Book Review – 1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising

Published November 10, 2011 by vishalvkale

“One must praise the lone woman, our great Rani, who roamed the fort and defended the city constantly for eleven days while the British bombarded us…” 

History… the word conjures up images of drab dates, reams upon reams of uninteresting narrative etc. Only those who are interested in the subject will find it appealing. Thus it was that I, a history buff, spotted this lovely title on the book shelf. It seemed quite interesting from the title, and the aficionado in me was intrigued. I turned a few pages to see what it was all about, having recently burned my fingers on Alberuni’s India. It came across as something off the beaten track, so I picked it up.

The book was originally written in Marathi around 1883 AD, and chronicles the travels of Vishnu Bhatt Varsaikar from 1857 – 1859 during the time of the uprising. The translation is by Mrinal Pande. This is what makes it a very different book, and very entertaining. It is an eyewitness account of the events of 1857 from the perspective of a normal citizen. It is this approach that feels like a breath of fresh air. It was first printed in 1903 in Marathi

I shall not deal with the content covered by the book – you can look it up in a simple google search. To summarise, a Marathi Brahmin living in Konkan leaves his native village 3 days before the start of the 1857 uprising, travelling to Ujjain, Dhar, Gwalior, Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Indore, Mhow in the course of his travels. His destination is a major pooja to performed by the royal family of Gwalior. What he goes through, his travails are what constitute the rest of the story told against the backdrop of the independence struggle, which has been dealt with in detail but from a very different perspective. 

The entire struggle is told in second person, sometimes even in first person apparently by a person who saw the events unfolding. This Brahmin was a part of the Rajgharana of Jhansi’s royal Brahmin Sabha, and well known to the father of Rani Laxmibai through a common acquaintance. This lends credence to the observations made therein and the events recounted. And, you can actually see history unfold in front of your eyes as you read through the book. It covers aspects of history not covered by our books – the british reprisals, how the uprising’s main players came to be, their emotions. That phase will touch your heart and leave a tinge of feeling for the departed souls.

It gives a precious insight into the thoughts of those days, as this material has been written as history was being made. The characters of the Rani of Jhansi, Nana Phadnavis etc all come through as real human beings rather than as caricatures on a page of history. Their emotions, motives, actions, interactions with other major players and with their people provide a motion-picture like effect, a realism to the narrative and keep you spell – bound and enthralled. Having spent our lives reading lifeless characters on pages dealing with massive decisions and momentous occasions in 2 paragraphs, it is a refreshing change to see those same characters come to life in this awesome write-up.

“She got up at the crack of dawn and began her morning wrestling. She would then ride her horse. Occasionally, she would ride an elephant as well. After exercising, she would take a long and luxurious bath. After the bath, she would put on a delicate white Sari from Chanderi”

“When we called on the Rani, she told us that the city would be attacked after dark. She suggested we tell the soldiers that we were her trusted men”

These samples of anecdotes are sprinkled all over the book, which helps us to actually relate to these famous charachters from our history as real flesh-and-blood people…

This book offers far more than that – it gives glimpses into the life of those years, which can never be obtained from history books of the conventional variety. ” While most men of Bundelkhand are short, diffident, the women are in contrast well built, good looking confident. In the evening, the streets are lined with flower sellers and young music lovers. The city is rich. Its shops sell everything from carpets and silks to paintings and brass utensils” Between the pages detailing the war, each new town entered is described in a lovely way that brings it to life in front of your eyes.

It also details the reprehensible cruelties and reprisals that visited the Indian people by the cruel British people, the pillage and murder of our land which has been graphically detailed, that leaves one filled with wonder as to how such a thoughtless, amoral bunch of crooks could possibly have ruled most of Earth.

It also brings home one critical point: in the year 1857, there was no concept of India. The process of nation-building had not yet begun, the people had not yet begun to come together. There was a realisation that the people are the same across the land, but no concept of a single nation. The Britishers have been referred to in more than one place as ‘sarkar’, for example. The common man’s disillusionment with foreign rule had not yet come to the fore of the collective common thought. So, we are looking at a people in a state of flux, a people in whom the first stirrings on national thought had begun to awaken. For example, the family of the Author refers to the trip to Gwalior as a trip to “Hindustan”, “their women are full of wiles and entice an innocent man” . We are looking at our India in a proto-nationhood stage of its lifecycle, and that is the prime take-away from this book…

A must read for all Indians in my opinion…

2 comments on “Book Review – 1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising

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