It was a bright sunny morning on 11th May 1857. A huge crowd had gathered by the banks of the Yamuna river, waiting for the old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to appear on the jharokha or window of the Mussaman Burj (balcony) of the Red Fort. The tradition of giving a morning darshan or sighting to the subjects, was an old one started by Emperor Akbar, nearly 300 years ago. Just as everyone watched the Emperor taking his seat, there was a sudden shout. The crowd turned to the opposite direction. There was a massive pillar of smoke rising as a fire raged on the other side of the Yamuna. Galloping riders came with a message that an unknown army was heading towards Delhi. There was shock, fear and then panic. No one knew what was going on.
Narrated by 22-year-old poet Zahir Dehlvi in his ‘Dastan-e-Ghadar’ , this first-person account of 1857 gives a rare, from the ground, Indian perspective of an event that would go on to be described as India’s first fight for Independence. Sadly, most of our history books look at the Revolt of 1857 from a socio-political perspective missing out the very important ‘human’ element. Dehlvi gives us a sense of what he made of the events that unfolded? And this is what makes it important.
‘Dastan-e-Ghadar’ is a fascinating first-person description of the ‘first’ of the chain of events, that would turn Delhi and an old forgotten Emperor into the focal point of the great revolt of 1857.
Born in 1835, to a family of old Delhi aristocrats, Dehlvi was a budding poet, who enjoyed access to Red Fort and Delhi’s elite. The events of 1857 and the backlash after, ripped through his world and he, like others, was forced into a sad life of exile. That is when he penned the ‘Taraz-i-Zahiri’, one of the earliest autobiographies written in Urdu. This later became popular as the ‘Dastan-e-Ghadar’ which was published in 1914. The English translation of this book was penned by Delhi historian and writer Rana Safvi and published by Penguin books in 2017.
Perhaps the single most interesting narrative in the book, which sadly seems to have been ignored, is what happened after the rebel army from Meerut marched into Delhi.
At first, the Delhi gates were ordered shut. Thinking that the rebels would enter from the Calcutta gate of Delhi city, the British commandant was waiting at the Calcutta gate with the cannons. However, fate had something else in the store. As Dehlvi writes-
Zahir is also quite candid and disapproving of the behavior of the rebels, once they entered the city. As he points out their first act was to kill all the British as well as local Christians they could find, including Dr. Chiman Lal, the most prominent doctor of Delhi city. He is scathing about the decisions of the Rebels to attack all the British, even women and children who had taken refuge in the Red Fort
Once things settled, there came another crisis. Due to the British blockade, Delhi was cut off and there were massive shortages. Life came to a standstill. Reflecting on the conditions in Delhi, he writes –
While Zahir does not mention it in his memoirs, a section of Delhi society did enthusiastically welcome the rebels from Meerut and the elevation of Bahadur Shah Zafar as their head. Unlike the old Mughal aristocracy who looked upon these rebels as interlopers, they were enthusiastically supported by Delhi’s Muslim merchants and weavers, who provided manpower as well as resources to the rebels.
For four months, Delhi remained under siege before falling to British forces on 21st September 1857. What followed was a bloodbath in the city. Zahir mentions how there were dead bodies piled up like logs, in Chandni Chowk.
While Zahir Dehlvi managed to escape from Delhi, he lost all his possessions as well as many of his friends and family members in the massacre that followed. Recounting those terrible times, he writes –
After a long life of exile in Alwar, Tonk, and Jaipur, Dehlvi finally settled in Hyderabad, where he passed away in 1911.
After the British takeover, Delhi was the city of the dead. The Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon. Large parts of the old city were simply reduced to rubble, and survivors exiled. As noted poet Mirza Ghalib laments, writing to his friend –
After the events of 11th May 1857, Delhi was never the same again.
(With excerpts from Rana Safvi’s ‘Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny’ published by Penguin India in 2017)
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