Ruins are magic mirrors
They show water and fire
With all the errors
That you desire.
Ruin, ruin of the wall, who’s the most righteous of them all? This is one question that Amritlal Nagar’s book Gathering the Ashes deals with, tries to be right, but leans toward desired answers at times. For example, Nagar, though his enquiry is about events of 1857, dwells variously upon names of various shrines. At one place he suggests to his interviewee that the shrine of Hazrat-e-Sheesh, allegedly the grave of Adam’s son, could well have been a temple of Sheshnag, and the phonetic similarity could have led to a change of belief with the advent of Islamic rule in India. Later in the book, he returns to question the nomenclature of nine shrines of Sufi saints and says these were temples dedicated to Navagrahas. To counter the far-fetched claim of Cain’s grave with a pun insinuates a crack in the writer’s neutrality. Nagar is fairer on the question of brutalities during the 1857 revolt, and though he tries to indict the British, he does acknowledge the excesses that were committed by the rebels too.
This book originally in Hindi, written in 1957, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First War of Independence, has been translated by Mrinal Pande into English, and republished recently. The original title Gadar ke Phool (The Flowers of Revolution) has been translated to Gathering the Ashes which is an interesting take by the translator.
The book indeed is a pursuit to gather ashes. Most of the work about 1857 is from documented sources, and very few take lived experiences into account. Nagar set out to do this work, but was a little late since the 1857 generation that he was looking for was what I would term, a lost generation. The generation that followed, was in 1957, an aged demography that had heard about 1857 and had seen 1947. The book finds as much as it does not find—it is filled with accounts of inability to find any stories about many stories that the writer had heard.
The frame of the book is interesting. It is a travelogue as much as a book of history. The writer travels through Awadh to gather hearsays, tales, songs about 1857. There is a physical journey, a journey into the past, a journey into one’s own ideological standpoints as we often find the writer struggling with meanings or using his interviewees to argue his point. It is also a raconteur’s account book, where he candidly tells what he found, and where he drew a blank. The scheme is not teleological, that is it doesn’t follow the chronology of the Ghadar, but rather the geography of Awadh and his trail. There are several important people who the writer just does not meet, because he says, he must move on. To a student of history today, this book would seem very curious in its structure, for modern scholarship calls for rigour of documentation and theoretical backing. However, this book is a breath of fresh air compared to that straitjacketed scholarship, for it offers, despite its shaky grounds, very interesting insights, and also leaves various avenues of debate open.
The book also opens up interesting debates between history and memory. An old gentleman tells the writer-interviewer that his generation was not taught the Alhas, the folk ballad of Eastern UP, about the bravery of local princes, for such songs would stir another revolution, and more bloodshed. The writer does manage to piece together many Alhas though, and this struggling effort also takes the shape of a ruin, like the ruins of forts destroyed by the avenging British in 1857. The hagiographies supplied by people would not be acceptable to history as discipline, but they themselves are history, being a living tradition, a part of indelible intangible cultural heritage.
Nagar relooks at various important issues, and comes across immensely appealing but lost tales, such as that of the bravery of the queen of Tulsipur who no one talks about now, or the legend of stupidity of the people of Kursi. Nagar dwells on the matter of Ayodhya, not knowing that it will be the hotbed of action thirty-five years later. A divided society of 1853 becomes united in 1857 to fight the colonial rule. The lost history of the rise of unity of Ayodhya is one of the many lessons lost to history.
The book is an interesting read both for its structure and content, and all those interested in modern Indian history must have a look at it.