Book review

Leaders’ betrayal: Finally, the two Anglo-Sikh wars have been brought to life meaningfully

Amarpal Singh’s two-volume history captures both the events and the reasons behind them.

For half a century until 1849, Punjab was an independent nation – the Sikh Empire – in defiance of Delhi and large parts of what is currently India, then controlled by the British. A decade after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, the British crossed the River Sutlej and occupied Lahore and Multan, only after which was their sovereignty complete. The reason for this reversal of fate is a one-liner every Sikh child grows up learning: our armies were great but our leaders betrayed us. Amarpal Singh, a self-trained historian probes this one line and fleshes out two brilliant volumes on the Anglo-Sikh Wars: First (1845–46) and Second (1848–49).

The volumes are a revelation at many levels, but primarily in seeing how they mark the author’s growth as a historian – right from his sense of purpose, content, style, facts and presentation. The volumes are well referenced but not littered with footnotes, easy to read, neutral in tone when it is so easy to fall prey to Sikh rhetoric, and factually objective.

Facts and factors

Volume 1 is slimmer and mostly factual. An account of the five battles of which in the first two – Mudki and Feroze Shah – the Sikh armies seemed to have the advantage. The course of the war turned in the battle of Bhudowal and then Ailwal, to conclude with the British win at Sabraon and the British crossing over the River Sutlej the boundary between the two kingdoms. It is true that leaders like Lal Singh, Ranjodh Singh were reluctant to fight, Gulab Singh stayed away, but a true hero like Sham Singh Attariwala also emerged from the debris of the last battle.

The fast-paced narrative is a detailed blow by blow account of each campaign, military formation, and battle formations. Amarpal Singh’s sources are the British accounts and a lopsided one titled Waqai Jang-i-Sikhan , by Dewan Ajudhia Parshad, a high-ranking gentleman from Lahore. He uses them interestingly to demonstrate the British pretence of upholding the law while furthering their interest. I did wonder though why Amarpal Singh did not use perhaps the best-known requiem on the war, Shah Mohammad’s Jangnamah.

Volume 2 is a huge step forward in terms of facts, diction and storytelling. It breaks the pattern of focussing on the battles. Instead, it starts with the last Lahore durbar and Duleep Singh signing away the kingdom to the British. After which comes a very helpful extensive introduction to the battles and the timeline. The volume is structured in preludes that sketches the various treaties, insurrections, wars, dissolution and description of battlefields. It is replete with conspiracies and intrigues such as the role of Maharani Jind Kaur and Bhai Maharaj Singh in the Prema Plot to murder Henry Lawrence, the first British Resident at Lahore; the ambiguous and shifting loyalties of the courtiers; the court intrigues like the Gulaba plot, the efforts to buy off influential players on both sides. It provides back stories for example of Multan, its siege, and Lord Dalhousie of the Doctrine of Lapse and much more. No wonder the volume is double the size and an absolute pleasure to read.

Travelling history

While the books are a valuable contribution to both military and Sikh lore, what I found fascinating was another aspect: how they can serve as excellent travel guides, especially in the Malwa. A relatively small state geographically, Punjab (India) is so rich and replete with history and legends that it is possible every second village would have multiple stories of heroism and courage. Yet, the abject neglect of this history is galling, whether in state sponsored museums or public markers such as statues, obelisks, commemorative stones or even Gurdwaras.

While statues remain dusty and dirty, obelisks and commemorative stones are devoid of even bare minimum plaques, Gurdwaras are suffused with history of the SGPC variety – exalted pro-Sikh narratives extremely patchy in facts. Amarpal Singh’s work challenges this symbolic celebration with a real, human history of the times. It presents the face of a deeply fractured Sikh society in the time of immense historical change and realignment.

Of late the Punjab government has sought to develop tourism in the state. Manpreet Badal has sought a resurgence of the pre-colonial history. Navjot Sidhu has sought to restore forts and havelis. These volumes are a ready guide, with GPS coordinates, current site details, and other geo-physical markers. It would be lovely if the Punjab government could use them – at least, Volume 1 – which played out east of River Sutlej, in the Malwa region of Punjab.

The books left one lingering question in my mind. It is a question on what has haunted Punjab ever since the wars – for the last 170 years. What explains the Sikh disdain for the Purbis – the eastern armies from Bengal and Bihar – whom the British used to fight their wars in Punjab? More specifically, why did the Sikhs denounce the Purbis and not their masters, the British? Amarpal Singh is working on a book on the 1857 Mutiny and may answer the query there, but I would have liked it answered in these volumes.

These volumes offer an immense sense of déjà vu for someone trying to understand present-day Punjab. All that was happening back then – betrayal by leaders, recklessness of armed forces, lack of direction on the part of the people – is going on until date. History serves its purpose if it teaches us lessons from the past. Sadly, the volumes show me that Punjab has learnt nothing.

That is exactly why we need to read the effort of a Sikh to own our history and let it not be always told from the point of view of the conquerors. It will be a step forward in reclaiming Punjab, past and present. A huge plus would be if the volumes translate into the state’s developing its tourism circuits based on these blueprints.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on current Punjab.

Disclaimer: Amarpal Singh is a distant relative of the reviewer’s.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.