In 1857, Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar, a young and impoverished Brahmin who had lived all his life in a village near modern-day Mumbai, set out with an ageing uncle to go to Hindustan—that is, north India—to earn some money by performing religious services for royalty and rich families in order to pay off the family debts.
Versaikar had chosen the single most momentous year in the history of India as we know it, more so even than 1947, for his jaunt. He lived to write an account called 1857cha Bandachi Hakikat (A Factual Account of the 1857 Mutiny), but only just.
For he and uncle Ram Bhatt ran directly into India’s first war of independence—the great rebellion that the British called the Sepoy Mutiny. Breaking out from the ranks of brown soldiers over large parts of the subcontinent, the rebellion was joined by regional princes, chafing under British aggression. The resulting battles changed Indian history and geography forever.
1857—The Real Story of the Great Uprising: HarperCollins, 208 pages,Rs250.
And it so happened that Versaikar’s journey took him through some of the most famous battlefields of that uprising. Cut off from home and destination, ashamed of turning back without the money they had promised to return with, they turned up in Kanpur, where Indian soldiers shocked their own people and enraged the British by killing the white women and children they had taken hostage. They were buffeted along, remarkably, to Jhansi, where the queen, trying to fight off the British siege, managed to escape with her life, only to die soon after in battle.
They found themselves drawn into so much peril, fleeing from place to place in burning north-central India, that it is surprising they ever returned home alive, if sadly penniless. At the end of Versaikar’s memoir, his falashruti, or précis of the lessons he learned on his journey, he says, starkly: “I thought to myself that it is indeed very difficult to earn money. And once you have earned it, you find it is even harder to retain it.”
Pande’s translation, in a language that is contemporary without being archaic, brings the reader thrillingly close to the moment. Its narrative owes much to her ability to recreate a clear, fluid idiom.
It is strange to think that this chronicle was once written, published and translated into other Indian languages in secret. Pande’s valuable and elegant supplementary notes tell us that a first version of this colonial samizdat even included a fictionalization, in which Versaikar became a character narrating fictional events.
In this new version, we see that Versaikar’s journalistic instincts supply detail and colour to a history that was once suppressed by India’s British rulers, but is now familiar to most high school students. The tragic splendour of Rani Lakshmibai, the brutality of British retaliation, the blood-frenzy that threw apparently quiet parts of the land in turmoil, are all given a living voice and living lamentation.
In Versaikar’s ground-level view, unable to incorporate grand theories and effective conclusions, we can detect what life was like for those on the margins of this upheaval—people who could only be swept along in the frenzy of a changing world. What did the rebellion mean to chance travellers trying to get a meal in a safe place? How could it affect people who would never see war, but who risked being in the path of chance bands of marauders?
Upstanding, learned, neither a hero nor a prophet, Versaikar is literally an innocent abroad in dark times; a small, grave figure in the eye of a storm. Pande’s translation of this quiet, matter-of-fact memoir reminds us that small things can survive cataclysms; they can nourish and inform bigger stories until they are ready to come to light themselves.