An accidental insider

1857: The real story of the great uprising
by Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar
translated by Mrinal Pande
Harper Perennial, 2011

In war, goes the old saying, the victor gets to write the history. There exist numerous eyewitness accounts of the rebellion of 1857 by Englishmen, based on which historians of the British Empire had no difficulty bringing out multi-volume tomes on the 'Sepoy Mutiny'. The defeated often did not live to tell their side of the story, after all, and in this case the 'mutineers' were ruthlessly hunted down and slaughtered, the towns that sheltered them pillaged. Little is known even about the last days of their prominent leaders – Nana Sahib who disappeared without a trace, Begum Hazrat Mahal who escaped to Nepal, Tantya Tope who the British claim to have captured, and the rani of Jhansi who died in battle.

The repression let loose in the aftermath of 1857 must have severely discouraged, and pushed underground, accounts that presented the rebels in a sympathetic light. But how did the people of the time view these watershed events? What did they think of the rebel soldiers and their leaders? Given the paucity of Indian voices from this period, an eyewitness account by a local evokes great interest. Noted journalist Mrinal Pande has now brought to an English-language readership Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar's Marathi work, Majha pravas: 1857chya bandachi hakikat, (My travels: A factual account of the 1857 mutiny) originally published in 1907.

The publication history of Vishnu Bhatt's work, traced by Pande, is a clear enough indication of the impediments of reconstructing history from the perspective of the underdog. Bhatt, a poor Brahmin priest from Versai in present-day coastal Maharashtra, penned his story many years after completing a far-ranging journey. Fearing retribution from the British, he left the manuscript with a traditional healer, Chintamani Vaidya, with instructions that it be published only after his death. The same fear pushed Vaidya to publish an edited version that could be passed off as a work of fiction rather than be considered a historical account. A version adhering to the original manuscript appeared in print in modern Marathi only in 1948 and in Hindi only as recently as 2007.

As the tale begins, Bhatt is unable to earn enough money to pay his family debts, and so decides to try his luck in distant 'Hindustan'. This is the land of Mathura, Gwalior, Jhansi and Kanpur, where many of the rulers and noblemen are of Maratha origin and the services of Brahmins are in demand to conduct religious and court rituals. Bhatt sets out with his uncle carrying little more than a few religious texts. As they near the cantonment of Mhow, in today's Indore district, they meet soldiers deserting from British military units and learn that a revolt is imminent. Reasoning that they have nothing to fear as Brahmin itinerants, they continue on their journey. So begins a period of high adventure, as the two get caught up in the thick of the revolt in Bundelkhand, live through the ferocious siege of Jhansi, and wander for many months through central India, then in deep ferment. In the dying days of the rebellion, they head east on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya and Kashi before making their way back home.

Bhatt records his experiences as a travelogue, though he perceives his work to be 'a factual account of the 1857 mutiny', as the subtitle of his manuscript prominently declares. His tale is interspersed with accounts of the rebellion and is centred on its principal characters (Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib, Tantya Tope and the rani of Jhansi) as well as the main participating towns (Gwalior, Jhansi, Kanpur and Kalpi), with which Bhatt becomes familiar during the course of his travels. Like any good historian, Bhatt never fails to mention the sources of his information, ever conscious that his 'facts' might be contested.

Bhatt's narratives, like the one about Nana Sahib's initial victory culminating in defeat at Kanpur, are far from a drab listing, containing stories told with great flair, and calculated to show the rebels in a sympathetic light. Sample Bhatt's vibrant description of Nana Sahib's victory procession after the first battle at Kanpur:

Thousands of horsemen and foot soldiers led the procession, with Rohilla Pathans, Siddis [men of African origin, settled in Gujarat and known for their prowess inbattle] and Arabs flanking his caparisoned elephant on both sides. The drummers and pipers played martial tunes as the procession moved slowly towards Bithur. From time to time the royal naquib [a hermaphrodite announcer] would call out loudly for the people to move out of the way. The people of Bithur had lit hundreds of clay lamps along the road.

Describing the subsequent incidents of killing of British women and children, which raised significant public outrage, Bhatt lays the blame on overenthusiastic soldiers who acted contrary to Nana Sahib's instructions.

Fall of Jhansi

Bhatt's first-person account provides insights into popular perceptions, how people from different social strata were reacting to the unfolding events. In particular, the reader is offered a keen taste of what the people went through in what is perhaps the most dramatic and poignant part of the travelogue, the account of the battle of Jhansi. As we are told, Bhatt's uncle had a close association with the father of the rani of Jhansi, thus enabling the author to become part of the rani's entourage, to live within the fort in the royal quarters and to closely observe the preparations and conduct of the war.

News reaches Jhansi that an army – assembled by one General Rose of newly arrived soldiers from Britain, cavalrymen of the nizam of Hyderabad and detachments from other rulers – is advancing on the city. Preparations are made to withstand the coming siege. 'Within the fort', records Bhatt, 'Rani sat pouring over the papers with her chiefs of staff. I too was there. Even at midnight, it felt like daytime because of the restless goings-on.'

After the rani refuses the British call to surrender, the latter posts warnings in the surrounding villages proclaiming that after annexing the fort they will raid the city for three days and kill all males aged between five and 80. The rani realises the need to shore up the spirit of the people, and so hosts a grand haldi kumkum ceremony in the palace for the married women of the town. 'From two in the afternoon till late at night, streams of women dressed in all their finery kept arriving at the palace,' Bhatt writes. 'Close to a hundred women stood in lines to receive the guests on behalf of the palace. I have never witnessed such a spectacular celebration anywhere and do not think I ever will.'

As the time for the attack draws near, enemy campfires are visible from the fort on clear evenings. 'One such evening', Bhatt recalls, 'when we climbed to the rooftop to take a look at the city, we saw that it was surrounded on all sides by armed British troops.' He proceeds to offer a graphic account of the incessant bombardment of the Jhansi fort and the weakening of its defences. The long-awaited arrival of Tantya Tope, the great general, briefly raised hopes. 'For the people of Jhansi', writes Bhatt, 'this was the final standoff with the enemy and they flocked to the ramparts of the fort to witness the battle.' The defeat of Tantya's army signals the entry of the British into the city, and the arson, killing and looting begins. That night the rani, heading a small detachment, breaks through the cordon around the city and rides away to join Tantya's forces and continue the fight.

Trapped in the city that is now under the British Army, Bhatt discovers that there is order in the plunder that follows. The European soldiers have free rein for three days and lay first claim to the loot, going after cash, gold, silver and precious ornaments. Next in line are the South Indian soldiers, who make away with copper, brass articles, clothes and textiles. Last come the soldiers from the smaller principalities, who are able to take grains, pulses and even fruit from the trees. Within a week, the town is stripped bare. Looting complete, the British step in to restore law and order. Among their first actions is to auction the properties of the palace. 'The Gaekwads, the Holkars and the Shindes bought the royal elephants, camels and horses. The Shindes also bought various heirlooms,' Bhatt notes.

Barely escaping alive from Jhansi, Bhatt and his uncle wander around Bundelkhand, have many close encounters with the rebels and, miraculously, meet the rani of Jhansi again. Months later, they head out on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, Kashi and Prayag, through towns that are by now firmly in the hands of the British. At Ayodhya, a certain restlessness catches up with Bhatt; he wants to 'taste a different life and have a good time'. Nearby Lucknow has the reputation for being a pleasure centre, and is renowned for its dancing girls and their salons. Leaving his uncle behind in Ayodhya, Bhatt moves to Lucknow with his young friends till money runs out. 'During the day, we wandered about in the town,' he writes, 'and in the evenings, we stayed up late at the courtesans' houses.'

Full of surprises, Vishnu Bhatt's story is an enlightening read not only for its first-hand account of the rebellion, but also for its honest portrait of mid-19th-century India with all its warts and prejudices, its acceptance and generosity.

Kannan Kasturi researches and writes on law, policy and governance. He is based in Delhi.

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