Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Demise of Dilli

It was the 20th of September. This was his first thought as he woke up to the sound of a loud bang from the western side of the city.

Those around him have been expecting something like this ever since the assault by the enemy began a week ago. That is why he remembered the date – he had been counting each day from the time the first shots were fired. Even at the first instance the shots were not a “normal” exchange of gunfire that had started since last month. He knew that it was different. As if each of those bullets embedding themselves into the walls or a human body had a different sound to it. The bullets made their intent clear as they left the barrels of the new rifles (they had a sharp, polished glint that shone in the sun) of the enemy.

As he got on to his feet he knew that this was it. Last night there were long conversations with ample foreboding about the coming day. No one could get any sleep because of a combination of hunger, thirst, excitement, and fear. Maybe people just wanted to talk; like they do when sitting around the tomb of a holy man, talking in whispered, reverent tones, and most tellingly, praying fervently. The difference was that they were not gathered at the tomb of a person but of a city. As for him he did not speak a word. He rarely spoke ever since he came to the city, and before that he could not remember.

Well what can one do but face it that the time has come, he thought to himself with typical stolidity.

People had already started scattering – some moved westwards while a bigger mass seemed to move in the opposite direction. He looked around to find who was in charge and but could find no one. He looked hesitantly around, deciding what to do. Since both the options were equal to him as he cared not a bit about either he picked up his rifle and moved westwards towards Kashmere Gate.

He was joined by assorted men. Some wearing their now worn out red uniforms. Some others were in their kurta-pyjamas and by hearing their refined Urdu he could make out that they were natives of the city. A group of Brahmins were marching impressively – being led by a subedar. Some vagrant kids had also joined the motley parties and were dancing vigorously while deftly avoiding the slaps and curses heaped on them.

He remembered that he was thirsty. It was not yet dawn but the air had a hot, stuffy feel to it. And everywhere there was this acrid, burning smell of gunpowder. Maybe once they reach the gate he will find some water.

They all knew that the gate was coming closer as the explosions and gunfire started getting louder and the smoke thicker. He saw a man approaching from the opposite direction and stopped to ask him where he can find some water.

Even before he could say something the man barked back, “Don’t go there, all is lost! Run and save yourself,” and then continued on his way.

There was a large mass of soldiers gathered near the gate. Many were stationed at the top of the ramparts and shooting at all possible angles. Couple of times a minute some one would fall down and then stay still. Those near the gate were in heated discussion with a senior-looking soldier. They were debating whether to reinforce the gate or fall back. Some others, especially the younger ones – those who had not yet seen death at close quarters, were cursing everyone else and trying to get the gate opened so as to charge the enemy.

He did not think it appropriate to involve himself in the discussion. He was a follower. His immediate concern was to find water.

He saw a soldier taking a sip of water from a small mashk tied to his side. He went up to him. The soldier saw the parched lips and without saying a word passed the mashk. As he uncorked it and raised it to his lips a huge explosion deafened him and pushed him flat on the ground. It became pitch black. His head felt like it were hit by a rifle butt. He looked around for the water. He pushed aside a couple of bodies one of which was of the soldier he had just met. His foot stepped on something soft and he saw the mashk with its water poured out, settling some of the now rising dust on the street.

A huge cry had arisen from the other side of the Kashmere Gate and now everyone around him was running amok. Rifles, swords, turbans, cartridges, sandals, spears, tattered papers left on the ground. There were some who were crying with pain, blood pouring out of their stumps of legs, arms, even heads. Those with at least a good leg or two hands were dragging themselves. The ones who looked most at peace were the ones who were not moving.

Except for his throbbing head from where a trickle of blood was now flowing down on his face, he felt fine. Once again faced with an decision he was indifferent to he started going westwards again – this time running.

He passed Kabuli Gate – not yet breached but also not protected any more as there was not a soul to be seen nearby.

He continued around the perimeter and reached Lahori Gate. Well it could not be called a ‘gate’ anymore as there was none to be seen. A part of the gate had impaled a man who lay on the ground, while the rest was found in innumerable small pieces some of which were on fire. Everywhere there were bodies of both “types” – us and them. It was funny he thought, a decision could classify one into the other when most of the enemy and the rebels were of the same country (now that all the Kings/ Queens/ Generals/ As-Yet-Untitled leaders had rallied to the unwilling Badshah of Delhi).

So there were many of them and many of us; some firangi soldiers; and a couple of gora sahibs – there insignia hats, pleated trousers, and polished boots now consigned to the dust.

He took this whole scene in a moment as immediately he heard music playing. He thought that the head injury may have finally allowed him to make sense of this madness by turning him into madman. Of course, he was not that fortunate – explain away the things around him by looking inward and declare himself incapable of understanding it. A brass band was now approaching the gate and it was playing one of those firangi tunes that sounded familiar.

He looked around for a place to hide but could find none. The band was almost upon the ‘gate’. He fell face down among the dead and injured. The odor was overpowering and he now longed for the burning smell of gunpowder. The place had suddenly gone quiet with even the moaning of the injured and half-dead coming to a stop.

The band came into the picture led by a flag bearer. They seem unperturbed about the scene around them and marched as smartly as they would on a parade ground. The conductor marched smartly in front, exhorting his band with vigorous pumping of his arms. The lack of a baton did not seem to dampen any of his enthusiasm. The sole drummer seemed inspired and was banging the drum as hard as he could. A column of well-equipped troops followed.

He kept very still as his instinct told him to. The stillness got stiller. Those who were lying injured and had not the sense to act dead or were in too much pain to think straight were soon put out of their miseries. The band never paused for a second – they seem to celebrate it all. The band and the troops marched on undoubtedly making for the main prize.

As the band started fading in the distance he felt a rage within him. He was unsure if it were because he was a coward or he was still alive.

He groped around looking for his rifle and found it. He got up and started following the dust cloud. He wanted to shout but his voice failed him and all he got out was a hoarse whisper. He started running behind the troops and when he could run no more he stopped. They were not more than 50 yards from him. He shouted out something. No one seemed to notice him again as the loud band drowned out his cries of fury. He then put his rifle on his shoulder, cocked it, and pulled the trigger. It was going to be or them and if he is going to die he might as well take someone with him (to hell or heaven he did not know). The rifle made a ‘click’ sound, he froze, and nothing happened.

He remembered that there were two things he was looking for last night – water and cartridges. The barrel of his rifle was empty. His throbbing head now exploded with anger and he broke down.

He woke after many minutes or hours. The street was deserted and he tried to get his bearings. The noon sun was upon the city and then he remembered that he can follow this road to the Grand Mosque. It was almost time for the afternoon prayers and he should be able to find a drink of water.

He left his useless rifle behind him and started walking.

The area was ‘Balli Maran’ the residence place of the famous Urdu poet, Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib”. He had been there once before. In the early days when there was optimism and a new found faith that had once been lost in the by lanes of the city for many decades now. He chanced upon a mushaira where the great Ghalib was also present. His couplet now seemed appropriate now.

Fikr-e-duniya mein sar khapata hoon

Main kahan aur ye wabaal kahan

(I trouble myself with the worries of this world

When I should be at some other place and so this calamity)

He inadvertently made a silent prayer for the well-being of the poet – if anyone could explain what happened in the city after all is done and dusted it would be the poets, and Ghalib was undoubtedly the best of those.

As he ruminated over these thoughts the wall of the mosque was upon him. It was hard to miss as such was the imposing structure. He was at the western entrance and the mosque stretched as far as the eye could see. It was also deserted. At this time, the surrounding area used to be filled with prayer-goers. At a place where everyone was an equal the head gear used to betray the social status. A skull cap was for a small tradesman or artisan, the tall Ottoman-ish cap was for a more literate person, the heavy turban adorned the Afghani. Now not a head or even a stray cap was in sight. The pigeons – kept for sport by the inhabitants of the city were also missing; they too seemed to have gauged the gravity of the situation and either kept to their coops or moved with their owners. Stray dogs, patronized by the people at the usually full eating places after the prayers, had also gone missing. The emptiness was claustrophobic.

He climbed the long steps to the mosque – each step an effort that parched his throat a little more. He felt was like climbing the stairs to an execution, a heavy step at a time; and upon reaching the top finding that the execution is stayed, cautious triumph. He was desperately looking for his stay if he could only find some water. The ablution area would have water.

As he entered the mosque through the enormous gates he was not surprised to find the place empty. There was no muezzin calling people to prayer, nor were there mendicants begging for alms. He made it to the place of ablution at the centre of the mosque. The water was still. It was red.

He sat down as there was nothing else he could do. He did not remember how to pray. Actually, he did not even remember who he was.

He had come into the city a few days after General Bakht Khan came with his troops from the Bareilly cantonment. He was an able-bodied man and so everyone assumed he was like them from one of the other places. He did not know if he should question that assumption. He could not recall in what state he entered the city or, where he came from. Did he have anyone back home? Was he a shopkeeper, a farmer, or a poet? These were still secondary questions as he did not even remember his name.

The troops soon named him Benaam/Baimaan Khan. Be-naam translates to ‘no-name’ and Ba-imaan to ‘one with faith’. So he was addressed interchangeably by his two names. At that time, Khan was an eponymous takkhalus or, way of addressing as it implied a fighter. He stopped bothering about his past soon enough; he thought himself to be a nameless, faceless person fighting for a just cause, a cause that has been a century in the making. And there were enough nameless, faceless, but not country-less, people around him for company.

As he sat in the Grand Mosque he felt a wave of calm flowing over him. He closed his eyes, leaned back against the wall, and allowed his mind to go blank.

There is only so much mental peace can help you satiate your physical needs, but the latter eventually takes over. That is if you are not a sufi, sadhu, or a poet. He at least knew he was none of the three. His thirst makes him get up and move towards the exit.

As he climbs down the same old grey steps he sees a crooked old man walking up, presumably for his prayers. Old people, in particular, are very concerned about their religious duties. It is because they are too old to do any other useful chore or else, having felt that they wasted their youth and middle age in going after duniya (world) it is finally time to grant God His appointment with them so that He blesses them with a good aakhrat (after life). Either which ways, he did not have the heart to tell the old man that there is nothing up there, even God. If he has to leave his worldly abode, he might as well die during his appointment with God than sitting at home or at a tea shop. He can then be counted among the martyrs.

He made his way out and moved in the direction of the market of ‘Chandni Chowk’. There he should find those sherbet-walas whose aerated rose water drinks were legendary. The thought of a cold sip of water involuntarily let his tongue wipe his dry lips. His tongue had lost its moisture.

As he came closer to the market he started hearing a buzzing sound. Those darn flies are everywhere he thought. They were always there in Chandni Chowk simply because there were so many sweetmeats and food items for them to choose from. Even the customers had learnt to co-exist with them; after all they were God’s creatures and had the same right to food. So usually, leftovers were kept outside of the shop where the flies could hog on the delicacies that even the poor could not. That is why they were called the shahi makhiyan or, the royal flies.

When he reached the market he found all the shops closed. The sweetmeat makers had abandoned their huge vessels, the oil all over the street. A rainbow of spices lay in the dust outside of another shop. There was nothing and yet the sound of the flies puzzled him.

The kids who coming back from their morning madarssa classes used to surround the numerous tamarind trees were also conspicuous by their absence. They were experts in stone throwing – with a single shot they could get a bunch of the sour tasting stuff to fall down. But they also had to be careful. Often times, the stone on its downward trajectory used to find a passerby, and then they could be in for a big thrashing. The fleet footed older kids used to escape while their younger accomplice, a brother or, a cousin, would get caught. It was like a graduation rite that everyone has to get thrashed once – the tamarind would taste sweeter then. Now that there were no open shops, it would have been a great time for the kids to throw their stones at will. But like their fathers and uncles, they too were missing.

As he walked further into the heart of the market he saw big heaps of assorted clothes. He could make out a maroon ladies silk dupatta, a child’s peach shervani, a soiled white dhoti in one of those heaps. He wondered as to what was the need for the shopkeepers to throw their shop’s clothes out on the street – were they trying to give them away so that the enemy could not get their hands on them? Strange were the ways of these merchants.

When he drew closer to the heaps he saw a human hand underneath one of them and he realized what was the inhumanly play that unfolded before him. That is why the flies were buzzing all around. They were heaps of dead people. He was staggered and numb. Nothing that had happened during the day had prepared him for this sight. Men, women, and children were lying dead. The dead were as diverse in their background as were once the residents of the city – there was indiscriminate and senseless death all around him. When has death made any sense, he corrected himself. This deed could not have been done a long while back, as the blood had not thickened yet. There was sickness in the air and not for the first time he longed for the smell of gunpowder. Was it the marching band troops that did this? He cursed himself once again.

The damn flies were everywhere; can’t they leave the dead alone. He tried to wave them off in vain, but no sooner he moved did they come back again. He looked around and saw a color-maker's vessel filled with water. Maybe I can drown the damn pests, he thought. He picked the up and threw the water. He missed his targets and the water fell on the street, mixing with the blood, and throwing up wisps of smoke that rose up from the hot earth.

He had enough of what was happening. He resolved to ignore his sworn allegiance and go directly to the fort and demand an audience with the Emperor. He will tell him all about what he saw in the city – the breach of the gates, the marching band, the water turned red, and the dead that were now there in every street and corner.

He saw a sword lying near a heap. He picked it up, wiped the redness off his shoulder cuff, and tied it with the cloth around his waist. Then he ran.

As he turned a corner he saw the enemy troops marching. He paid them no heed and ran along their side and overtook them. There were a lot of people running around on their own but no one thought about running together so as to challenge the enemy. They did not pay him any notice and continued on their brisk march. Their destinations were the same.

He reached the fort and ran right in. The guards standing at the door did not pay him any attention. They were surveying the scene folding around them, treating each event as a blade of grass that has been thrown at the mercy of the wind. Whichever way the blade goes that is where the wind blows. His running into the fort in mix states of stupor, confusion, and anger indicated that the wind was blowing towards outside of the fort.

He ran into the Diwan-e-Aam or, the court of the people where all the common folk and ordinary citizens used to petition the Emperor, and from which his lordship used to give his various firmans and dispense justice. Ever since the troops started flowing in to the city there were daily upheavals in the Diwan-e-Aam such that the Emperor had stopped coming altogether and the proceedings were usurped by all kinds of princes, courtiers, generals, and palace officials. Therefore, he did not expect to find the Emperor here. For that he had to go to his personal chambers and the court of the special people where the likes of Ghalib paid court or, the Diwan-e-Khaas.

He made it to the entrance of the Diwan-e-Khaas. He looked around for the page so that he can send his petition to the Emperor. He found no one. He shouted out but got back his own echo. He then tentatively stepped into the courtyard where he saw some peacocks from the royal menagerie sunning themselves. How the birds mimic their owners – the absent pigeons at the Grand Mosque and the blissfully unaware peacocks at the palace. The flowing fountains in the grand courtyard were not running, but he could see the water was their in the water channels. He thought about taking a sip but his sense of decorum for the place prevented him from doing so. It was early evening now and the shadows were creeping up on the palace.

He summoned his courage and made it to the far end, where he had seen the Emperor for the first and last time.

It was a couple of days after he was co-opted in General Bakht Khan’s troops, when the latter announced that they are going to the fort and demand an audience with the Emperor. Then they marched into the Diwan-e-Aam where they were met by more troops from other places. There was only token resistance from the palace guards who were helpless in preventing the breach of the Emperor’s private quarters. The erstwhile king who was now the Emperor never had an army. He found himself pushed to near the front of the courtyard. The noise was enormous – it seemed more like Chandni Chowk’s marketplace than the court of the ruler without a kingdom.

It was then that they saw him. A frail old man in royal regale came walking out supported by pages on both sides. He had a crown covered with jewels and pearls. He wore rings on all his fingers, and with his right hand he supported himself on a staff. He sat down cross-legged, keeping his arms on his legs. Even though he looked physically weak and was politically powerless, the aura around the Emperor was awe inspiring. Here was the descendant of Timur. A hush descended on the unruly troops and all eyes were on the man they came to support and fight the enemy for.

All the generals and leaders then went forth, curtsied, and told the Emperor their reason for coming to the city. They laid their swords at his feet and asked them to give them his blessings and support. They ordered their troops to do the same. The Emperor then stood up and proclaimed the troops to be his and gave the charge to what were his generals now. All the troops then swore allegiance to him, promising to fight to their last for the sake of the Emperor and the country.

He remembered wistfully the memory that was etched in his mind. As he stood before the empty platform he once again felt those strong emotions and went weak in the knees.

As he was recalling those scenes, a small band of what looked like palace officials came by carrying some chests. Like others through the day, they also ignored him, as if expecting a common soldier to be in the court of the Emperor. He called them out.

“What are you doing here? Go and save yourself. There is still time to cross the Jamuna river,” said one of the officials.

He smiled ruefully to himself. Leave the city and go where? He had no home, at least not any recollection of it, and all his memories were captive in this city. He belonged here.

“Where is the Emperor? I want to see him urgently as there is a lot that is happening outside that he needs to be aware of,” he replied.

“The Emperor had left the fort a long while back. And we are well aware of what is happening in the city, we don't need you to tell us. That is why we are also leaving the palace and fort and be advised that you do the same,” the official said.

He did not say anything and sat down. He did not feel thirsty anymore.

After a while he heard the marching of the troops and the now familiar brass band. There may not be an Emperor anymore or any of his army but I am still here, he said to himself as he took out his borrowed sword. As the sun started setting over the city he sat patiently. Another nameless and faceless martyr who no one would know about, forget about remembering him. And he would stay their, fulfilling his allegiance to the country he too would never know but will always remember.

It was the 20th of September of the year 1857 and Dilli was no more.

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