A leaf from the past : Vishnubhat Godse memoir of the 1857 Rebellion

Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 7:40am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Vishnubhat Godse memoir is the first account of 1857 Rebellion from India's point of view

1857 was one of the most important years in the history of India. It was in this year that the country ruled by the foreigners rose to fight for its rights and though British-written English textbooks brush it as a sepoy mutiny, we consider it as our First War Of Independence. Vishnubhat Godse's Mazha Pravas (translated by Shanta Gokhale and Priya Adarkar as Adventures Of A Brahmin Priest) describes the pilgrimages he undertook to earn some money for his family and the unexpected turn of events which took him in the middle of the events of 1857. The book, written twenty-five years after his travels, is the first account of the 1857 events as seen through Indian eyes.

Godse wrote his memoirs on the urging of a historian who both shaped and edited it. This book uses 19th century idiom and depicts contemporary familial, social and political life in cross-regional terms and straddles historiography and literature. He interprets the Rebellion as a righteous response to British interference in Hindu and Muslim inheritance, and his assessment of its failure was a moral one: It was the rebels' unforgivable sin of killing women and children-against the shastras-that ensured their eventual defeat. Godse's narration plunges the reader straight into the heart of turbulent times and offers a slice of history that has impacted popular imagination for the last 150 years. It illustrates how rigidly the social structure operated, how the British gradually gained control, and highlights the power that Vedic rites and their performers had over the population. This creative travelogue of the nineteenth century serves as one of the authoritative bookends of the historical discourse on Rani Lakshmibai, Jhansi, and 1857.

Godse writes about Jhansi, "The city, as seen from the ramparts of the fort, now appeared to be utterly destroyed...Horses, elephants, bulls, cows, buffaloes, donkeys, mules, and dogs were wandering the streets, bellowing for food and water..."

This first Indian account of the Uprising is sprinkled with anecdotes and descriptions of courtly relationships. The narrative captures the fear, hysteria and human emotions beautifully. The stories of his meetings with people from various walks of life evoke strong sentiments. Some tug at you heart while reading about a distant time.

"See what happened to us," Godse says at the end of the book. "I travelled far away because my family was heavily in debt. I endured happy times and hardships. At the end of it all, when it was time to return home, I had no money. So it is all a question of fate. You cannot make plans to earn money." As a first memoir from Indian point of view on 1857, this is a must read.

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