A slice of history

A slice of history

A slice of history

Turning point Historic battle of 1857.

In 1856, Vishnu Bhatt Godshe, a young chitpavan brahmin from the village of Versai near Alibagh, hears that the dowager queen of Gwalior is planning to spend Rs 8,00,000 on a yagna in Mathura. Seeing in this news an opportunity for someone with his knowledge of the sacred texts and the finer points of ritual, he begins to talk of travelling to Mathura.
His family kicks up a fuss, but relents after he enlists his much-travelled uncle Ram Bhatt as companion and promises never to stray in the direction of strange women or strong drink. Uncle and nephew then set off on a journey to ‘Hindustan’, fortified by visions of returning in a few months with enough money to free the family from the burden of debt.

That was not quite how things turned out. They are overtaken by the revolt of 1857 when they cross the Satpuras and reach Indore. The yagna is put off, and since they cannot possibly return home empty-handed, the duo spend several months in Gwalior offering their expertise at sundry occasions brought to their notice by a benevolent network of friends. They then make their way to Jhansi where Moro Pant Tambe, once a junior priest under Ram Bhatt at Bithur, is now an eminent personage because his daughter has become the Maharani Laxmibai.

This journey is intercut with received accounts of the fighting in Kanpur and Lucknow and the varying fortunes of Nana Phadnavis and Tatya Tope. They spend several months in Rani Laxmibai’s employ after she takes charge and survive the siege which leads to the queen’s defeat. They then travel to Kashi and Ayodhya — during which they encounter illness, dacoits, suspicious British troops and several other hardships.  When they finally return home, it is three years since they first set out, and they are still as penniless. The only significant addition to their effects being the Gangajal that Vishnu Bhatt cheerfully carries all the way home for his parents.

The provenance of Maajha Pravas: 1857chya Bandachi Hakikat — its full title in Marathi — is a tale in its own right. Vishnu Bhatt was persuaded to commit this account to writing in 1883, a good 24 years after he returned, by one of his clients, a Rai Bahadur Chintamani Vinayak Vaidya. Bhatt stipulated that the book should not be published during his lifetime — the 1857 revolt was still a sensitive subject and he feared British reprisals. Vaidya, who had the book published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the revolt in 1907, four years after the author’s demise, shaped it to read like a work of fiction for the same reason. He took another precaution — that of getting two different publishers to bring out the book — to ensure that one edition of the book would be available even if the other was banned.  The historians Datto Potdar and N R Phatak eventually restored it to its original form and published it in 1948. Mrinal Pande’s English translation draws from this edition as well as from two separate Hindi versions by Madhukar Upadhyaya and Amritlal Nagar.

The translator uses the word ‘picaresque’ while talking about this account. The term is picked up and repeated by the blurb. Elsewhere in the book, she calls on Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk as a sort of literary companion to Vishnu Bhatt. These are things the pernickety reader might cavil at. A picaresque narrative requires a rogue at its heart and derives its energies from the unending stream of lowlife such a rogue might conceivably encounter. Our hero oscillates between insight and cluelessness as well as between a general optimism over gadding about and a sense of travel as fearful ordeal.

Vishnu Bhatt is, in his own words, a ‘beggar-priest’, an entirely decorous soul who sets out on his journey with much aplomb. But that aplomb is shaken almost immediately when another traveller dies after being bitten by a snake at a rest-house where they stop for the night. He sheds many tears thinking about how calamitous it could have been for his family if the snake had chosen him. Uncle and nephew are regularly waylaid by dacoits who, after relieving them of all their earnings, feel compelled by his woebegone face to return enough to allow him to continue travelling. Vishnu Bhatt is less the dashing picaresque hero or canny subverter of authority, and more a sort of wise fool, the kind any reader will find impossible to dislike.

This minor complaint does not detract from the value of the translator’s effort. She manages a balance between the decorum that might have mattered to the author and the need to rewrite this account in a more contemporary dialect. She also goes far beyond the ordinary call of duty to make visible the context from which the book comes — this includes an explanatory essay, excerpts from several other accounts of the 1857 revolt, and translations from letters exchanged between members of the Oudh royalty during the revolt. The result is a volume that offers fascinating insights into how ordinary people viewed the revolt, into the relationship between patronage and learning, into the humbler sort of travelling that Indians did, into the shape of everyday culture all those years ago — a book that will be of equal interest to the professional historian and to the general reader.