Remembering the 1857 uprising: Portraits of resistance

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on May 08, 2020

Marching on: Many novels that cover the 1857 uprising faithfully capture the brutality of the British as well as the atrocities committed by the Indian mutineers   -  WIKIPEDIA

On the anniversary of the 1857 revolution, a look back at how that pivotal moment in Indian history lives on in literature

*The 1857 uprising, now called the First War of Independence, began on May 9, 1857

*The pivotal episode in Indian history has been immortalised in works of fiction by writers such as Jules Verne, Ruskin Bond and Flora Annie Steel

On May 9, 1857, exactly 163 years ago, a group of Indian soldiers (called ‘sepoys’ after sipahi, the Hindustani word for soldier) in Meerut killed their British superiors and threw the jails open. The following day, they would begin a march to Delhi. This marked the beginning of what is now called the First War of Independence; or, according to a certain section of historians, the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ (this nomenclatural dispute is typical of the differing historical points of view about the events of 1857).

But fiction, ironically, often ends up giving us a better sense of lived reality than a lot of history books. And there have been a great many historical novels down the years that have captured the complexity, the violence and the horror of those days — from 19th-century works such as Jules Verne’s The Steam House (1880) and Flora Annie Steel’s On the Face of the Waters (1896), all the way up to controversial books such as Nightrunners of Bengal (1951) by John Masters (widely criticised for being sympathetic to imperialist philosophies) and modern-day reader favourites such as Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons (1978).

An elephant remembers

In many ways, The Steam House (1857) is classic Jules Verne fare — full of suspense, intrigue and weird inventions. The story follows a group of European men in Calcutta who plan a cross-country road trip through India. The ensemble includes Captain Hood, who wants to complete a round figure of 50 tigers hunted down, Sir Edward Munro, who wants Peshwa Nana Sahib’s head as revenge for his wife (killed in the real-life massacre at Bibighar, Kanpur), as well as Banks, the railroad man, and Maucler, the French adventurer who is also the narrator for much of the book (a stand-in for Verne himself). In a typically Verne twist, the Europeans are travelling in a gigantic wheeled house, being pulled by an equally enormous, steam-powered mechanical elephant.

Bloodshed: An engraving of the massacre at the Satichaura Ghat on June 27, 1857   -  WIKIPEDIA


This is an adventure novel, first and foremost, so there’s plenty of blood and gore and depictions of awe-inspiring bravery. Like this passage, where Verne talks about the barbaric British practice of binding Indian rebels to the mouths of cannons (and then blowing them up), and the courage shown by the condemned rebels:

“All were indiscriminately condemned to death; but one out of three only were really executed. Ten cannons were placed on the drilling-ground, a prisoner fastened to each of their mouths, and five times were the ten guns fired, covering the plain with mutilated remains, in the midst of air tainted with the smell of burning flesh.

“These men (…) nearly all died with that heroic indifference which Indians know so well how to preserve even in the very face of death. ‘No need to bind me, captain,’ said a fine young sepoy, twenty years of age, to one of the officers present at the execution; and as he spoke he carelessly stroked the instrument of death. ‘No need to bind me; I have no wish to run away.’”

However, Verne is also mindful of the complex motivations that wartime often brings out in people, bonds that are forged in the heat of war.

Politically speaking, The Steam House is well-balanced — it highlights the horrors of the Raj effectively while never losing sight of the atrocities committed by the Indian armies as well.

Farce, followed by tragedy

Among the handful of well-known novels about the events of 1857, however, JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur is head and shoulders above the rest. Published in 1973, it won the Booker prize that year, and was also nominated for the ‘Best of the Booker’ prize in 2008. The fictional Krishnapur is largely based on Kanpur (called ‘Cawnpore’ by the British) and Lucknow. The narrative follows the misadventures of an Englishman, Fleury, who arrives in Krishnapur not long before the 1857 rebellion begins. Fleury quickly befriends the super-wealthy Dunstaples, whose daughter Louise he falls in love with. He also observes the British administrators going about their business willy-nilly, bored out of their heads for the most part.

Remembering the siege: ‘The Relief of Lucknow’, an 1859 painting by Thomas Jones Barker, depicts the British resistance to the Indian rebellion


Farrell’s dim view of the Empire — and his scathing wit — meant that, straight off the bat, there are some memorable putdowns of the British government. Within the first 20-odd pages, there’s this gem of a line: “The British could leave and half of India wouldn’t notice us leaving just as they didn’t notice us arriving. All our reforms of administration might be reforms on the moon for all it has to do with them.”

His keen understanding of geopolitics aside, Farrell was a supremely gifted comic novelist. Therefore, he was just as attuned to the fault lines among various factions of Indians as he was to the failings of the Empire, often on the same page. For example, in this passage, we see Fleury turning his satirical eye towards decadent Calcutta babus, who were deeply invested in imitating their British colleagues — as long as it did not meddle with their deeply antiquated ideas about women, for example.

“He had heard that wealthy Indian gentlemen also gave balls in Calcutta in the civilized European manner, even though at the same time they despised English ladies for dancing with men as if they were ‘nautch’ girls, something they would certainly never have permitted to their own wives. There seemed to be a contradiction in this. It was all very difficult.”

When the war starts, we see through Fleury’s eyes the intensity and the speed with which things escalate — soon the British have deployed Indian sepoys to fight their own countrymen, the rebels. Allegiances shift, the bodies keep piling up (quite literally so; a memorable section in the book deals with the problem of corpse disposal) and soon, Fleury, the Dunstaples and every other English person in town is caught up in the mayhem. The Englishmen eventually surrender to Nana Sahib and his rebel army in exchange for safe passage to Allahabad — but their evacuation soon turns into flat-out mass execution (the aforementioned Bibighar massacre).

“Behind them their live comrades were shoving to force the pile of bodies through into the drawing-room to free the doorway; meanwhile the Collector and the Sikhs were shoving with all their might to hold the bodies in place, although their efforts were hindered by the protruding bayonets. The Collector and Hookum Singh had their backs to this wall of flesh, with bayonets sprouting from between their legs and under their armpits; they were shoving and shoving, and they in turn were being shoved by the other Sikhs, who were struggling to keep them in place.”

Indian perspectives

True to form, A Flight of Pigeons, perhaps the best-known Indian novel about 1857, has all the tones of a Bollywood story — and was duly adapted into a movie called Junoon, directed by Shyam Benegal and starring Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Nafisa Ali and Naseeruddin Shah.

A Flight of Pigeons is the story of Ruth Labadoor (played by Ali in Junoon) and her mother Miriam (Kendal), who seek refuge at the house of Javed Khan (Kapoor, in arguably his greatest performance) after Ruth’s father is murdered by Indian rebel soldiers at Shahjahanabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Khan falls in love with the beautiful Ruth and seeks to marry her — but her mother Miriam has a condition. If the British are defeated, she will marry her daughter to Khan (in part, to protect her). But if the Indians are defeated, Khan must forfeit his claim.

A Flight of Pigeons, although very much a tragic love story, is marked by Bond’s trademark humility, gentle humour and heart-warming little asides. In this passage, for example, we see Lala Ramjimal, an old friend of Miriam’s, giving the family temporary shelter before they head off for Khan’s house on the outskirts of town.

“On the second day of our arrival, I overheard his mother speaking to him: ‘Lalaji, you have made a great mistake in bringing these Angrezans into our house. What will people say? As soon as the rebels hear of it, they will come and kill us.’ ‘I have done what is right,’ replied Lala very quietly. ‘I have not given shelter to Angrezans. I have given shelter to friends. Let people say or think as they please.’”

The endless vagaries of cultural integration are also a recurring theme which Bond tackles exceedingly well. In the following passage, Ruth describes how the British women learn to get along with the women of Javed Khan’s household — culminating in mother and daughter stitching black chintz pyjamas for themselves, to blend in as best as they could.

“It was in our interests to forget that we had European blood in our veins, and that there was any advantage in the return of the British to power. It was also necessary for us to seem to forget that the Christian God was our God, and we allowed it to be believed that we were Muslims. Kothiwali often offered to teach us the Kalima, but Mother would reply that she knew it already, which was perfectly true. When she was asked to attend prayers with the others, her excuse would be: ‘How can we? Our clothes are unclean and we have no others.’”

What all these books have in common is the novelist’s knack of spotting inconvenient truths — or at any rate, truths that are often just a forgotten scribble in the journalist’s notebook, and consequently, the historian’s footnotes.

At their best, they remind the reader of that hoary old chestnut: There’s no such thing a righteous war.

Published on May 08, 2020

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