Everyone can now read this breathtaking eyewitness account of the 1857 mutiny

A ringside view from a poet and official in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court, now translated into English.

The evening the emperor left the Qila and reached Humayun’s tomb, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan’s servant came to my father at midnight and gave him a message.

“Why are you waiting free of care in your house? The emperor has left the Qila and the locals are fleeing the city. For god’s sake, leave your house and depart from the city with your family.”

“Can’t you see that the city is being murdered? I am going out of the city with my family. You can send the women of your family along with mine.”

Nawab Hamid Ali Khan’s house was near the Kashmiri Darwaza, but a month earlier he had rented a house in our mohalla.

After this message, everyone left the house in whatever clothes he or she was wearing. My mother didn’t even pick up a ring from her jewellery in her state of panic. My wife had stitched a mattress and bolster in which she had stuffed the valuable clothes she had got in her trousseau, along with her jewellery. She spread the mattress in the cart and kept the bolster beside her.

Thus, my parents, my wife, all my siblings and all the women of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan’s house went to Matia Mahal to my in-laws’ house.

My mother and Nawab Hamid Ali Khan’s wife told my father-in-law’s elder wife, jagirdar of Sadirpur and Raispur villages, “Begum Sahiba, why are you sitting here? Pack up and leave with your children. This is not the time to sit in your house. We have come to take you along with us.”

She agreed to come with us. I pleaded with my father-in-law, Nawab Amir Mirza Khan, “For god’s sake, please come away with us.”

By 1 am, arrangements had been made for travel. My in-laws and children came to Matia Mahal Phatak. My younger brother-in-law, Kazim Mirza, was sitting in my father-in-law’s lap. We reached Matia Mahal Darwaza, conversing with each other. Here, we met an unforeseen calamity. A woman named Kilo was sitting in a state of majzuba just in front of the Darwaza. As soon as she saw my father-in-law, she called out loudly, “Miyan Amir Mirza sahib, where are you going? God has not given permission for you to leave. Have you forgotten?”

As soon as these words left her lips, Amir Mirza Sahib’s feet became glued to the ground and he told Kilo, “Undoubtedly, I have erred.”

The carriage driver was ordered to return to the house at once. I pleaded with them for a long time, others asked them too, but my father-in-law refused to listen. We all begged him to have mercy on the family of fifty people, to come along with us.

He kept saying, “It is not god’s will.”

Another catastrophe struck us at this time. Miyan Nasiruddin sahib, my father-in-law’s maternal cousin, came and said, “Bhai Sahib, please come back. Come to my house. There are some European women hiding there. They are saying that you have nothing to fear. They will plead your case to the British and save you.”

Hearing this, my father-in-law’s mind was set at ease and he told me, “Son, you go. I can’t bring myself to leave.”

There was nothing I could do but leave with the women of my house. He returned to his house with his family.

I took my family and the women of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan’s house to my maternal grandmother’s house near Dilli Darwaza. It was 2 am. Some of my other family members were also gathered there. There were 200 men and women altogether in the haveli of Hakim Momin Ali Khan.

Indian Mutiny: Map showing position of troops on May 1, 1857. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Indian Mutiny: Map showing position of troops on May 1, 1857. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

We prepared to leave the city at dawn. My wife had not come with me and had instead gone back with her parents. I sent my younger brother, Umrao Mirza, to their house to ask whether they would send her with me. She would share my state of affairs. But if they wanted to keep her with them then, May God protect you! We would be considered separated for life.

My brother went and relayed my message to my father- in-law. He said that I could take his daughter wherever I wanted, as he had no rights over her. The women of her house kept asking her not to go, but my brother put my wife in a palanquin and brought her to me.

We all left the city and came out of the Dilli Darwaza.

The ground in front of Dilli Darwaza was like the day of resurrection.

There were thousands of purdahnasheen women, tiny children, young and old men pouring out of the city in a state of panic. No woman remembered to veil herself. A few pious women were walking barefoot with just a chador to cover themselves.

Wretchedness had spread on delicate ladies

A pallor was seen on moon-like faces

Woe the impropriety of the veiled women
Doomsday had come before its time

How do I describe the turn of fate?

Oh! That burning sand and barefoot helplessness

After a lot of tribulation, our caravan of 200 people reached the barfkhana. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan sahib had already taken the entire barfkhana on rent. We spent the evening there, sans food or water. In the morning, some efforts were made to provide food to the group.

I asked my wife if she had brought any jewellery with her. She replied, “Except for the name of god, I have nothing with me.”

“Whatever jewellery and clothes I brought to my grandmother’s house were left there. My grandmother said, ‘O foolish girl, what are you doing? Don’t you know that such possessions are the enemy of life! Bandits will loot you for them. Your husband will be killed. Throw them away as a sacrifice for your life.’ She kept my jewellery in a house where other noblemen had kept their costly possessions. That place can only be accessed by someone who knows about it.”

I was very troubled upon hearing this, as I didn’t know how we would survive without money. After a while, I remembered something and told my family to hurry up while I went ahead to make arrangements for our journey.

I left the barfkhana and hurried to my house via Ajmeri Darwaza. The canopied bed was intact. I quickly started stripping it of the silver plating. I took whatever I could in my state of anxiety. I managed to strip around 1.5 kg or more of silver from it, which I tied in a bedsheet. In the storeroom, I found a bundle with around four or five do-shaalas (double shawls, normally worn by men), angarkhas and handkerchiefs with silver and gold embroidery on them. I picked those up and left the house again.

When I was leaving, I found a blind relative, his wife and another woman standing in the portico.

“What are you doing here?” I asked them.

“We have come to seek shelter with you,” he said. “Where are you going?”

I described my circumstances and asked them to come along.

He said, “I am blind. How can I go? Leave me here in your house.”

I showed them into the house and told them where the food was kept. It would be enough for two or three months.

I left the house with my bundle. By the time I reached the end of my mohalla, the bundle had started to feel too heavy, and I realized that I would not be allowed to reach the barfkhana with it as someone was sure to loot it on the way. The Gujjar bandits and Mewati villagers were killing and looting anyone who set foot outside the city. They were even stealing the clothes off one’s back. I thought of returning to my house and leaving the bundle there, but at that moment I spotted a friend, Jauhri Kilomal, who was also a resident of the area.

I asked him to take my bundle to his house. “If it escapes being looted, I will come and take it; otherwise it is an alm in lieu of my life,” I said.

Kilomal made excuses and refused to take it, but I kept insisting, and we finally reached Ajmeri Darwaza. By now the populace of the city was leaving.

The entire area outside the Dilli Darwaza of Paharganj and Jaisinghpura was like a jungle crawling with people.

I somehow managed to reach the barfkhana with the silver. I took it to a bania’s shop and asked him to give me provisions in its place.

He said, “I will give you 12 annas (75 paise) for this.”

I gave him the silver and took back 4 annas cash. I bought some earthen vessels and rations with the rest.

I gave the vessels and provisions to my family and asked them to make a simple meal of khichri. My brother filled water from the well and we all ate the khichri.

The city gates had been open till that day. From the next day, all the gates were locked. Those outside stayed outside, and those within remained there.

We could hear sporadic firing. I began worrying about my in-laws and my sister and her family. God knew what was happening with them.

Somehow, the night and the day passed.

Excerpted with permission from Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny, Zahir Dehlvi, translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi, Penguin Books.

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