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A priest as witness

What was 1857 like for the defeated? A Konkani Brahmin’s account has the answers.

books Updated: Apr 29, 2011 21:02 IST

1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising
Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar
Translated by Mrinal Pande
Harper Perennial
Rs 250
pp 236

After a conflict, the victor writes the master narrative. This is called history. The vanquished leave behind stirring tales and songs of resistance and loss. This is the folk tradition, the opposite of formal history. But no reading of history is complete without it. As we revalue the conflict of 1857 from ‘mutiny’ to ‘first war of independence’ and settle on the morally neutral ‘rising’, we are trying to arrive at a fair reading of history. At this time, an English translation of Majha Pravas, an Indian eyewitness account of the rising, is enormously valuable.

1857 is a many-faceted jewel — simultaneously a pilgrim’s travelogue, war diary, subaltern account and mainstream history. The diarist Vishnu Bhatt Godshe, scion of a bankrupt rural Konkani Brahmin family, travels to Hindustan (central and north India) to make quick money as a priest in the princely states.

But Ram Kaka, who accompanies him, had served for years as a senior priest in Jhansi and Bithur, the home of Peshwa Nana Sahib. Ram Kaka’s assistant there was Moropant Tambe, who used to bring his little daughter Chhabili to the yagnashala to play. In 1857, we find Chhabili married and bearing a new name — Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi.

So Vishnu Bhatt the villager has privileged access to royalty. He also has a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The mutiny erupts about his ears and every town he visits — after consulting the almanac for an auspicious date — turns into a raging battlefield.

In Jhansi, he survives 11 nights of terror bombardment in which British forces use anti-personnel munitions against civilians, as in the London Blitz and the fire-bombing of Dresden. He describes organised murder and pillage in Jhansi and Bithur, house to house — gold and silver earmarked for whites, brassware, utensils and food for southern native troops, clothes and textiles for Hyderabadis. British accounts gloss over these inglorious campaigns, preferring to focus on their gallantry in Kanpur, Lucknow and Delhi.

Vishnu Bhatt’s account is patently fair. He says that against public will, the Company dealt abominably with the Indian states, especially Jhansi, where Laxmibai had ended a legacy of misrule. At their last meeting, after the fall of Jhansi, she told him that if the British had accepted her simple request to travel to Kashi after her husband died, she would have been a tonsured widow living on two fistfuls of rice a day, and not a warrior queen. At the same time, Vishnu Bhatt says that the murder of English women and children in Kanpur “blackened the face of every Indian” and the war of independence lost its moral right to victory. In 1857, it appears, no one had their hands clean.

Also read
The last mughal: William Dalrymple on the bloody battle of 1857 that destroyed Delhi, and its indecisive ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Thanks to this excellent translation from Hindi and Marathi by Mrinal Pande, Vishnu Bhatt’s travelogue through the heartland of the rising, from Konkan to Ayodhya via Jhansi, Indore, Gwalior, Bithur, Kashi and Lucknow, is now accessible to international scholarship. It should be studied for deviations from the British master narrative, for the truth lies between propaganda and silence.

For instance, the rising is believed to have been sparked off by the forcible use of cartridges laced with animal fat. But Vishnu Bhatt writes of a much larger problem. The Governor General had called an emergency meeting of all Indian princes in Calcutta, where he announced 84 new rules attacking the personal laws of Hindus and Muslims. These were to be promulgated to troops by all commanders at 10 am on June 10, 1857. And at that hour, every cantonment in British India rose in revolt. The rising was well-coordinated and the British knew it was coming.

1857 is a gold mine for the history buff but there’s a lot here for the general reader, too. Insightful gossip about royalty, such as why Laxmibai’s husband was a cross-dresser, the cosmopolitan vivacity of what is now small-town India, the beauty of the high roads in the flowering season, the affable charm of the bandits who haunted them … And there’s a fantastic account of Laxmibai’s typical day, which began with weightlifting, wrestling and steeplechasing, all before breakfast.

Vishnu Bhatt’s account has taken 150 years to reach a world readership and there must be many more mutiny texts lying forgotten in the Indian languages. If Mrinal Pande’s translation is successful internationally, other translators will bring them out into the open. And the silence of the vanquished of 1857 will finally be broken.

( Pratik Kanjilal is the publisher of The Little Magazine )