Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Hindu’ Category

Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

Screenshot_20190717-121133

Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

gc3b6ttin_manasa_in_lehm

Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!

 

The End of January

The first month of the now not so new year is over and with it, some of newness of 2019. One month into the year, work is as crazy as ever, like I never went away and the usual cycle of Dad in the hospital made me realize the more things change, the more the remain the same! But the key is not to give into the doom-gloom but believe and hang on and with some good friends and great books, life is not all that unmanageable!

So what did I read this first month of 2019?

Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 by Joyce Dennys (Thank You Cleo for the great recommendation!)

IMG_20190203_212120852

How happy we were, and how little we realized how nice it was to be lazy and happy, without fear and anxiety and horror knocking at the back of one’s brain like a little gnome with a hammer.

Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise

IMG_20190203_212449557.jpg

I’m gonna have to get my eyes checked. I can’t see crap until it’s right in front of me

The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’ Neil

IMG_20190203_213032849_HDR

“I am as flawed as any” he said

“I know, I see you, you know!”

Early Indians by Tony Joseph

Screenshot_20190203-213257

When the first group of modern humans walked into India, perhaps no more than a few hundred people in groups of twenty or twenty-five, trekking all the way from the Arabian peninsula over hundreds of years or perhaps even a thousand or more years, did they have a cosmology of their own that tried to explain the inexplicable? And did they have any inkling that they were entering a special place that more than a billion of their descendants would one day call their home

So I read, one classic, two popular fiction and one non fiction! I can unequivocally state, of all the 4, Joyce Dunning’s book was the best and maybe for the month of February, I should stick to tried and tested, aka, Classics.

Speaking of Classics, I am reading, Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope as part of and Jane and Cleo have joined me for a read along! This book was a personal favorite of Trollope himself and is considered to be one of the best introductions to his work! It is a chunkster at 700 pages, but we take it slow and easy through February and if need be March! So join us for this Victorian sojourn and together, we can enrich our minds and have some fun while doing it!

 

 

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!

SD

Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

And In September….

September is here, which means, October and by that extension, Fall is around the corner and atleast for next couple of months, Winter, lovely Winter is in season!! Yay!! Another Summer gone and another year is coming round! Time does fly , but I honestly cannot say that I want to go back to January 2017 and would much rather move to December 2017! But there are still some months to go and some more books to read!

As I have repeated time and time again, this is has been an overworked year where work pressure and studying for a certain certification has taken away a number of reading hours from me and therefore once again my reading plans are limited and I am leaving options to read basis my mood and level of tiredness, to make some real time reading plans. Having said that there are some books, that I am already in the middle of or read alongs that need to be completed and at the very least those, I can list down to make some sort of sketchy plans!

To begin with, there is the marvelous The Pickwick Paper Read Along hosted by O, heading for its conclusion soon! When I had first read this wonderful novel by Charles Dickens, I had not liked it much; but this re-read, maybe because of the timing or whatever, I really really loved and now look forward to the last few chapters! I also continue with Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at Work  – A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Just to make things a bit more interesting, I have decided to pair it with The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara. I also recently stated reading the much appreciated and  applauded history of mankind, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and am finding it a very interesting read,with some very interesting and unique hypothesis. Finally, Jane as usual got me interested in some little known works and I have downloaded Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith and The Rector by the brilliant Margaret Oliphant. That is all I have mapped out as reading plans for the month.

This is the month of many Hindu festivals, so I am hoping for a little more of time off and a little more reading progress than what the previous months have shown, but knowing how things go, I am keeping this optimistic prognosis as a prognosis and we will see how things pan out as they pan out. I the meanwhile, I leave you with some shots of monsoon in India, specifically, of the grey skies and the blue black ocean, along the western coast of India, where I spent glorious, 10 days road tripping through last week!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along

Hello! Hello! Its been some time since I last posted, but as many of you already know I was traveling all over the western coast of the country and once I came back, which was only Monday, it took some time to settle in to the everyday! Anyhow I am back and I now share my long overdue post on the one of my most favorite books of all time, The Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye!

A year back I remember reading this novel as I always do as a ritual in the month of May and having a discussion with Cleo, hard-selling the book to her as a must read! A year later, May was again round the corner, I popped in to check with her if she was still interested in a Read Along and Cleo, being the awesome enthusiast she is, agreed, with the only stipulation that we begin in June as she had way too much to do in the month of May. Very soon the word got around and Helen and Yvonne also joined in the for the Read Along and we were all set to go back in time to 1857 India.

The novel is set in the events leading upto the Indian Revolt of 1857 against the British. Winter de Ballesteros, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman Marcos de Ballesteros and Sabrina, the granddaughter of Earl of Ware, is born in the house of her aunt, Juanita, the sister of Marcos who had married a Indian nobleman, the son one of the oldest friends of her father, who had settled in Oudh, the North Eastern royal state of India, as an adviser to the Nawab or the ruler of the state. Sabrina on a visit to India with her aunt and uncle had fallen in love with the dashing Marcos and married him against the wish of her doting grandfather. Sabrina however dies post giving birth to her daughter, named Winter after the winter season in her beloved Ware, and a grieving Marcos, after handing over the affairs to his sister and Winter’s uncle sets off for the ill fated Afghan campaign and is one of the many casualties. Juanita grieving for her dead brother sets about sending letters to the now very old Earl of Ware who was appointed guardian to little Winter by both her parents.  The death of his beloved granddaughter had softened the Earl and he sends for his little great granddaughter from India, but letters across oceans take time and Winter spends her formative years in India, in Gulab Mahal, Juanita’s house and only reaches the shores of England as a child of 7. Homesick and lonely, she pines for the home she ever knew, and the unkind treatment she receives from everybody except her Grandfather retreat more and more into the world she thought she truly belongs to. When she is 11, she meets Conway Barton, a distant relation who is one is way to India to take up a position in the Commissioner of Lunjore.  Conway Barton, is a unprincipled man who seeks to make his fortune in any way possible. Realizing that Winter was an heiress, he sets about trying to be pleasant to her, speaking of India, a country he detests, in the most colorful way. He approaches the now very old Earl seeking a betrothal with Winter, followed by marriage when she is older. The Earl worried about having no one to care for Winter after him and impressed by the display of affection showed by Barton, consents to the engagement. Conway Barton thus leaves for India secure in his knowledge of early wealth and Winter passes her years hoping the years would fly until she could be married to the kind man who would take her back to her true home. The years did pass, but Conway now fat, debauched drunkard feels unable to face his fiance and her august relations, for the fear that they may break of the engagement after looking at him, instead sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, to fetch Winter to India, so that he could coerce her into marrying him, in the absence of her friends and relations. Captain Alex Randall, a man of immense talent and integrity has very little respect for the commissioner whom he considers a fool and is irritated to be saddled with the task during his furlong. He arrives at Ware to realize that the Earl is dead and Winter’s relatives do not care for the kind of man she is marrying as long as she is out of their way. Winter herself seemed to have a glorified image of Conway Barton and refuses to listen to any description of the kind of man he truly is , that Ale wants to convey. They set off for India and thus start of a chain of events, unexpected by both, especially as the cloud of rebellion gathers on the horizon of the Indian plains, long held together by John Company.

What can I say about this wonderful book that I have not said before? Being biased, I always found the plot to be tight, with deep insights into Indian culture and traditions which is woven well with the suspenseful unfolding of the drama of the rebellion. The history is constantly and subtly interlaced with the story to give the reader an understanding of the events that led to the rebellion. The characters drawn by Kaye are very life like and real. Again being biased and having been  in love with Captain Alex Randall, since I was introduced to him at the age of 15 and all these almost 14 years, he remains to be one of the most enduring fictional heroes of all times. I love the complexity of his character, his ability to look at both sides of the arguments as well the way he was torn by what was his duty and what was his abiding love. His character showed off the very best of British India administrators, men who loved the country wholly with all her faults and worked hard to improve the condition of her people. I used to like Winter a lot more at the age of 15 than at 34, and now see her a little obsessed -India,  Conway , Alex; but she is still an insightful and gracious character and is a good predecessor to Anjuli Bai, the heroine of Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. As always, I love the supporting cast of Kaye’s books, for the complete and utter devotion of Niaz to the torn loyalties of Ameera, the daughter of Juanita, cousin to Winter and daughter of two worlds, to the fast living Lou Cotter who lives through harshest of conditions and fights off bravely, for the love of a child, not her own, by birth, but by heart! But the greatest of all characters is the character of India. MM Kaye, born and brought up in this land, brings all her knowledge understanding and love for the land into her book and India comes live in the pages as we are taken through the crowded and colorful bazaars of Lunjore, the never ending plains and jungles of North India and the glamorous balls of Calcutta,the imperial capital of British India. The country comes alive from the pages of the book and dances in all her majesty for the reader to soak in a time long gone by!

Needless to say, I LOVE this book! Several re-reading and much abused paperback has not diminished by joy of once again revisiting the people and times of Lunjore in 1857. However, the Read Along introduced me to a whole new appreciation of the book as I tried to provide some insight into the actual history of the country for my reading buddies to find references and better understanding of things, which I, an Indian, take for granted. I had some wonderful discussions along the way, which opened me to prospective I was not aware off and if possible, made the experience of reading this book even richer.  A big hearty thank you to Cleo, Helen and Yvonne for not only coming with me on a leap of faith for a ride down uncertain premises but also for bearing through not one but two of boring history lessons and the joining in for a fantastic and brilliant discussion. You read there review, here and here!

The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along – The Landscape Of The Mutiny

I know this post is kind of late, but let me just say that work, which I really wish to keep at minimal and as an alternate, often become main stream; way more often than I like. Anyhow, in my previous essay I had shared some insights into what were the key triggers of the revolt. Today, I want to give an overview of how it spread, the key actors and how it was finally brought to an end, so that you are able to follow the landscape of the novel more easily.

On March 29 1857 at Barrackpore, a military cantonment in East India, a sepoy or solder called Mangal Pandey, angry at the inability of his commanders to resolve the issue of greased cartridges, declared he is revolting and open fired at his Sargent Major, who on being informed of Pandey’s behavior, went to speak to him. He tried to incite his fellow soldiers to rebel and though, the latter did not join him, they also did not try and restrain him when their General ordered them to do the same. On failing to recruit the support of his comrades, he tried to take his own life with his own rifle. He failed, was brought down, arrested and sentenced to be hanged. The soldiers who had refused the General’s order were also hanged. The regiment was disbanded and stripped of its uniforms because the senior officials felt that this would serve as a lesson for those regiments, like this one that they felt harbored ill-feelings towards its superiors. Sepoys in the other regiment felt this was harsh and watched their fellow comrades being stripped of their dignity and became even more disgruntled with the English officers.

Several unrest, following this broke out in the cities of Agra, Allahabad and Ambala, the latter a large military cantonment; not of military revolt but rather cases of civilian arson attacks. Finally, on April 24th, in Meerut, another large military cantonment in North East India, of the unsympathetic and prejudiced Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael- Smith ordered his men to parade and perform the firing drill, that would require the sepoys to tear of the cartridge, smeared with fat from cows or pigs, unacceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.  All except five of the men on parade refused to accept their cartridges of the total of 90 and all of the 85 were court martialled by 9th May and most were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. The entire garrison was paraded and watched as the condemned men were stripped of their uniforms and placed in shackles. As they were marched off to jail, the condemned soldiers berated their comrades for failing to support them. The next day was a Sunday and some of the off duty Indian Sepoys warned the sympathetic junior English officers that there will be an attempt to free the condemned 85; however the senior officials took no notice or action. There was trouble in the city of Meerut as well, where the civilians berated the other sepoys for not supporting their comrades and some buildings were set on fire. By evening, the Indian troops, led by the 3rd Cavalry, broke into revolt and freed the 85 held in prison. European officers who attempted to quell the first outbreaks were killed by the rebels. Both military and civilians’ quarters were attacked, and four civilian men, eight women and eight children were killed. Crowds in the bazaar attacked the off-duty soldiers there. About 50 Indian civilians, some officers’ servants who tried to defend or conceal their employers, were also killed by the sepoys.

Thereafter, some of the revolting sepoys made for Delhi, the honorary capital of Mughal India, where at the age of 82, the once brilliant Bahadur Shah Zafar II ruled under the honorary title as the Emperor of India, but really nothing but a puppet in the hands of the East India Company, whose goodwill and beneficence, allowed this once brilliant court to still sustain in some form, but still revered and loved by all subjects, both Hindu and Muslims. The sepoys reached Delhi on May 11th and standing below the windows of the apartment of Bahadur Shah Zafar, they acknowledged him as their Emperor and asked him to join their cause. The 82 year old Emperor at this point took no action, but the sepoys within the Red Fort, where he resided soon joined the revolt and Delhi was soon under the siege of the Sepoys. Several Europeans were killed and the Delhi Arsenal, that held one of the largest arms dumps for East India Company was blown up rather than letting it fall in the hands of the rebels.The surviving Europeans made their way to the Ridge Forest, hoping for a rescue battalion from Meerut, but after two days of starvation and scorching heat, it became apparent, that no relief was coming from Meerut and slowly made their way to Karnal, further north. Some were helped on by the local populace while others killed. On May 16th, the Emperor held his first court in decades and though uncomfortable with the ruthlessness of the speoys, he nevertheless agreed to support the rebellion.

The revolt now spread to other parts of India and Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the Emperor of the whole of India, though most Historians agree that he was coerced by the sepoys, his advisers and especially his chief wife Zeenat Mahal who wanted to see her son ascend the Delhi Throne.  Revered by all subjects pan India, across religion, caste and creed, the popularity of the Emperor shook the British to the core, who had long ago dismissed the Mughal Emperors as anything but an expensive annoyance. Mufti Nizamuddin, a renowned Muslim cleric and scholar of Lahore, issued a Fatwa against the British forces and called upon the local population to support the forces of the Hindu leader Rao Tula Ram. In Kanpur, again, north eastern India, one of most vicious battles began to play out. In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. Wheeler was not only a veteran and respected soldier but also married to a high-caste Indian lady. He had relied on his own prestige, and his cordial relations with the Nana Sahib to thwart rebellion, and took comparatively few measures to prepare fortifications and lay in supplies and ammunition. However Nana Sahib the mild mannered and cultured, adopted son of the Peshwa was not recognized as the ruler under Dalhousies’s Doctrine of Lapse and he found himself beggared, exempted by what was rightfully his own, violating the traditions of his culture by a band of merchants. Nana Saheb was now part of the rebel forces and his actions would smear the good name of gentle Indians forever. On 25 June Nana Sahib made an offer of safe passage to the Europeans to Allahabad. With barely three days’ food rations remaining, the British agreed provided they could keep their small arms and that the evacuation should take place in daylight on the morning of the 27th. However once near the boats, which were supposed to carry them to safety, the men were mercilessly hacked to death and then the women and children taken hostage to a small bunglow called the Bibigarh, where in a few weeks they too would be butchered to death though, the Sepoys refused to kill them, and couple of mercernaries were hired to complete the vicious act. This action led a lot of Indians and pro Indians Europeans to abandon the cause; no Indian could justify such an act of violence and many voluntarily withdrew from the rebellion. The English became even more brutal; instances include Lieutenant Colonel James George Smith Neill, ordered all villages beside the Grand Trunk Road to be burned and their inhabitants to be killed by hanging. When the British retook Cawnpore, the soldiers took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibighar and forced them to lick the bloodstains from the walls and floor and were then either hanged to death or “blew from the cannon”, the traditional Mughal punishment for mutiny, though they not taken any part in the Bibigarh massacre

Awadh was another center of brutal warfare. Annexed by under the Docterine of Lapse again, the Awadh nobility as well as the sepoys had several causes of anger against the English, with whom they had always acted with fairness and loyalty. However with the disposal of the beloved ruler Wajid Ali, the city of Lucknow, capital of Awadh became a hotbed of dissent and anger and even the Residency of the great Henry Lawrence could not contain the city’s wrath. The British Commissioner resident at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. The Company forces numbered some 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels’ assaults were unsuccessful, and so they began a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties and would die as a result of that. The siege of the residency continued for 4 months, before relief came with Sir Henry Havelock who fought their way from Kanpur to Lucknow, defeating the rebels in both the cities.

The final and key theater of war was Jhansi; yet another victim of the Doctrine of Lapse. The East India Company refused the Queen of Jhansi’s request to recognize her adopted son as the ruler, whom she had adopted after the death of natural born son, followed by her husband. Jhansi like Awadh had been a loyal state, supporting the British and this was a sever blow to the warrior queen’s faith in them. Under the influence of Nana Saheb, her childhood playmate and best friend, she and her people gave themselves upto the cause of driving the European’s out of India.  In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defense of Jhansi against the invading armies of the neighboring rajas of Datia and Orchha, both allies of English as well the British forces themselves. It was only in March of 1858 Sir Hugh Rose was able to lay siege on Jhansi and finally capture it. The Queen died in the battle near Gwalior fighting of the British till the very end.

The other states remained relatively calm; Punjab though recently annexed had been well managed in the brilliant hands of Henry Lawrence before he moved to Lucknow. Those who tried to rebel were instantly captured and punished by the legendry John Nicolson. Bengal and specifically Calcutta,  the very capital of British East India, in eastern India,  to the relief of English also remained relatively calm, as did the large state of Bihar, though there were isolated incidents of rebellion in both states, they were of nothing like the scale in Awadh or Delhi. Gujrat, in west India also remained in control and the Peshwa (ruler) of the largest principality of Gujrat, Baroda, infact joined the British forces to drive out all rebels from his state.

The hostilities were finally and officially came to an end in July 1859. The brutalities by both sides were significant. Several reports circulated of the killing of European woman, but hardly any documented the rape and violence the Indian women sustained in the hands of British soldiers. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma, after watching his beloved son’s brutally killed infront of his very eyes and Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India. With this change, the governance of India passed from East India Company to the British Parliament. The states were assured that their local customs will not be violated and it was the kind and gentlemanly had of Lord Canning, the then Governor General of India that tried to control brutalities and vicious acts against Indians. The biggest lesson that the British took away besides strengthen their military presence, was to ensure that as long as they ruled, they should keep the Indian populace divided under the guise of religion because when a cause united Hindus and Muslims, the country became unstoppable. Acting on this principle, such dissent will be sown, that when India finally became independent, she paid it with her blood and a price of her disobedience more than 90 years ago, a large part of her territory and populace was divided to create a Muslim homeland for Indian Muslims – Pakistan.

As always, while I have not cited any specific source, all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

 

%d bloggers like this: