Sitting in a school bus at the age of nine or ten, I remember being astonished by Jules Verne’s brilliance. I was reading his 1864 classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth – the adventures of Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel as they crack a code in a runic manuscript that takes them to an obscure volcano in Iceland. Verne then was my guide to the vast world and even science. Simply put, he was my hero.
After Around the World ion Eighty Days and Five Days in a Balloon, however, many years were to pass before I was to read another Jules Verne. It was while rummaging through through the shelves of my university library that I found a work of his I had never seen or heard of – Demon of Cawnpore. The cover featured an elephant crushing a group of men dressed like soldiers. I was certain that the demon in the title was a reference to Nana Saheb, who had grown notorious in Europe for his role in the “Sepoy Mutiny”. But this book?
Demon of Cawnpore was published in 1880 as La Maison à Vapeur – often translated to English as The Steam House. It has been known variously as Tigers and Traitors and The End of Nana Sahib. It was the twentieth novel in Voyages Extraordinaire series, Verne’s lifelong project.
A passage to India
Like most of Verne’s novels, Demon of Cawnpore was cooked out of rigorous research, fertile and almost child-like imagination, and, most important, the drive to explore. Certainly, it is marked by a riveting plot, a host of quirky characters, and precise writing, but I found it to be a thrilling entry point into European attitudes towards India: fascination about its landscapes, awe and at times exasperation with its history, and, at other times, a straightforward “fear of the other”.
Writing about India was not new to Verne by this time. One leg of Phileas Fogg’s adventure in Around the World in Eighty Days is set in India. It is in Eastern India that he saves Aouda, a Parsi businessman’s daughter, from an attempt to force death by “Sati” on her. India’s presence in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is still more fascinating. It is revealed only in another novel, The Mysterious Island, that Prince Dakkar, who had morphed into Captain Nemo, was revealed to be Tipu Sultan’s nephew in disguise. However, unlike these two novels, Demon takes places entirely on the subcontinent.
It begins with a chapter titled “Two Thousand Pounds for a Head” – this, roughly, is what the book is woven around. It is 1867. The revolt has neatly and conclusively been crushed, all impulses quelled. The Raj has taken over. The leader of the revolt – as it was believed – the Demon of Cawnpore (given this name for his supposed role in the butchering of British women and children in Bibighar), Nana Saheb, is on the run. State authorities have put a price on the former Maratha prince’s head.
Using this canvas, Verne explores the landscape of India, or rather, paints it as he imagined it from his readings. For instance, after revealing that Nana Saheb was hiding near the caves of Ellora, Verne pounces on the opportunity and writes on the Kailasa Temple in Ellora with reverential detail: “Let any one picture to himself an isolated block 120 feet in height by 600 in circumference. This block, with a bold audacity almost incredible, has been hewn out of the basaltic rock, and isolated in a space or court 360 feet long and 186 wide.”
Miles away from Nana Saheb’s (or Dandou Pant’s) shenanigans, the French narrator of the book, Maucler, along with his friends – Banks, an engineer, Captain Hood, and Edward Munro – begin their travels through the Northern plains of India from Calcutta. They do this in what is called a Steam House – first seen in Chapter V, titled “The Iron Giant”.
Banks provides an Indian inspiration for the invention, but Verne is fairly clear that the innovation which made this possible was a product of the Industrial Revolution. The vehicle is a steam-driven metal contraption shaped like an elephant – Oriental in its aesthetic but robust in an English way.
To Verne, this was where the schism between the two civilisations lay. Sure, the Kailasa Temple was majestic in its execution and incredible in its audacity. The artists must have truly loved the rocks and the gods that they were transformed into. But what utilitarian purpose did these sculptures actually serve?
Meanwhile, the likes of Macadam, Newcomen, and Watt had given the world roads and the trains. And in Verne’s book, further transformation was at hand, from coal to steam to running mega vehicles. Yet, when the Steam House is revealed to the reader, the narrator interjects, “But what was the good of this artificial elephant? Why have this fantastic apparatus, so unlike the usual practical inventions of the English?”
Verne could easily have remarked what Kipling would say later: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Such a cultural gulf between two worlds must certainly erupt in conflict, and so it did, in the form of the 1857 revolt. In encyclopaedic style, Verne dedicates two whole chapters to the background and history of the revolt, even making an attempt to put himself in the shoes of the Indian “Sepoys”, “Ryots”, and “Zamindars”.
Sitting in Banks’s marvellous invention, the travellers arrive successively at the spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Gaya, the tomb of Sher Shah Sur at “Sasseram”, the “Manmenka Ghat” of Benares, and the amazing mosque in the background built by “Aurangzebe”. At Allahabad, they admire the fort built by “Sultan” Akbar (also featuring “Feroze Shachs’ Lat”). That Verne’s research into India’s history was deep is revealed in a moment in Allahabad. Mme. Rousselet, who is seated in the nether carriages of the elephant, reads a passage from the Life of Hionen Thsang on the Plain of Almsgiving. In Lucknow, they visit the La Martiniere (which incidentally features in Kipling’s Kim though with a different name) and, in “Cawnpore”, Bibighar itself.
In all these stations, while expressing wonderment, Verne also strategically rehashes traditional stereotypes of South Asians. In a memorable paragraph describing the crowds of Indians when the Steam House is approaching Gaya, he writes: “Those in the foremost rank threw up their arms in the air, stretched towards the elephant, bowed down, knelt, cast themselves prostrate on the ground, and distinctly manifested the most profound adoration.”
It takes little time to realise that the scene is reminiscent of the Jagannath Yatra in Puri, which led to the coining of the term “Juggernaut”. At Varanasi, Verne makes Maucler remark thus about the Bicheshwar (Vishveshwara Temple): “This – a shapeless stone, looked upon as part of the body of this the most savage god of the Hindu Mythology – covers a well of stagnant waters which possess, they say, miraculous virtues.”
Taming a people
The political message in the novel is fairly clear: the Indians were a grand people. They manufactured silks like no others and erected pagodas like nowhere else. But there was some need of moulding – they must be taught not to prostrate before lifeless objects and much less worship depictions of ugly parts of the body. They must be tamed, if you will.
Not just the nation but even the nature of India needed some taming. The terrain of the country was being integrated with the larger world through railway lines, but taming involved more obvious and tangible bloodshed as well. In a chapter titled “Captain Hood’s Prowess” a peacock is killed by the narrator.
When the fact of the peacock’s sacred status in India is raised, Captain Hood is quick to say, “This one is killed at all events – we shall eat him devoutly if you like, but devour him somehow.” Not much later, in perhaps what is one of the tensest moments in the novel, Captain Hood himself shoots a ferocious tiger in the eye. Verne writes with much drama and excitement. Perhaps he had in his mind the price that the skins of these beasts were worth and the bounties that were given away for the game of hunting.
However in terms of the plot, the pilgrimages, walksm and safaris are digressions only. The real game involves Nana Saheb. Capturing him matters to all the characters in some way or the other. We are made to sympathise most with Colonel Munro, whose wife is killed in Bibighar.
This was where I came back to loving Verne all over again. While he urges his readers to root for the heroics of the dashing white men, he also paints Nana as a revolutionary. One who deceives, sabotages, and indulges in treachery, but a revolutionary nonetheless – and an underdog. Thus it is that Verne achieves a balance without siding with either party, a balance between research and romance, a balance, too, between history and fiction.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.