Sunday, June 30, 2013

From ‘The Land of the War Elephants. Travels beyond the pale: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India’ by Matthew Wilson

[on crossing the land border at Wagah from Pakistan to India] …. Janet and Victoria both told me later they felt a sudden, extraordinary, and exhilarating freedom. Rather than being surrounded by furtive figures draped from head to foot in black burkhas, none of whom ever made eye contact, even with them, the change was revolutionary. For the first time they were greeted by smiling, welcoming females, unveiled, dressed in beautifully colored saris ……

We left …. to find a pharmacy, and inside a chaotic shop that was more like a bazaar than a clinical oasis of ordered counters, we found just about every drug, herb, and restorative known to western, eastern, and holistic medicine.

“I sometimes wonder they do not cut all our heads off and say nothing about it.”

The writer was Emily Eden, the sister of Lord Auckland, Governor General of India during the period 1835-42, who lived and travelled ……in India.

She was right on target. Fifteen years after the Edens left India, a widespread revolt broke out against the British. Essentially the prime cause was the unrelenting and apparently unarrestable pace of British expansion, as India was “taken over” piecemeal, state by state.

……a determined missionary effort threatened every aspect of traditional Indian life ……new roads, railways, canals, and telegraph lines were laid out and pushed ahead regardless of land rights, regardless of the destruction of temples, villages, and houses. The surviving Indian states felt threatened as, one by one, native rulers were brought under British domination and lawful inheritance was set aside if it countered the interests of their new overlords….. One signal change, never ratified by the Indians themselves, was that they would accept only direct male line primogeniture as a valid succession. A succession to a collateral branch of the same family, or to a adopted child was ruled invalid. This was not in accordance with Hindu or Islamic law, nor indeed with English law. If there was no heir under this ruling, the British took over the State.

….The flare-up came and the insurrection was branded as mutiny, but it was more than that; it was a chaotic, unplanned reaction against total subjection under foreign domination…..

….The revolt lasted two years. It was bitterly fought with terrible atrocities on both sides: the Indians were desperate, and the re-conquering retribution of the British was quite inhuman……There was one outstanding leader on the Indian side: a young woman, Lakshmibai, the Maharani of Jhansi, was the widow of an Indian prince. She was twenty-two years old when she became involved in the events of the Mutiny, and she was killed in action the next year.

…….In contemporary British mutiny records she is vilified as the epitome of heathen evil. Damned out of hand for the part she played in 1857 and 1858, and doubled damned for her sex, which had her branded as wanton as best, nymphomaniac beyond a doubt.

…..It remains that at a critical point in the violent genesis of the British Raj out of the shattered fabric of Moghul India, a stunningly attractive young woman, barely out of her teens …..shot to meteoric stardom like a brief bright flame. She came close to altering the path of history; but for a secondary role dictated by her sex and the blind chauvinism of her less-intelligent and less-talented male peers, she might well have headed a new, reunited India.

In early 1858, realizing that a British force would soon come to take retribution against Jhansi, Lakshmibai decided to fight. She wins star status from that moment, demonstrating a tactical instinct that can be rarely achieved by book learning, a dynamism that carried everyone with her, and the courage that reinforces even the lame with iron determination. Jhansi was brought to a state of siege preparedness quickly ……Tantya Tope and Rao Saheb, asked for help, came close to disrupting the British approach to Jhansi, but their spoiling move came too late…..they failed. Lakshmibai was on her own…. The siege of Jhansi lasted seventeen days…..Lakshmibai was in the forefront of the counterattacks…….was persuaded to escape from Jhansi to live and fight another day …..

…..her escape was remarkable…… Damodar Rao was strapped to her back, she fought her way to freedom throught the besieging forces. Later, sword still in hand, she cut her way through a cavalry troop ….reached Kalpi, where she joined Rao Saheb and Tantya Tope. She had ridden 102 miles in 24 hours through rough, rock-strewn, hilly country in 115-degree-Fahrenheit heat; and she had fought hand to hand through desperate opposition for the first twenty miles of her route.

….. Jhansi was looted, torched, and nearly totally destroyed. No male over the age of sixteen years was spared, and many women and children suffered the same fate.

There was a man on a bench by the gate reading a newspaper. No one else was in sight, and no other vehicles. Our lone fellow human being had horn-rimmed glasses, and the dignity, as well as the face and look, of a Boston banker. He was stark naked. I greeted him with deference, a greeting he too, equally formally, returned. As he returned to his newspaper, I took off my shoes to climb the steep concrete path to the [Jain] temples …of Sonagir

I know of thirteen different accounts of Lakshmibai’s death. The stories run from her death under gunfire to suicide…… There is an element of embarrassment in many of the British accounts, as if the killing of a young woman in action was unintentional, regardless of her blackened reputation. Much is made of the confusion of close combat, the disguise of her man’s clothing, her short hair, and her riding in a man’s manner, astride her horse; and the fall-back line was that whoever shot her, or cut her down, probably had no idea who she was. The evasion holds no validity. Lakshmibai had held her front line for two days fighting a spirited, aggressive, and successful defensive battle, due entirely to her personal leadership. Wherever the situation was critical she was there within minutes, leading every counterattack, surrounded by her personal bodyguards and with two femal attendants who were with her constantly, riding, like her, astride their horses……. They were instantly recognizable, wherever they went, more so as Lakshmibai “fought like a tigress,” as she had been described at Kalpi.

It was at dusk on the second day of the battle for Gwalior when she met the British breakout head-on. In the hand-to-hand battle she was shot, most probably in the back…….. Lakshmibai died……Her pyre was built at the edge of a watercourse and fired that night…… Her tent was also found when the battlefield was cleared. It had in it books, a cheval glass, and an empty swing.

……Sir Hugh Rose recorded his dismissive judgement of the most remarkable woman in India, who at her death was just twenty-three years old. It ran “The bravest and the best military leader of the rebels. Trecherous, savage, cruel and licentious, though this lady proved herself, yet one cannot refuse our meed of admiration to her bravery and military qualities.”

It wasn’t all defamation, but the letters and diaries that take another line are rare. Cornet Combe of the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, one of the patrol who intercepted her after her escape from Jhansi, wrote, “She is a wonderful woman. Very brave and determined. It is fortunate for us that the men are not all like her.” His letter continued “The poor thing took no part whatsoever in the massacre of the European residents of Jhansi in June 1857. On the contrary, she supplied them with food for two days ….”

In contemporary comment Lakshmibai’s youth and beauty, and the silks, furnishings, and luxury of her own apartments, were used to damn her in British eyes.

…..I stopped at the central maidan to watch a troopof schoolgirls being drilled as if they were army recruits …….there was something hypnotic about the silent disciplined rhythm…. Before the display was over the crowd splintered suddenly, its collective attention caught by something behind us. There, on the other side of the street, two policemen had cornered a man in the doorway of a shop and were beating him with their lathis as if determined to thrash him to death. After taking unbelievably vicious punishment as he cowered on the doorstep, he escaped by bolting straight through the ring of spectators. Everyone around me appeared well content with both morning diversions, and went their separate ways. I walked on to catch my bus to Old Goa.

Why, I wondered, was it that the Indian Airlines Airbuses just brought into service already looked as if they were ten years old? The fuselage and wings were stained with oil, inside the cabin the bulkheads were dirty and the seats worn and torn, as indeed they are on the Golden Triangle’s high profile Delhi-Agra Shatabdi Express.

By the evening of every third day spent in India I have vowed never to return again. But the following morning, in the smoke and smell of the cooking fires, somehow my resolution vanishes and I look forward to the new day. All is forgiven, all is forgotten. I don’t know why I have this terrible, irrational, compulsion to see India, to try to understand India, to make some sense of India. It is foolish. It is impossible. India is too old, too great; too complex, too contradictory, and too diverse.

No comments: