The revolt of 1857 must surely count as one of the most important political events in 19th century world history. For a brief few months, a rag-tag band of soldiers and civilians took on the greatest superpower in the world, and almost managed to pull off one of the greatest revolutions in history.
The revolt formally began when the soldiers of the British barracks at Meerut revolted against their venal bosses, and took over the cantonment on May 10, 1857. They then rode to Delhi, and impossibly, overpowered the British fort at Mehrauli. Moving quickly to the Red Fort, they announced an independent nation, under the sovereignship of Bahadur Shah Zafar, destined to be India’s last non-colonial ruler.
The octogenarian monarch was initially uneasy at this sudden recoronation, but eventually warmed up to the rustic “Purabias,” the denizens from the east who carried with them the frustration of a century of British exploitation that began with Siraj-ud-Daulah’s defeat at the hands of Robert Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
The military revolt, it appeared, had the backing of the peasantry across the Indo-Gangetic plains as well as the indigenous nobility. The former were being starved of their agricultural output in the name of a brutal taxation regime, while the latter were alarmed at the manner in which the East India Company was ousting many of their peers in the name of rulings such as the infamous “Doctrine of Lapse”.
The First War of Independence
Using that arbitrary law, the East India Company, led by Lord Dalhousie, annexed several Indian princely states, most notably the kingdom of Jhansi in 1854. In 1856, India’s most prosperous state, Awadh, was taken over by the Company, without even the fig leaf of the doctrine. The revolt, which would in hindsight be referred to as India’s First War of Independence, was thus foretold by several decades of oppression.
The British responded to this act of defiance by the rebellious soldiers with startling brutality. Using state-of-the art cannonry, they indiscriminately bombed Delhi for months, eventually taking the city over on the 21st of September 1857. The preceding four months of conflict had led to several British casualties, and the vengeance-minded conquerors unleashed unprecedented fury upon the city.
Over 1,400 residents of Delhi were massacred on a single day in the locality of Kucha Chelan alone. Rebels were tied to the mouths of cannons, which were then fired. Mass hangings on peepul trees on the banks of the Yamuna were a common sight. The advancing army destroyed several buildings in the Red Fort and the walled city of Shahjahanabad. Cruelty, it appeared, was the point.
Some of the worst reprisals were visited upon the large extended family of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Red Fort and an adjacent fort in Salimgarh had housed several families related either to the king himself or the descendants of his predecessors (known in local parlance as the salaatin). The British forces killed several male members of Zafar’s household, most notably his two sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan and his grandson Mirza Abu Bakr, who were stripped naked and shot at a gate of the city that still bears the name “Khooni Darwaza” (blood-soaked gate).
The rest of the family was either exiled to Rangoon with the monarch, or more commonly, driven out into the hinterland. Unaccustomed to surviving by their wits, many perished. The others ended up eking out sorry livings, concealing their royal identity, which had quickly transformed from a mark of pride to an insult. Women were sold into slavery, children were taken from their mothers’ embrace by anyone who cared to, and the Mughal Empire dissolved into the atmosphere like smoke from a pyre.
The plight of the women
In 1922, a writer named Khwaja Hasan Nizami published a book titled Begumat Ke Aansoo (Tears of the Ladies). Nizami was a popular figure in Delhi, having written several books and essays. He was a polymath of sorts, part Sufi, part essayist, and had even made a name as a satirist. His serious works also included a few tracts on the 1857 rebellion, but Begumat ke Aansoo broke new ground, offering stark testimonials from actual members of the Mughal household about their suffering in the aftermath of 1857.
Nizami collected the testimonials over years, and his book lays out in stark detail the suffering of a number of individuals, many of them women. The stories of their plight are harrowing and granular, each tale with its own specificity. Many of them begin with a background of an idyllic life, rudely disrupted by events the women (and some men) had no control over, and end in individualised accounts of tribulations and sorrow. In a style that recalls more recent testimonial literature from Chile and Argentina, these stories flesh out the trauma of late 1857 Delhi in a way no historical account can.
A book to treasure
As the translator of Begumat ke Aansoo, Rana Safvi has a historian’s acumen and a storyteller’s flair, and her rendition of Nizami’s book into English brings it to life in an accessible manner. Her footnotes provide valuable annotation and historical context, and at times, refer to her earlier translation of Zahir Dehlavi’s account of the 1857 revolt, which she had titled Dastan-e Ghadar (The Tale of the Mutiny, Random House, 2017). The translator’s note at the beginning of the book provides important insight, not only into the revolt itself but also to Nizami’s book, which she notes, was published thirteen times by 1946, and translated into Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bangla and Marathi.
Safvi is on her way to becoming one of the most important contemporary historians of 19th century Delhi. Be it her translation of Syed Ahmed Khan’s Asar us Sanadid (Signs of Eminence), a geographical exploration of pre-1857 Delhi, or her “When Stones Speak” trilogy historicising Delhi’s monuments, her work has become an important and essential part of the narrative of the last vestiges of precolonial India, before the British Crown annexed the subcontinent in June 1858.
Some of the stories in Nizami’s narrative take on near mythical dimensions, well aided by Safvi’s translation. One such story describes a woman clad in green clothing who fought alongside men in the defence of Delhi. One can imagine how the story must have energised a defeated population, with its accounts of valour and sacrifice.
Others begin as droll love stories, such as “The Grasscutter Prince,” which speaks of the protagonist’s flamboyant romance with, and subsequent marriage to, a woman named Durdana, before the story returns to its predictable course of death, defeat and oppression with the defeat of the rebellion. The earliest chapters in the book provide an understanding of the system of residence and cohabitation that the network of royal families produced before everything fell apart.
Reading all the stories together produces a heaviness in the heart; one would be best advised to consume this book in smaller doses. However, each story, despite tracking similar historical grooves, is a standalone narrative.
Books such as Begumat ke Aansoo need to be read and remembered. Rana Safvi’s translation has commendably brought Nizami’s account to a global audience. In addition, her empathic translation, footnotes and translator’s foreword place it in an understandable context for the neophyte.
Raza Mir is the author of Murder at the Mushaira and Iqbal: Poet of the East.
Tears of the Begums: Stories of Survivors of the Uprising of 1857, Khwaja Hasan Nizami, translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi, Hachette.