Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Red Fort & 1857

Last week, I took a day off work, went to the Red Fort and sat there from 10:00AM to 4:00PM, reading a book.

Nothing unusual about reading a book all day but I just could not imagine a better setting for William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal". I sat on one of the green benches lined up for the Sound & Light shows at the Diwan-e-Khas, and as the crowds tricked into the open space to enjoy the cool winter breeze and warm sunshine and as squirrels darted about my feet looking for bits of chocolate, I flipped the pages and my mind wandered away to the summer of 1857.

What a mess this place would have been! An old, weak, vacillating 'Emperor of Hindustan' roamed these marble quarters worrying about a his orchards and Urdu couplets; whining about thousands of Hindu and Muslim soldiers who had poured into the city expecting decisive leadership; tossing away initiative and valuable time while an army of Brits with their freshly recruited hordes of Punjabi and Pathan mercenaries bombarded the city day & night.

Over the last decade, I've visited the Red Fort and the streets of Old Delhi innumerable times - mostly for the second-hand books at Daryaganj, followed by the mandatory meal at Karim's or Jelebi-Kachori's at Chandni Chowk. All this while I had assumed that the predominantly Baniya flavor of the walled city was an aftermath of the Partition.

Little did I know that until the spring of 1857, this was the largest and most cosmopolitan city between Istanbul and Peking, priding itself as a center of learning and urban refinement. And that soon after the - entirely avoidable and pathetic - fall of the city, its entire population of over 200,000 was looted, slaughtered, hanged, raped or driven out; that Muslims were turned into scapegoats for the rebellion and not allowed back into the city without special permission; that large section of the city and the fort were demolished to make way for a drab cantonment-town.

No doubt the Mughals, and other dynasties before them, had done much the same thing to numerous cities while consolidating their rule in India. So the observation of Maulvi Mohd. Baqar's son, Azad (who escaped imminent execution by swimming across the Yamuna), seems rather timeless:

"The important thing is that the glory of the winner's ascendant fortune gives everything of theirs - even their dress, their gait, their conversation - a radiance that makes them desirable. And people do not merely adopt them but they are proud to adopt them."

I guess the survivors of Quila Rai Pithora thought the same about the Sultanates, as did the armies that were routed on the battlefields of Panipat. Sanskrit was shoved aside by Farsi and Urdu, which in turn was knocked out by English. And now, more than 60 years after independence, we continue to seek our bearings from lighthouses in the West. I guess it takes time to wash away assumed notions of self-respect.

How many Dalrymple's will it take before we start thinking for ourselves?

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