Besieged: Reviving 1857 through letters; Voices from Delhi

Those who are familiar with the history of novel writing are aware of the fact that English in the beginning the epistolary mode (letter writing) was adopted to tell a story. History of a family or a country was re-created through letters of real or fictional participants.

BesiegedVoices from Delhi 1857 (Penguin) by Mahmood Farooqui precisely does the same thing for Delhi during the crucial 1857 days. Relying exclusively on hundreds of Urdu letters preserved in the National Archives, he tries to tell Delhi’s tale of bloodshed, destruction and arson. He does not remain a mere translator or a chronicler. To those sordid events he lends a charm of sentiments and passions. According to Rajesh Singh, Farooqui “doesn’t take sides or float a theory. All it (the book) does is allow the story to be told through the letters written by people living in Delhi in 1857.” Students of Urdu literature would recall that Ghalib too recorded those crucial days in his diary.

The letters, from a thanedar to his superior, or from Governor (Bakht Khan) to his commander-in-chief and several such letters record the lawlessness and its immediate repercussions. It records the pitiable predicaments in which Bahadur Shah Zafar found himself in. He “commanded” an army of rebels in which each followed one’s own dictate and, he, as the emperor, presided the dance of destruction before his own eyes which, in addition to several innocents as well as gallants, resulted in seeing his own princes (grandsons) heads presented in a platter by the British general.

The popular sentiment, “let not a single gora escape death" reverberated in a letter written by Amir Khan, Dafadar of Lucknow cavalry calling upon his officers to take an oath and threatened “pig and cow” to those who dared to disobey. According to Rajesh, Farooqui’s book is non-judgemental. But Singh while praising Tatya Tope and Rani Lakshmibai present Zafar as a pathetic figure who tried to absolve himself of all the crimes by pleading non-guilty before the British victors – “how spineless he was.” This remark does not tally with what he said to the general who brought his princes’ heads on a platter nor with the repartee …. Takht-e London tak chalegi tegh Hindustan ki.

This book can be ordered from Pharos Media