Room with a View|May 4, 2013 4:05 AM| by:

An Old Tale with a New Twist

1857 The Real Story of the Great Uprising by Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar & Translated by Mrinal Pande

1857 The Real Story of the Great Uprising is a very interesting read indeed. Our narrator is a Brahmin by the name of Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar who travelled through the Indo-Gangetic plain between 1856-1859. As one may recall, that was when the atmosphere in India was charged with the anti-British sentiment over the infamous cartridges greased with cow and pig fat, wounding the religious sentiments of both Hindu’s and Muslims. When Vishnu Bhatt began his journey with an uncle as companion, little did he realise what was going on in the rest of Bharat, and as he himself were to say on many occasions, he had walked straight into hell.

The Mutiny has been recorded from both the British and the Indian perspective and many a book have been written describing the events. What makes Vishnu Bhatt’s account stand apart is that he has virtually nothing to do with it – no interest in it per se, no leanings to one side or the other, no other thought but to get out of it alive. He was in a state of penury and all he wanted was to make some money as a Brahmin priest and relieve the burden of debt that his family was carrying. For him it wasn’t a strictly patriotic sentiment but also a practical one – an Indian King losing his position or troops to the British was a catastrophe but even more painful was not being able to reach a town in time for a certain ceremony in which he could have made some money officiating as priest. What were also interesting were the very personal observations and encounters he had with some of the key players in the Mutiny. Rani of Jhansi is a household name in India for her valour but Vishnu Bhatt portrays her in an extremely gentle manner, where she is both woman and warrior, mother and protector, goddess and devotee. One also sees the ancient traditions in full swing – patriarchy, male dominance, casteism, superstition, rituals. These are to be found  150 years later as well, in the India that we know today, but for minor changes in small sections of society. Even geographically, it was strangely familiar to travel with Bhatt but of course in reality too much has changed and nothing but the name of a place remains  – gone are the forests and rest houses and river banks.

The book was first published in 1907 after the author’s death; this was Vishnu Bhatt’s wish as the fear of the English sword on all acts of treason or rebellion was far too great. It takes us through an India at once familiar and distant, speaks without being self-conscious of events which were historically important, reveals intimate details of revered personages and also reminds us that while a lot may have changed on the surface, there is still much of the old India that we still carry within us. Whether that is good or bad is left entirely to each one of us to work out.

I leave you with an excerpt:

“It was summer and we were packed tightly in that windowless room. I felt suffocated and my body felt stiff as a cardboard. Around noon, I felt very thirsty and dehydrated. Others had made arrangments to quench their thirst, but I had nothing. Finally, when the gunfire died, I emerged from the bakhar and headed for a nearby well. There was a pot on the ledge, along with a stout rope to draw water with. I looked around, tied the rope to the mouth of the pot and lowered it into the well. I had barely swallowed a mouthful or so when there was a fresh burst of gunfire. The lust for life is strong in mankind; thirsty as I was, I banged down the pot and ran to save my life. In my panic, I forgot the way to the secret room and began running this way and that. Suddenly, I saw a round opening and entered it head first. There were two young women huddled there, and seeing them, I froze in my tracks. It was a tiny hole, but the women were kind and offered to hide me as well, even though it meant sitting extremely close, with our arms around each other. We were all drenched with sweat as we sat, our faces pushed close together. I was thirty years old at that time and the young women with me were in their teens. We must have sat for hours, with our bodies and faces touching, but such was the fear of death that we felt no lust.

When it got dark, I emerged from the hole and somehow found my way to the secret room. Kaka was overjoyed to see me again. He had been sure that I had died and had been mourning my loss. Thus, the day passed. Verily, once again, Hari Pants good deeds and god’s will had protected us.

When it was dark, we came out of the dingy bakhar and went into the house. As soon as we arrived, the wife and daughter-in-law of Karkare from the neighbouring house came crying. The poor old Brahmin and his young son had both been shot dead by the heartless soldiers. The two widows had sat behind closed doors all day long, with the bodies of their dead husbands for company, but it was dark now and they were afraid of sitting alone with the bodies. They begged us to perform the prescribed rituals for the dead ones so their souls might find peace. We were starving, but duty came first. We collected a few people from the nearby houses and went to Karkare’s house. Since wood was scarce, we built a fire for cremating the bodies with old doors, wooden cradles and whatever else we could find within the house. Then, near some holy tulsi shrubs, we performed the last rites for the poor souls. After the cremation, we brought the two women to our house. We felt that at such a time, insisting that the dead men’s relatives be treated as unclean and untouchable would be senseless and cruel.” [Pg: 113-114]

(Published by Harper Collins; Rs. 250/-)