Mahmood Farooqui’s accounts of everyday Delhi life during 1857 refresh the mutiny debates, says Aparna Balachandran
COMPILED AND translated by historian and dastango (Urdu storyteller) Mahmood Farooqui, Besieged is a record of Delhi in turmoil when it lay under siege by the British during the summer of 1857. Drawing on the ‘Mutiny Papers’ collected and catalogued by the British after the uprising (and now available at the National Archives of India), Farooqui gives the reader a glimpse into the everyday life of the city of Delhi under the rebel government with his painstaking and evocative translations of documents in shikasta Urdu and the occasional Persian produced by soldiers and officials as well as ordinary people. Artisans, labourers, shopkeepers, spies and courtesans inhabit this tumultuous story as much as the rebel soldiers and the tortured figure of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Alongside orders of regiment officers and police reports are a clamour of petitions from residents about their homes being looted, the loss of business because of the stationing of troops near shops and complaints about soldiers ogling at women. One of the most interesting sections is a selection from one of the city’s newspapers, the Dehli Urdu Akhbar edited by the ideologue Maulvi Mohammad Baqar, who was part of Delhi’s old elite and who was eventually hanged by the British after they reoccupied the city. Using both Islamic and Hindu imagery, Baqar’s paper dwelt on the dangers British rule posed to both faiths; the newspaper produced a powerful economic critique of the Raj that seemed to anticipate later nationalistic articulations.
Unlike most literature on 1857, Besieged sees the event as an urban phenomenon and is an important addition to the growing corpus of literature — scholarly and popular — on Delhi. In its interest in the Dilliwalla’s quotidian negotiations with the city’s authorities, it’s clear that 1857 serves as a lens to understand the life of a pre-colonial city and its governance.
Farooqui’s disinterest in the arguments about 1857’s political and symbolic significance made it difficult to embed the book in the existing historical canon. Focussing on the minutiae of the uprising and the rebel government — organisation, fund-raising, sustenance — Besieged claims to be unconcerned with bigger questions of the actors’ motivations and what the uprising meant for anti-colonial struggle. In fact, though, the book reexamines — both in Farooqui’s translations and his analyses preceding each section — some of the long-held assumptions of both nationalist and revisionist narratives of 1857. For instance, the claim that Bahadur Shah had merely symbolic value for the uprising and the rebels foisted leadership on him, is somewhat belied by the swiftness with which he assumed kingship.
The lavishly produced cover and endpapers make you expect more than just three pages of illustrations in this 488- page book, but that is a small quibble. With some exceptions, binary accounts of 1857 — mutiny or war of independence, secular or religious — have dominated so far. In bringing this rich mat erial to light, he succeeds in expanding the space on our shelves, and in our minds, about this momentous event.
Balachandran is assistant professor of history at the University of Delhi
He Still Speaks, King-Size
Somnath Chatterjee’s memoir maps the Left’s decline but doesn’t say why, finds Monobina Gupta
THE CHRONICLE of Indian Communist Parties is dotted with expulsions of countless leaders, often in the organisation’s highest echelons, charged with political, ideological and personal deviations. PC Joshi, who nurtured the undivided Communist Party from its infancy to adulthood, elevating it from relative obscurity to national recognition, was removed from the post of general secretary, suspended and then expelled from the party. Though later readmitted into the party, Joshi, once its iconic face, remained on the peripheries till his death.
In his memoirs Keeping the Faith, Somnath Chatterjee, former Lok Sabha Speaker and CPM MP for four decades, pens the story of his own expulsion, blaming in no uncertain terms ‘the present leadership’ under general secretary Prakash Karat for his severe punishment. Interestingly, Karat’s action is in line with his party’s functioning in West Bengal, where the ruling CPM has successfully ‘taken over’ educational, cultural, political and administrative institutions, even at the cost of hurting the autonomy of these entities. Chatterjee, however, has chosen not to wade into the troubled waters of West Bengal. For him, it is the current political dispensation at AK Gopalan Bhawan, more particularly Karat, that’s responsible for much of what has gone wrong with the CPM. That the rot in West Bengal had set in more than a decade earlier, and was overlooked by the party in the state and at the Centre is not brought into the ambit of discussion.
Through his evolution from a barrister to a fullfledged MP, capturing the stormy era of Partition, the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the fear psychosis of the Emergency, Chatterjee chronicles the trajectory not only of the Left parties, but of the entire political class.
It is impossible not to perceive in this book the gradual slide in the quality of the communist leadership. Once dominated by grassroots leaders and firebrand parliamentarians, the CPM now seems taken over by party bureaucrats. Chatterjee himself cannot lay claim to an activist lineage. A late entrant into the party, he was a successful barrister who eventually became a member of the CPM’s central committee and the West Bengal state committee. But unlike the top leadership, he fought parliamentary elections for four decades, which required a certain kind of ‘electoral activism’, of keeping an ear to the ground.
Chatterjee blames Karat for the CPM’s problems but doesn’t address the deeper reasons for the rot in West Bengal
These memoirs give us a wide sweep of political history without delving into too many implications of the developments. The author catalogues important events, significant laws, periods of darkness (the Emergency, Gujarat riots) as he witnessed them first as an MP and then as Speaker. But in this age of 24/7 media coverage, furnishing new information in such a memoir is perhaps extremely difficult. The veteran parliamentarian makes a simple narrative of complex developments. He underlines the basic conflicts between secularism and communalism, the tension between unbridled free market economy and State control, the authoritarian tendencies displayed by both the Congress and BJP, the disorderliness of coalition politics. It is a narrative of large-scale changes in Indian politics and economy, providing a glimpse into political personalities and a brilliant parliamentarian. The micro changes affecting parties and institutions, however, are missing in this work.
Gupta’s book Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels Among Bhadralok Marxists will be published this month
So This Is Where Poetry Goes To Die
Tishani Doshi has sunk a basic family saga in her kingdom of twee, says Gaurav Jain. That leaves the blurbs
ONE WAY to look at Tishani Doshi’s debut novel is to consider it a literary litmus test. Either you like overweening granny stories, or you don’t. The old matriarch Ba “smells” people approaching her house “from over the hills” — “it was a special talent that had come to her in her fifty-third year when she lost her husband to tuberculosis and her knee-length hair turned white overnight… it was life’s way of compensating: to take with one hand and give with the other. This was the law of the universe.” Later on the page, Ba “savours” Welsh words as “a kind of wind — a wind that rushes through the forests and shakes all the leaves off the trees”. The Pleasure Seekers is that kind of book.
A teen’s dream of London takes up “space in her abdomen” and feels “like a sadness”. When grownups try “to understand the darkness and the divine being that threaten them”, they remember “there was a beautiful time once; it was childhood. They carry it around inside them”. It’s that kind of book. Sex is described as a boy putting his “Whatsit” into a girl’s “Ms Sunshine”. It’s that kind of book.
The Pleasure Seekers is those familiar things: the chubby family saga and the slothful immigrant novel. This time it’s about the Gujarati Babo and his Welsh wife Siân. The novel germinated in the teen Doshi’s discovery of some love letters between her Gujarati father and Welsh mother, and the Welsh lady’s letters are the best things here — the form demands Doshi’s narrator to drop her pedantic curlicues and say things simply and directly, in the voice of a woman lost in love, loneliness and Madras.
Everywhere else, though, Doshi seems mainly interested in being cute. Her precious narrator sounds like PG Wodehouse’s mushy Madeline Bassett, who believed that stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a wee fairy blows its nose, a baby is born. Doshi writes like a phoren ma’m delighted at her grasp of exotic India: a young girl on the back of her father’s bicycle is “a princess being guided by a troubadour”; things like Lord Mahavir and Navratri festival are helpfully explained; teeth are “jhil mill” and voices are “hullabulla”. Doshi’s language suffers in this twee, sylvan mood — “almond eyes”, “willowy waist”, “thick river of black hair”, “drunk as a skunk”, sleeping “stretched out like a corpse”, time “stretched out like the Sahara”, a sari like “a tent in a storm”, an accident where the car is a “potato crisp” — this ‘poet’ gaily splats out clichés, assured in her whistling confidence.
DOSHI HAS said in interviews she worked on the book for eight years, and the drippy, risk-free prose shows its years of sandpapering. Throughout, she relies on the clumsy effect of repetitive incantation of phrases and even whole sentences to give her pages some charge. Intermittently, she also hastily links some bits of the story to political events: Babo and Siân fly to London during the 1971 Indo-Pak war; breast cancer strikes Babo’s mother at “the precise moment” of Indira Gandhi’s assassination; Babo’s brother Chotu’s love affair collapses on “the same day” as Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; etc. Every chapter is a neat pellet of one major event in one character’s life — a marriage, a pregnancy, a death, a visit — each neatly tied up by the end.
The fey, childish voice with its outdated earnestness, the caricatures of Indians abroad, the immigrants’ bathetic heartburn, the renewal of Indian exotica, the gauche politicisation of personal storylines — there is a moral failure in such writing.
Many senior blurbers have provided apocalyptic advance praise for The Pleasure Seekers — Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Roddy Doyle. Who is going to call their cynical bluff? This book, and this review, are irrelevant.
The Value Of Saying Less
Daman Singh’s simple tale intrigues with its incisions into small town lives, says Tridip Suhrud
IT ALL STARTED with the reproductive system.” As long as it remained a textbook illustration, it retained its mystery and even a faintly stirring quality for 13-year-old Ashwin and his classmates. But the moment Ashwin divined that his mother was pregnant, his world changed and with it, the fate of his hometown. The Sacred Grove is the story of Ashwin, the pubescent son of a district collector, struggling to grow up while retaining some innocence. He soon discovers that at armpit level, the world of adults stinks. This world is made of annoying principles of his bureaucrat father, plus a mother bored with her pregnancy for which neither food, TV, visiting sister nor hours of embroidery provide relief. Her embroidery eventually covers every surface in the house, including the flush tank.
In our times, losing your innocence often takes political and cultural routes rather than sexual. Daman Singh has captured this idea of growing up. The world of politics begins to impinge on Ashwin and his friends through a familiar villain: history. A school history project makes the world more confusing; he discovers not only a mild crush for the history teacher (a bureaucrat’s wife without a sense of limits), but also a perplexing attachment for his classmate Soma that he negotiates through games of chess with her grandmother. The sacred grove of the title is a patch of pre-modern forest claimed as sacred by local tribals (Christian converts, as far as the emerging Hindu groups are concerned), Hindu youth and a Muslim school. Ashwin soon learns that pronouncements of faith are more important than religion, and behind its veneer of affable sociability his world is deeply marked by prejudices. He learns that his father — “almost a King” of the town—is weak and ready to adjust in proper bureaucratic form. He experiences his first riot and loss of friendship with Rafiq, his driver and cricket coach. Then there’s the loss of the baby sister, though here, Ashwin appears indifferent.
Blunt and resourceful, Ashwin holds the narrative together. His pubescent rebellion and confusion is conveyed by his playful, irreverent, in your face language, which is the most attractive feature of this novel. His language is unadorned, hiding nothing, and conveys his boredom, irritation and lack of engagement with the world of adults. On the other hand, the communal politics of the novel is benign, almost Rotarian. What the novel does capture very well is life in a government kothi — its sense of hierarchy, its predictable routine and boredom broken only by a visiting liberated sister and ‘law and order’ situations. Singh has written a simple, but not simplistic, story that is fun to read.
Suhrud is a social and political scientist
Nayanaa Kanodia, Artist
A book that meant a lot to you?
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. It talks about the atrocities committed by the Taliban. You really feel how politics and violence affect ordinary people. You feel their pain, their misery and their sheer helplessness.
A book with a passage you would like to paint?
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I find the image of a man carrying a red suitcase really interesting. He is carrying the money he stole from his boss so openly. This red suitcase becomes a symbol of corruption in India. I found that really funny, and it is something I would like to paint.
Last book you read?
I last read Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.
A book that changed your idea of India?
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. People have said what is written is slightly exaggerated, but I thought it was beautiful.
A book you couldn’t finish?
I finish all the books I read.
How many books do you own?
My library is very big. I think I must have around 1,000 books. A lot of them are art books. I keep saying that I should get rid of some, because they take up a too much space, but I never get to it.
A book that inspired you as an artist?
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. She brings out how important reason is. You can change the motor of the world with thought, if you want to. I read this book when I was in college. It continues to inspire me when I paint.