Excerpt: City of My Heart by Rana Safvi
A moving excerpt from a book featuring four translations of Urdu narratives of what happened in Delhi after the events of 1857
The Princes Get Dragged through the Market
This Dehli, the heart of India, its capital, was flourishing, and when the flame of the Mughals began to flicker, and the empire was teetering on the precipice of destruction, the first change to be noticed was in the lifestyle of its people. Both, rulers and their subjects, were destroyed.
A year before the mutiny, a few princes had gone for shikar into the jungle and were killing doves and other birds that were resting on the branches of the trees, shielding themselves from the hot summer sun. A fakir dressed in rags presented his salaam with great respect and said, ‘Miyan Sahibzado’n, why are you tormenting these innocent birds? What wrong have they done to you? They are also living creatures. They too can feel pain like you but are helpless to express it. Show them mercy, for they too are part of this country and deserving of royal clemency.’
The eldest prince, who was eighteen years old at the time, felt embarrassed and kept his slingshot away. The younger one, Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk, got very angry and said contemptuously, ‘Go away, you! A worthless man like you wants to preach to us? Who are you to tell us what to do? Everyone hunts and we are not committing a sin.’
he fakir said with humility, ‘Saheb-e-Alam, don’t get angry. We must only hunt in a manner that even if one animal is killed, a few others can feed people from it. What can you achieve by killing these tiny birds? Even if you kill twenty of them, a man won’t be full.’
Mirza Nasir was further enraged and, aiming his slingshot at the fakir’s leg, let fly a stone at his knee. The fakir fell face forward and cried out, ‘Oh! You have broken my leg.’
Both the princes mounted their horses and left for the Qila. The fakir dragged himself to a nearby cemetery and kept repeating, ‘How can a dynasty flourish with heirs so merciless? Young Prince, you have broken my leg; may God break your leg too and force you to drag yourself around like me.’
A year later, the sound of cannons and gunshots filled Shahjahanabad and heaps of corpses were lying everywhere. Dehli was being deserted. A few Mughal princes were seen riding in a dishevelled and bewildered state from the Lal Qila towards Paharganj. They were being chased by twenty-five British soldiers on horseback, who let loose a volley of gunshots. Very soon, the horses and princes were writhing in pain on the ground. When the British soldiers came close, they saw that two princes were dead – but another was still breathing. One of the soldiers pulled him to his feet and found that he was unhurt except for a few scratches from falling off the horse. But he was frightened out of his wits by the turn of events.
They tied his hands to the reins of his horse and sent him in captivity to the camp in the company of two soldiers. The camp was on the ridge, where Indian soldiers who were supporting the British had gathered. When the senior officer was told that the prince was Nasir-ul-Mulk, the grandson of the Emperor, he was very happy and asked that he be kept in safe captivity.
When the rebel sepoys started fleeing in disarray and the British army entered the city in triumph, Bahadur Shah was arrested from the premises of Humayun’s tomb and the lamp of the Timurid dynasty was snuffed out. The jungles around Dehli started getting filled with Mughal princesses in disarray, their hair and faces dishevelled and uncovered. Fathers were slaughtered in front of their children, while mothers saw their sons writhing in the throes of death in the dust.
Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk was tied with ropes and was sitting at the ridge when a Pathan soldier came to him and quietly said, ‘Run away, I have taken permission from Saheb to release you. Go before they catch you again.’
The poor Mirza was at a loss for he had never travelled on foot. However, his survival instinct was strong and, thanking the Pathan, he set off. He walked aimlessly for a mile; his feet began to get blisters, his throat was parched, and his tongue swelled up. When he was unable to bear it anymore, he collapsed under the shade of a tree and looked imploringly towards the sky, ‘O Lord, why has this calamity struck us? What should I do? Where can I go?’
When he looked up, he saw a dove on the tree hatching eggs in her nest. Seeing her ease and freedom, the prince said enviously, ‘O dove, you are a thousand times better than me. At least you sit without a care in your nest. There is no place for me in this whole wide world.’
The prince spied signs of habitation in the distance and, gritting his teeth, decided to move towards it. The blisters on his feet were bleeding, but he somehow managed to reach. Here, he was witness to a macabre spectacle. Hundreds of villagers surrounded a platform on which a thirteen-year-old girl sat in a state of complete shock. Her ears were bleeding from where her earrings had been wrenched off, and the villagers were laughing at her. As soon as Mirza and the girl laid eyes on each other, they started screaming in shock. The girl was his sister. They embraced each other and wept bitterly. The princess had left the Qila with her mother in a bullock cart for Mehrauli to Qutub Saheb’s dargah. Mirza had no idea that she had been caught in this situation.
He asked her, ‘Malika, how are you here?’
‘Aqa ji, the gujjars looted us and killed the servants. People from another village forcibly took Ammajan to their village and these people brought me here. They snatched my earrings and kept slapping my face.’ She was crying so uncontrollably by now that she could not speak any more. The Mirza consoled his sister and started pleading with the villagers to let her go.
The gujjars said with contempt, ‘Go away, you are a fine one to talk like this. If we hit you even once, your neck will be separated from your body. We have bought her from those villagers. Now you can buy her from us.’
Mirza replied, ‘Chaudhry, I am not in any position except to beg for food from you. Please have mercy on us. Until yesterday we were your rulers and you were our subjects. Please don’t torture us. We are going through a bad time. If we come back to power, we will reward you handsomely.’
The villagers laughed loudly, ‘Oho, the Emperor! We will now sell you to the firangi and this girl will serve our village. She will sweep it, look after the cattle and clean up after them.’ They were still talking when the British forces arrived and surrounded the village. They captured the gujjar chief, and the young prince and princess.
Gallows had been erected in the bazaar of Chandni Chowk. Whoever the British pronounced as guilty, was hanged there. Thousands were hanged every day. Some were shot, and others decapitated with swords.
Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk and his sister were presented before the bade Saheb, who pronounced them innocent and let them go.
The two then took employment with a trader. The princess looked after his children and Nasir-ul-Mulk did his chores which included buying provisions for the house. A few days later, the princess died of cholera which was raging in the city. The Mirza then took employment in various houses.
Read more: In search of Delhi’s first city, Mehrauli
Finally, the British government fixed a monthly pension of five rupees for all the Mughal princes, and he could now afford to leave others’ employment.
Some years later, a pir baba, who looked as if he was from the Timurid–Chengezi lineage, could be seen dragging himself around the Chitli Qabr and Kamra Bangash area. He couldn’t move his legs as they were paralysed, and he had a bag around his neck. He would meekly look at passers-by and ask for help. Those who knew who he was would throw a few coins into his bag. When people asked who he was, they were informed that it was Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk, the grandson of Bahadur Shah.
Mirza Nasir had wasted his pension and taken heavy loans against it. Now begging was his only means of living.
Khwaja Hasan Mirza heard this tale from him and some other princes. The fakir’s curse had come true.