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Tale of the Great Mutiny

Anirudh Deshpande ( teaches at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University.

Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny by Zahir Dehlvi, translated from Urdu by Rana Safvi, Penguin Random House India, 2017; pp 327, ₹599.

The State of Delhi was such that when the sawars went to attack their enemies, the mischief makers would also go with them and collect money, weapons and horses from the injured and dead. No Hindu or Muslim from the city ever accompanied the fauj baghiya—not at the beginning of the fighting, nor at the end. From the very first day, it was these ignoble people who looted the city, along with the purbias.

Dastan, p 111

There was always a conflict between these uncouth purbias and us, the royal employees.

Dastan, p 115

Since the early 20th century, and especially after 1947, the Great Mutiny of 1857 has been celebrated as a momentous “first war of independence” waged by a united Indian people against the British in India. The thesis of a united Hindu–Muslim insurrection against the East India Company rule was first propounded by Syed Ahmad Khan in The Causes of the Indian Revolt (Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind), written in the immediate aftermath of the revolt in 1858 to contest the British claim that a Muslim conspiracy lay at the heart of the mutiny. This observation of Hindu–Muslim unity against the British in 1857 became the basis for the “first war of independence” nationalist claim, which gained increasing salience in India after the Swadeshi movement of 1905. Slightly before Asbab, Khan also wrote a virtual eyewitness account of the mutiny in the Bijnor district from the viewpoint of a Company employee called Tarikh Sarkashiy-e- Dhilla Bijnor. This account did little to flatter the rebels of 1857 who, in Khan’s pro-British words, appear as a misguided, ungrateful and inglorious lot. Other important eyewitness accounts of the events of 1857 were also written in the 19th and 20th centuries. Vishnubhatji Godse wrote a travelogue in Marathi called Majha Pravas (My Journey) in 1883, which was first published in Devanagari in 1907 by Godse’s host C V Vaidya, after the author had died in 1901.1 Jeevan Lal’s contemporary account of the mutiny, Sarguzasht-e-Delhi: 1857 ke Andolan ki kahani Jeevan Lal ki Zabani, has been republished in 2005.2

The volume under review falls in the genre of eyewitness testimony and travelogue—considered important primary sources by historians since ancient times. It is actually an autobiography Zahir Dehlvi wrote in advanced age with the aid of personal memory and possibly, some documents. In all probability, the account was written in the first decade of the 20th century as a forlorn aristocratic poet’s autobiography. Almost half of it describes the life of a Mughal noble in Delhi during the 19th century and the dreadful events inflicted upon the city by the mutiny. The other half describes Zahir’s life after the mutiny, much of which was spent in the service of some Indian princely states and in search of gainful employment.

Eyewitness Accounts

In general, the cataclysm of 1857 produced an unprecedented corpus of evidence in the shape of eyewitness accounts from both sides of the conflict, photographs, letters and travelogues in Urdu, English and Marathi. In addition, the event and its sad denouement for Indians continued to resound in contemporary Urdu poetry written by those who saw and survived the violence of that scorching summer. Among those men, Mirza Ghalib is well known. So is the last Mughal Badshah, an accomplished poet himself. Ghalib’s young contemporary was the aristocratic “tall, slim, broad-shouldered” poet Syed Mohammad Zahiruddin Husain Rizvi, called Nawab Mirza who sported the takhallus, Zahir.

Dastan makes it abundantly clear that the nobility of Delhi suffered the terrible consequences of the mutiny without necessarily having participated in it. Numerous innocent nobles were shot or hanged without trial by the British after the mutiny and the author escaped death by a fraction, many times. In fact, the emperor, as Zahir remembered several decades after the munity, disliked the intruders and predicted his own future:

These ingrates who have rebelled against their masters and appeared here—they will go off soon. When they couldn’t stay loyal to their masters, how can I expect any loyalty from them? These rogues came to ruin my dynasty, and now they have destroyed it. After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children, and hang it on the Quila merlons. None of you will escape their wrath. (p 113)

Zahir was only 22 when the mutiny broke out and the rebels forced their way into his beloved city. He had mastered the Urdu verse under the care of the famous poet Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq and was influenced deeply by the style of Momin Khan Momin. He informs us that Ghalib corrected his verse as well. The useful historical note on some key figures of the period written by the translator as an epilogue to the memoir tells us that in 1863, the poets Zahir Dehlvi, Anwar Dehlvi, and Hafez Ghulam Rasool Veeran together produced Nigaristan Sukhan comprising parts of the diwans of Ghalib, Momin and Zauq. After the extinction of the Mughal dynasty and the cooling of the embers of 1857, Zahir Dehlvi spent four years at Alwar, almost 18 years in the Jaipur state and about 15 years in the Tonk state. The memoir mentions that from Tonk, he migrated to Hyderabad, in Deccan, in search for patronage soon after his wife’s death in Jaipur which left him “desolate.” He has conveyed an unflattering description of the Hyderabadi tehzeeb in the memoir:

No one appreciated poetry or literary activities here. There were no patrons for the men of letters in this city, however accomplished they may have been. The only ones who received their due were marsiya-khwaan, who were called upon to recite marsiyas during the ten days of Moharrum … The Hyderabad noblemen have a European education and emulate the British in every respect. They guard their purse strings and don’t spend a single paisa on unnecessary pursuits. It is impossible for a man, however accomplished he may be, to receive even a small reward from them displaying his talent. Jugglers and performers have no hope of winning a single paisa by displaying their sleight of hand or tricks. The nobles are very wise and have ensured that travelers and seekers don’t come to their doorstep for help. The generosity and charity shown by other rulers is missing in Hyderabad. (pp 262–63)

Storm of Destruction

Zahir Dehlvi was destined to die in Hyderabad, disillusioned with life and nostalgic about pre-mutiny Delhi, after having been reduced to a wandering poet dependent upon the patronage of several princely state rulers. By then, his memories of the ghadar had certainly become rancid for obvious reasons. The mutineers destroyed the aristocratic milieu which produced and initially nurtured Zahir Dehlvi as a high-ranking noble and poet in the service of the last Mughal emperor. In return, his Dastan is full of rebuke for the cursed Purbias and the lower-class rabble he held greatly responsible for bringing upon his beloved city a storm of destruction in the summer of 1857. The book recounts numerous details of the mutiny beginning with the day the baghi sawars entered the city and began murdering the Europeans and Indian Christians. The author saw the city being destroyed physically and socially over four months before the emperor fled with his household to the tomb of Humayun, his illustrious ancestor. Zahir fled the devastation when the Company battalions stormed it in September 1857, survived the orgy of retributive violence unleashed on the people by the victors, and returned to Delhi some months after the pardons were granted by the satiated British administrators. He lived in the city for a while as a horse trader before embarking upon a migrant’s life which first made him a young handsome noble flunkey of the Maharaja of Alwar. Readers will not fail to notice the homoerotic orientalist undertone of the description of his work at Alwar:

Our days and nights passed in laughter, entertainment, playing ganjifa and chausar, watching dances, and going to fairs and shikar. Whenever the Maharaja went out, we accompanied him as his flunkies. About twenty or twenty-five young men of pleasing countenance and dress would be gathered around the Maharaja to keep him entertained and in a happy mood. The Maharaja was so fond of us that he would not part with us at any point during the day. He would give us the best of everything to wear and reward us generously at every function. (p 176)

Since the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 revolt, the interest in, and market for, historical literature on the event has grown appreciably. Around 2007, and in the years thereafter, a number of works have been published on the mutiny as part of a broad intellectual sweep to refresh our memory of the event and present new sources wherever possible. In this process, we have now reached a stage when it would be safe to speak of a genre of mutiny narratives. Anyway, much of the sponsored work that was done on the revolt around 2007 was supposed to give us an objective perspective, which was neither British nor nationalist on the polyphonic event of 1857. The recovery of the Indian participants’ voices was important to this venture. Dastan provides one such voice that is remarkably pro-British and highly critical, even condemnatory, of the mutineers who forced themselves upon an old, ailing emperor, unwilling to lead them. It is a rare memoir because Indian participants of 1857, unfortunately, have not left many written records of what they experienced during the mutiny. Further, it was not easy or safe, and very few would have been interested in any case, to develop an oral history of the mutiny in the latter half of the 19th century or the first few decades of the 20th century. By the time the “war of independence” thesis appeared, most of the survivors of 1857 were probably dead. The reviewed volume is the first English translation of the Taraz-e-Zahiri first published in Lahore in 1914. The second edition of this work, which became famous as the Dastan-e-Ghadar, was published in 1955, again in Lahore. By translating and editing this Urdu source of 1857, Rana Safvi, historian of Delhi and a connoisseur of Rekhta, has performed a great service to Indian historiography. Dastan is recommended to all the teachers and students of Indian history in general, and of 1857, in particular. It may not please the scholar fond of a history “from below” of the rebellion of 1857, but that of course, is a different matter. Dastan must be read for what it is: an aristocrat’s rich account of the quotidian life in 19th century India before, during, and after the mutiny.


1 For details see Sukhmani Roy (translated and edited), Travails of 1857: A Translation of  Vishnubhatji Godse’s Majha Pravas, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Rohan Prakashan, Mumbai, 2012.

2 Edited and translated by Darakhshan Tajwar, Rampur, Rampur Raza Library Publications, 2005.

Updated On : 13th Aug, 2018


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