Bundele harbalo ke mooh, hamne suni kahani thi,
Khub ladi mardani, who tho Jhansi wali rani thi.
I have heard from the gypsies and folk singers that it was only the Rani of Jhansi who fought valiantly the British till the last like a man.
The statue of the Queen of Jhansi riding a horse with her boy is an attraction in Gwalior, India. I use to see every year groups of people singing her heroism on the day she died fighting the British. A posh housing colony is named after her and a main thoroughfare has her name. Rani Laxmibai till this day is revered more by the people of Gwalior than of Jhansi.
Gwalior is my home. I came to Gwalior from Kanpur. History had bonded these two cities together even before I was born. The events of 1857 had brought the spark of mutiny, the urge to break the shackles of colonialism from Kanpur to Gwalior. My class mate Vijay Bhonsle’s great great grandfather’s mansion in Morar has his name etched in marble, General Bhonsle with a variety of military decorations and honors bestowed by Queen Victoria following it. I always wondered whether General Bhonsle was involved on that fatal day fighting Tatiya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. Vijay Bhonsle today is an officer in the Indian Army.
This year a month back marked the one hundred and fiftieth year of the Sepoy Mutiny. The Indian Parliament members remembered those who had laid down their lives, rebelling against the British occupation. I had read about the Mutiny in books of history which were part of the curriculum of primary school education. A brief mention about Tatiya Tope was all that I knew from those books of history.
So a chance encounter with Manohar Malgaonkar’s book ‘The Devil’s Wind, Nana Saheb’s Story' had me engrossed on a gripping tale of the actual incidents leading to the Mutiny told in a way as if Nana Saheb Peshwa of Bithoor is narrating it. The book was first published by the Viking’s Press, New York in 1972.
The book jacket tells us about Manohar Malgaonkar.
Manohar Malgaonkar is a man of broad international culture, who speaks and writes with equal ease in English, Hindi and Marathi. Born in Bombay, he lived for a time in the Former Princely State of Indore, where he first heard of Nana Saheb’s escape from his grandfather, the State’s Prime Minister. An honors graduate in English and Sanskrit at Bombay University, he served in the infantry, in Counter-Intelligence and on the Army’s General Staff during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Formerly a professional big-game hunter who proficiently tracked tigers for Indian princes, he has since become “a fierce wildlife conservationist.” The author of The Princes and A Bend in the Ganges, both novels, Mr. Malgaonkar is also a historian and a part time farmer. At present he lives in the Belgaum district of India with his family and grows coconuts, oranges, and mangoes.
The First War of Independence (1857-58) was the first general widespread uprising against the rule of the British East India Company. The Doctrine of Lapse, issue of cartridges greased with animal fat to Indian soldiers, introduction of British system of education and a number of social reforms had infuriated a very wide section of the Indian people, who rose in revolt at a number of places all over India. The East India Company was brought under the direct rule of the British Crown as a result of this uprising.
So this is the story as if spoken by Dhondu Pant Nana Saheb, a heir to Bajirao Peshwa of Poona. Bajirao was exiled to Bithoor, a place few miles from Kanpur. He adopted Dhondu Pant Nana Saheb as he didn’t have any children. The British refused to accept him as the heir to Peshwa dynasty and stopped the pension that was being given to Baji Rao.
But Dhondu Pant Nana Saheb was never a person who hid his anger or insult. Instead his palace in Bithoor was a spectacle of friendship and joyousness, British of all types and colors came to enjoy the parties and the company of Nana Saheb.
"I myself, brought up as a vegetarian and Brahmin, to respect learning and culture, someone taught to believe that all life – human, animal, even insect life – was part of a great single divinity and therefore sacrosanct, had the vegetarian’s instinctive squeamishness at the shedding of blood. I shrank from the brutalities that lay ahead. Even though I realized that a good many Englishmen would have to die, and that many times that number of our own people would also have to die, I fervently hoped that the carnage would not be excessive; that somehow, only just that number of white men would be slaughtered for the remainder to be persuaded that their best course was to leave our land for their own. And, to be sure, there were a number of Englishmen I would not have liked to leave our shores either: families such as the Wheelers and the Hillersdons, or the half whites such as the Skinners and the Herseys. My loyalties were hopelessly intermixed, and my hatred far from pure.
The ruling princes were the Maharajas who had been allowed to remain as the vassals of the Company. Now they were like jungle animals waiting for a game drive to begin, paralysed with fear. Before their very eyes, Carnatic, Nagpur, Satara, Jhansi had been liquidated because their rulers had failed to produce sons and Oudh, whose King had so many sons, because Dalhousie believed that God wanted him to do so. So if human error and incapacity to produce sons were not enough, God could always be relied upon to provide a pretext for annexation. It was just a matter of time before their own turn would come."
And as we move ahead in the book, I felt immersed and became a part of Nana Saheb’s entourage till the end. Manohar Malgaonkar could only write the prevailing facts in such detail, simply because of his proximity to the erstwhile royal families of Gwalior and Indore.
There are many questions that had bothered me.
Why did Nana Saheb had to flee to Nepal when he could have had a safe passage to Gwalior, after all he had sent an elephant load of gold for safekeeping to Jayajirao Scindia?
The Rana of Nepal not only extracted every gold sovereign and the Naulakkha Necklace but also his wife Kashi who became his principal concubine. It is defiling for A Hindu Raja who is considered a descendent of Lord Shiva to act in such manner.
Indian and European history books have concluded that Nana Saheb perished in the Terai Jungles of Nepal.
His visit later to Gwalior and then finally his escape to Malwan where he left for Mecca in an Arab boat with Eliza and their daughter remains difficult to believe.
Jayajirao Scindia had remained a close friend of the British till the end. Did he help him for the elephant load of gold that he had given him earlier?
Nana Saheb and his family could never have travelled to Mecca, he being a Hindu.
In the villages they sang ballads extolling him as a patriot and parents privately warned their children not to believe the history taught in schools. What the British had tried to pass off as a mutiny was, to most Indians, a national uprising for achieving independence. And right enough, when freedom came, India acclaimed Nana Saheb as a hero and raised a memorial to him, at Bithoor, which bears this inscription:
Knowing the dangers
He embraced a revolt
His sacrifice shall light our path
Like an eternal flame.