a subtext emerges. “ View of  Bombay showing Fort”  or “ View of Madras” or “The Residency: Lucknow”  are images of tranquility–a faux tranquility– that surprisingly reflects no  simmering of imminent revolt. They have the timeless look of gazing through  colonnaded  verandahs. Daniels prints too present scenes of idyllic repose, almost pastoral in rendition.

And so,  history is not only what happens but how it is narrated. Memory is perpetuated in its construct.  Though the truth of literature may not correspond to the truth of history,  says Trivedi, in its untruths it carries the real and perceived, while history in articulating facts sometimes conveys the imperfect.  And so the time has then come for writers to  put pen to paper and rewrite some of  those momentous events of  history, namely  of the War of 1857, to construct as it were a version that is of one’s own.

Manju Kak