Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Kim's Review: 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising

It is true that History is written (dictated) by the victors and extremely true in the case of the Great Uprising of 1857. Every available account is from the British perspective and it is only now that a few books have come into the market with an Indian perspective. The first one I read was Mahmoood Farooqui's Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857 which is a unique perspective in which Mahmood has translated correspondence between aam aadmi - common people - during the run up to 1857.

1857: The Real Story of The Great Uprising is an even more interesting perspective because it is a true first person account by a humble Konkan Brahmin - Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar- who unfortunately chose the exact same time to seek to improve his families fortunes by travelling northwards to perform Brahminical duties at kingdoms governed by Konkanis - the Rani of Jhansi, the Shinde's in Gwalior, Nana Sahib & Bala Sahib Phadnavis & Tantya Tope in Bithur, the Holkars of Indore, the Peshwas among others.

Thr story behind how this book got published is also very interesting. On his return to Versai, Vishnu Bhatt wrote down his memoirs (in the Modi script) and handed them over to a client - Bahadur Chintamani Vinayak Vaidya - to publish after he died, so he could not be persecuted by the victorious British forces for subversion. Vaidya made changes in the story to make it seem semi fictional and published it via 2 different publishing houses, so even if one publisher was shut down, the other might survive. The original manuscript he later handed over to a group of Indian historians - Bharatiya Itihas Shodhak Mandal. Datto Vaman Potdar & Prof N R Pathak then translated this manuscript in its original format into Marathi on behalf of the Mandal in 1948. It was later translated into Hindi by Madhukar Upadhyaya in 2007 and the English translation by Mrinal Pande was released by Harper Collins about a month ago.

Even though Vishnu Bhatt is almost 30 years old at the start of this book when he conceptualises this plan, the "elders" in the family need to meet and agree to him carrying out his ambitious plan and he is only allowed to proceed because his fathers brother - Ram Bhatt - who had already worked in Jhansi before, promises Vishnu Bhatt's father that he will accompany and guide him on this journey.

There are strange contradictions in the thinking of Vishnu Bhatt which become more and more apparent as one keeps reading and it brings forth the rigidity of Brahminical thinking in the 19th century. While Vishnu Bhatt stresses hard in different ways about only eating food cooked by Brahmins and hence needing to cook for themselves even when nearing exhaustion, on the one occassion that he does manage to con his uncle into staying put at Ayodhya while he makes a quick detour with young friends to experience the courtesans and other pleasures of Lucknow, he seems to rebel like a child saying "we slept little, ate whatever we felt like and went wherever we wished to go. There was no one here to discipline us or say no"

This one statement to me implies that the rigidity of thought came only from familial and social pressures and even though he prided himself on his Brahminical knowledge (frequently citing examples at which he comes out tops against the Gauda Brahmins and other learned and senior Brahmins), he did not completely subscribe to it.

Vishnu Batt and Ram Bhatt's travels are fraught with danger - mutinying forces, sudden sickness and dangerous bites, constantly changing political situations and boundaries, dacoits and thugs. The 2 occassions when they did manage to save up some money without being robbed - Vishnu Bhatt whiled it all away at Lucknow and the 2nd time, they gave it all away in feeding and charity to other Brahmins. So while their initial purpose was to make some money and help alleviate the family debt, they returned home practically penniless with just Holy Water to bathe his parents and cleanse them of all their sins - an agreeable compromise in Vishnu Bhatt's eyes

What really stands out in the book though are Vishnu Bhatt's descriptions of the war. The tales of looting, burning and pillaging by the marauding English army are horrifying and disgusting. And even though these events took place over 150 years ago, it is humiliating just to read what happened, I can completely understand the burning desire for revenge in the hearts of the affected locals. However as is the case with most wars, it is the poor, the innocent and the weak who suffer the most from the mindless carnage.

While sections of this book could be easily used to incite negative feelings against the British, I think its ultimate lesson is the pointlessness and mindlessness of war and the sooner we learn this the better.

Rating: 4.5/5

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