[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar's Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin's public writings in the near future-- sepoy.]
Amritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399
On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain "Khub lari mardaniâ€¦ Jhansi wali raniâ€¦" of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture-- the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.
'San-sattavan'! (The Year '57)
In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, 'san sattavan' stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: 'Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi'. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an 'aged Bharat' which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself ('burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi').
Let's stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the 'value of lost independence' and 'the resolve to throw the firangi out' in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate 'native ethnographer' Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. "O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/â€¦ Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one." Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani's sacrifice and valour ('sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani'), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.
To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah—- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph-- was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose 'making' requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed-- like a mannequin in a shopping window-- merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
In contrast to the hoopla of 2007, the centennial of the Ghadar in 1957 was a low key affair, but materially more significant. A lot of us 'midnight children' were too young to recollect it, but the long-term gains for historical understanding and democratizing access to the events of 1857 still continue to be felt. Two noted scholars, produced very different accounts of those times, the one by S.N. Sen, with the official imprimatur of the Government of India, simply called Eighteen Fifty-Seven, sans a qualifying adjective or a sub-title. A state level committee, pro-formally headed by the Chief Minister of U.P., was set up to publish source material on the Rebellion. It wisely picked the indefatigable medievalist Athar Abbas Rizvi to direct the project of researching and editing the available printed and scribal material on the Great Rebellion. The enormous research that underpinned it was paid for by the state government.
Running into a mammoth 4000-odd pages published in six volumes (1958-1960) and priced at under Rs 20 per volume, this was mana from heaven for historians in India and abroad. Working out of the redbrick University of Sussex, Ranajit Guha was to rely heavily on the Rizvi volumes for his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983). Offered gratis to bona-fide researchers by the late 1970s-— I collected my copy from the great Hindi writer Shri Lal Shukl, then Chief Information Officer, U.P.-- it encouraged the writing of a new crop of histories of the Ghadar in different districts and regions in the medium-sized University towns in North India. Admittedly, this second-order production of (some time bland) historical knowledge was made possible by advanced planning, and hard work by those adept to dwell into extant matÃ©riels and help order a narrative of the past that was the Great Ghadar.
The year 2010 saw the publication of Mahmood Farooqui's Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857. Based on a meticulous and ingenious collation of Urdu language material in the cursive shikasta script of routine governance, it provided rare vignettes of nineteenth-century Dilliwallas as they lived through the assault of the Goras in the summer and autumn of the Ghadar to retain the capital of Hindustan.
What was missing till very recently in English-- unfortunately the only language of serious academic scholarship in the cow belt-- was a discursive collection of memories, tales, legends, local accounts, Lays, Alhas and Jang-namas, the last largely recounting the deeds of the rebel chiefs. An oral history of the Ghadar was a disciplinary impossibility a hundred years after the event; the craft of history in the mid-fifties was still heavily oriented towards chronicling the deeds of great men, be they leaders of the National Movement or proto-nationalists of 1857.
And so it fell to Amrit Lal Nagar, a Hindi literary figure of prodigious energy and a jaw-dropping oeuvre, ranging from screenplays and dialogues for Bambaiya films in the 1940s, to radio and stage plays, major novels, memoirs and much else besides to think up a novel project in the centennial year of the Ghadar-— 'the sattavni kranti' as he and many other Hindi writers have and continue to dub it (an epic Urdu poem by Rahi Masoom Raza, simply called 1857 was recently published in Hindi as 'Kranti Katha'). An act of love-- almost a filial obligation-- Nagar thought of collecting 'the orally transmitted memories and legends that had survived among ordinary families and clans' in the Awadh countryside in the centennial year of that Great Event. Ghadar ke Phool—- the allusion is to the collection of 'phool' (flowers) or asthis of one's own consequent on cremation-- has been aptly titled Gathering the Ashes in this long over-due English translation by Mrinal Pande.
Nagar's effort was supported by the Information Department of U.P. He was provided an advance of Rs 1000 and promised a sarkari jeep wherever he chose to travel in the Awadh countryside. The stories he collected in Bara Banki, Faizabad, Bahraich, Gonda, Rai Bareilly were as intriguing and full of geographical and narrative minutiae, contradictions, local colour and bewildering variety as were the tumultuous events of 1857 themselves. A clutch of pencils on the ready in his kitty, Nagar had perfected the art of scribbling in his notebooks while observing the faces of the narrators, raconteurs and impromptu or 'on demand' singers of the deeds of prominent Rajput lineage chiefs.
The great joy of reading Nagar's own Memoirs-- for that in effect is what is so appealing about this wonderful collocation of local lore-— is the way he renders some versions suspect by entering into a debate with the protagonists in the very process of recording their testimony, or the remarks he etches, so to speak, in the margins of his text which index his surprise at rustics rehearsing the act of a century-old 'betrayal' by helping him find his informant by skirting past the houses of 'the ghaddars' of those times! Nagar also notes how his field encounters helped jog long-forgotten or expressly-forbidden tales of valour or rebellion of 'Those Times'.
In pursuit of local versions of events he had encountered in books on the Ghadar, Nagar was far removed from the self-effacing, academic folklorist-ethnographer. Rather, as with his nationalism, Nagar appears in his Hindi text to have worn his emotions on his sleeve-— offering a glimpse of a widespread but still particularistic perspective on our common historic past.
It must count as a major drawback of this commendable translation that Mrinal Pande has elected to omit a long section called "Madhyantar" or 'Intermission' in the Hindi original where Nagar stops his narration mid-stream to ruminate on the good and bad points of our ancient and recent history, as evident, inter alia, in the tales of valour and betrayal witnessed during 1857. Dropping Nagar's disquiet at Nehru's excessive celebrations of 2500 years of the birth of Buddha-- ('Pandit â€¦ Nehru aur bharat sarkar ke zordar prachar ke baawjood main Baudh bhale na hounâ€¦) or his pique at the attention given by his government to the sprucing up of Shravasti-- from the English translation detracts from Pande's text which has otherwise included helpful aids to help understand Nagar's somewhat rambling account.
An ethnographically rich, and in many ways transparent text as Ghadar ke Phool required that it be translated in full. Or at least omissions need to have been indicated. Wayward spellings such as Rohil Khand, and Dewariya for Deoria, and the wrong information that after 1858 UP, as we have known it till the formation of Uttarakhand, was called 'The United States of Agra and Awadh' are blemishes that could well have been avoided by some one like Mrinal Pande who had earlier given us an excellent English rendering of Vishnu Bhatt's marvellous travelogue of the momentous year that was 1857.
What a wonderful paragraph: "To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah—- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph— was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose 'making' requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed— like a mannequin in a shopping window— merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire." About as neat a summation of the problem, while alluding to the seductive glamour, of the nationalist spectacle, as I can imagine; the theatricality of the spectacle, its compelling nature, are routinely "missing" from academic texts, and it's always thrilling to encounter an author sensitive to both...