Once, during a trip to Delhi, seeing the way history seemed to come ‘alive’ in the old city at various corners, I asked my friend whether anyone had tracked what had happened to the descendants of the Mughals, and how they saw their legacy . In this book, William Dalrymple does shed some light on it, though a sad one. More than the last Mughal emperor, the book belongs to the First War of Indian Independence to which he was unwittingly bound. Bahadur Shah 2 or Bahadur Shah Zafar as we were taught in history classes, born in 1775, whose pen name meant ‘Victory’, and was depicted as the face of the revolution that almost threw out the British. A hapless man who was pulled by a desire to ensure that he did justice to his legacy, when all he wanted to do was write his poetry and live in the company of like-minded souls. A spiritual man who was even considered a sufi saint, and still is, at his grave in Rangoon.
It is now history, but at some point it was the life lived by people like us. 1857 seems like tangible history, an era that can still be felt by its influence, even if minimal. Using records from all kinds of people – common men and chroniclers across Indian and British nationalities, the author creates a vivid portrait of Delhi, before, during, and after the uprising. Characters such as Ghalib sometimes add philosophical layers to this narration, and help us understand the cultural high point that was regained in Zafar’s court. It also shows Zafar as a normal human being of his era – with his own superstitions and insecurities, a subject of court intrigue courtesy his wife Zinat Mahal, his son Mirza Mughaal, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, General Bakht Khan and others, despite being hailed as Padshah, the Lord of the World.
The book also makes a point to showcase the relationship between religious communities before the event, and as the author reinforces many a time, Zafar deserves quite some credit in understanding the fabric that held his city together and maintaining the harmony there. He also points out that the real reason for the uprising was not political, but religious. What started as a fight between Hindu sepoys and the British ended as a fight between a rebel force that was made mostly of Muslim jehadis and British mercenaries made of Sikh, Muslim Punjabi, and Pathans. And it was a war that could have gone wither way.
Late in the book, there is also a mention of a royal survivor – Zafar Sultan, Zafar’s brother’s son, who refused government pension, and made his living with a brick cart. Once, many years later, in his old age, he was abused and beaten up by a businessman. After quietly taking the first few blows, he hit the businessman hard enough to break his nose. He told the court that sixty years earlier, the man’s forefathers would have been his slaves and that he had not forgotten his lineage. Dressed in dirty suits, made to get up and salaam the British (when he used to consider it an insult for anyone to sit in his presence), and verbally abused regularly, Zafar himself was the recipient of several injustices at the hands of the British, who did not even give any consideration for his old age after they ‘captured’ him.
What remains with me, and this is something I went back to, almost every time I picked up the book to continue, is the photo of Zafar, lying with his face to the camera – the face of a broken old man who through his life saw the dominion of his ancestors taken away from him until all he had was his city and an empty title, who had just been made to undergo a trial and many humiliations before it, eyes expressing melancholy, and resigned to his destiny.