“Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny” by Zahir Dehlvi


This is an English translation by Rana Safvi of the Urdu original by Zahir Dehlvi. It gives a fascinating first person account of life in Delhi during India’s First War of Independence, an earth-shaking event that the British simply called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ Zahir Dehlvi was a privileged official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and he saw and reported everything that went on in those tumultuous days.

The Enfield rifles supplied to the Indian soldiers by the British rulers had greased cartridges said to be coated with cow and pig fat, which was obnoxious to Hindus and Muslims alike. They refused to bite the bullet. Instead they revolted. Soldiers from the Meerut cantonment killed their British officers, marched to Delhi on 11th May 1857 and declared the octogenarian Mughal as Emperor of Hindustan. The aged poet, a pensioner of the British, was simply not up to the task. Zahir Dehlvi was then 22 years old. His wrote his memoirs on his deathbed. While he is no historian and his narrative is prone to hyperbole and unmistakably pro-British it gives us rare insights into the events of the day, and for this reason alone deserves to be read. The translator has done a commendable job and the publisher has ensured that the book itself is a collector’s delight.

Dehlvi’s father and grandfather served the Emperor and he too was presented in court at the age of 12. He led a leisurely and lavish existence, riding horses, smoking the hookah, writing poetry and mingling with the likes of Mirza Ghalib. “Our days were festive like perpetual Eid….” Until the advent of the rebels.

After the mutiny was suppressed the Emperor was exiled to Rangoon and all his employees were fired. Dehlvi was destitute, having lost all his wealth and his ghazals as well. He fled with his family and later took up employment in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk which he described in great detail. He also presented interesting portraits of Bhopal, Baroda and Hyderabad where he had brief sojourns.

Here are some quotes and anecdotes from the book:

“There is a mosque here, which was built by Qutbuddin, though it is in a dilapidated condition. This mosque was built from the remains of temples. It had only been half done when the Badshah-e-Islam dies, and was thus left incomplete…….In the courtyard of this mosque is the broken temple, which is absolutely different and unique…….The iron pillar which people call killi or nail, has been installed in this courtyard. It has inscriptions in khat-e-shastri.” (The author meant Sanskrit but he was wrong. The translator tells us it was Brahmi script.)

“Once some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all the butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. The British government gave orders stating that these butchers should take their shops out of the city. They had all the shops within the city closed.” When the butchers and their families moved out and camped outside the city, the emperor insisted on pitching his tent alongside them. He stayed put until the British Resident rescinded the order.

The rebel soldiers after capturing Delhi appealed to the Emperor, “We are employees of the British. We have helped establish British rule from Calcutta to Kabul by sacrificing our lives, since they did not bring an army with them from England. All their conquests are due to the Indian army……And now…they want to destroy our faith and religion and convert the whole of Hindustan to Christianity. ….Now the time for revolt has come and the entire army has risen and refused to obey orders.” The Emperor’s response was, “Who calls me badshah? I am but a mendicant who is somehow living a Sufi’s life in the fort with my progeny…….The monarchy left my house 100 years ago.” His hapless grandfather had entrusted Hindustan to the British. He himself had no powers to take any decision. Therefore he has summoned the British Resident, Fraser. The Resident arrived soon thereafter.

The first victim of the riot was a Christian priest – a Hindu covert. Dehlvi says, “….as the sound of the shot rang out, the priest’s soul left for its heavenly abode.” The next to follow was Chamanlal, the emperor’s physician, who too had converted to Christianity. Then came the turn of the Resident.

Months passed. The rebels continued to hold Delhi. “The poor Badshah was always in a state of worry and anxiety and had stopped coming out of his Mahal. He was always sad and teary-eyed.” The Emperor said of the mutineers: ‘These rogues came to ruin my dynasty…..After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children, and hang it on the Qila merlons.”

After several battles the British finally gained the upper hand and the rebels had to flee. They requested Bahadur Shah Zafar to go with them but he declined. The Emperor left the fort and took refuge in the environs of Humayun’s tomb. The British commander “arrested thirty Timurid princes, including the Badshah’s sons, grandsons and sons-in-law, and murdered them outside the walls of Delhi. He sent their heads to the Emperor.”

I read the book with a heavy heart.

Overall Assessment: Read it if you have an interest in Indian history.

Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (Urdu original in 1914 at Lahore)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“A Revolutionary History of Interwar India” by Kama Maclean

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India.jpg

“On 12th April 1931, a conference of India’s martyrs was held in Paradise. We know because the proceedings were published in the Lahori Urdu newspaper Vir Bharat the following week.” This brilliant piece of anonymous journalism envisions a full-fledged conference with all the formalities and protocol, and presents an intricate blend of humour and pathos. Khudiram Bose, Ramparshad Bismil, Ishfaqullah, Haribhai Balmukand and Khushi Ram occupy prominent seats. The martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh appear in bloodied outfits. The martyrs of Sholapur are there too. Jatindranath Das as head the reception committee ushers in the much awaited trio of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Conches are blown, the gods shower flowers and shouts of ‘Shahidon ki jai’ rend the air. As Jatin Das delivers the welcome address, Jesus Christ arrives. Sardar Bhagat Singh says, “India’s martyrs greet the martyr of Jerusalem.” The Jallianwala martyrs chip in, “Accept our salutation O peaceful shepherd of bloodthirsty sheep.” Jesus announces that “Dyer is today being burnt in hell fire.”

Kama Maclean painstakingly traces the role of revolutionaries in ushering in India’s freedom, unearthing many enigmatic characters who fail to surface in mainstream narratives. In a 1937 book titled The Vanishing Empire, Chamanlal predicted that the British Empire would collapse in ten years. Later he became a Buddhist monk, ‘Bhikshu’ Chamanlal. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was fatally stabbed in Kanpur when he intervened to make peace amidst communal riots. Uddham Singh waited 21 years to avenge Jallianwala Bagh finally murdering Michael O Dwyer in London in 1940.

The Hindustan Republican Army sprang up in the 1920s in the United Provinces, later metamorphosed into the HSRA (Hindustan Socialistic Republican Association/Army) and shifted its focus to Lahore. There were invisible linkages between the HSRA and Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) and the Jugantar and Anushilan groups of Bengal.

The revolutionaries were determined to free India from British rule. Their main strategy was to make targeted attacks on powerful people. They attacked a train near Lucknow on 9th August 1925, looted government funds and killed a passenger. For this ‘Kakori Conspiracy’, four men were hanged and five transported for life. On 17th December 1928 Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru shot dead a British policeman J P Saunders at Lahore, and Chandrashekhar Azad killed an Indian constable who gave chase. This was their revenge for the lathi-charge in November that had resulted in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. They went underground, regrouped in Agra and on 8th April 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw low intensity bombs and leaflets on the floor of the Legislative Assembly before courting arrest. Soon other co-conspirators were arrested. The trial dragged on for 23 months, and the bravery and brilliance of the revolutionaries captured the imagination of the nation. Interestingly, they had had themselves photographed in studios in anticipation of capital punishment. These pictures made their way to every nook and corner of India in a brilliantly orchestrated campaign, and soon Bhagat Singh was just as popular as Mahatma Gandhi.

In June 1929 in Lahore Jail the revolutionaries commenced a hunger strike in protest against the differential treatment meted out to Indian and European prisoners. On 13th September Jatindranath Das passed away after 63 days of fasting. Subhas Chandra Bose (on behalf of the Bengal Congress) arranged to repatriate his body to Calcutta, and all along the way it was hailed by wailing crowds.

Jock Scott, Lahore’s Senior Superintendent of Police (who had been the original target of the Saunders assassination) soon packed his bags and sailed for England. The California-based based Ghadar Party threatened that if Bhagat Singh was executed, they would assassinate the incoming Viceroy even before he landed in India.

The HSRA bombed the Viceroy’s train on 23 December 1929 as it approached Delhi but Lord Irwin escaped unhurt. In April 1930 the daring Chittagong Armoury Raid by the Bengal revolutionaries masterminded by Surya Sen rattled the British. However, the young militants were out-numbered and died fighting.

Azad managed to remain incognito until he was killed in a shootout with the police at Allahabad on 27th February 1931. British intelligence noted that the Allahabad Provincial Congress Committee “took an active interest in the cremation of Azad’s body.” Motilal Nehru had died only two weeks earlier and revolutionary memoirs recounted that Azad had taken part in the funeral procession in disguise. It came to light later that Motilal had communicated with and funded Azad. In fact the revolutionaries usually relied on Congress members for financial backing and legal defence.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on 23rd March 1931. It is one of the classic ironies of Indian history that Bhagat Singh, although shunned by Gandhi and neglected by historians, was omnipresent in visual culture. Though originally a turbaned Sikh, his ‘hat portrait’ was firmly imprinted on the Indian psyche, never to be erased.

In Bengal on 14th December 1931, teenagers Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury shot dead a British magistrate, and expressed disappointment when they received only jail sentences.

HSRA members had multiple aliases. David Petrie (who later headed the MI5) was convinced that Balraj, Chief of the HSRA, was Bhagat Singh but decades later Shiv Verma, a surviving member of the inner circle, disclosed that Balraj was Azad.

The book has a chapter on the secret life of Durga Devi, widow of HSRA leader Bhagwati Charan Vohra. The latter had died in a bomb-making accident on 28th May 1930. Durga had masqueraded as Bhagat Singh’s wife to facilitate his escape from Lahore in December 1928. On 8th October 1930 she took part in a daring shooting attempt on Lamington Road, Mumbai, leaving her infant son with Babarao Savarkar, brother of V D Savarkar.

Overall Assessment: The best part of the book is the exhaustive array of photographs and pictures.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
AUTHOR: Kama Maclean

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

The Story of the Jews

Well, I thought I knew their story – until I read this masterpiece and found out how little I knew. The Exodus story is something you can’t help knowing, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, how they wandered in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land. You needed faith to believe the story but I had believed it anyway, at least most of it, excepting of course the more fanciful parts, like the parting of the Red Sea and the encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews and enabled the rebuilding of the temple. Jesus was a Jew. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE and scattered the Jews in all directions. All this I knew. I also knew that my home state, Kerala, had a Jewish community from times immemorial – and after the birth of Israel many of them migrated. Like everyone else, I knew about the Holocaust. And well, the Qumran scrolls or Dead Sea Scrolls as they are called. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d learnt about the Spanish Inquisition in my schooldays but had forgotten what it was all about.)

This book was an eye-opener. It brought to mind just as many questions as answers. If the Israelites found Egypt so abhorrent, why did they keep going back there? “The very first time that ‘Israel’ appears on any historical artefact is on the famous late thirteenth century BCE triumphal inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II.” The inscription claimed that Israel had been routed. This lends credence to the belief that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the Exodus probably did happen, though no evidence has been found till date.

Egyptian sources claim that when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE it was an army under the Nubian pharaoh that broke the siege. Very plausible, says Simon Schama. So Egypt wasn’t a permanent enemy after all.

In the 6th century BCE Jews were settled in many parts of Egypt. In Elephantine, the capital of the Pathros region, they even had a temple. They kept the Sabbath, made animal sacrifices and circumcised their sons. Surviving documents related to marriage and divorce reveal interesting facts. While Israelite men had unilateral rights to divorce their wives, in Egypt Jewish women were also entitled to initiate the separation. Tragedy truck in 410 BCE when the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. By the middle of the fourth century BCE, before the coming of Alexander, the Elephantine colony had ceased to exist. However, a century later Jewish settlements had popped up all over Egypt, especially at Alexandria and Thebes.

The Hebrew Bible was written over three centuries – eighth to fifth BCE. While it proclaims monotheism and an exclusive bond with Yehowah, it chronicles a saga of betrayals, transgressions, atrocities, disasters and defeats. “David’s best-loved son, Absalom, is killed in a particularly horrifying way while in rebellion against his father. Solomon’s imperially aggrandizing kingdom lasts not even one generation after his death. King Manasseh institutes the horror of child sacrifice by fire. The Egyptians are always at one gate and the Mesopotamian empires at the other.”

The Song of the Sea has much in common with the Phoenician epic of the storm god Baal’s conquest of the sea. Ecclesiastes is a ‘Wisdom Book’ that owes something to Persian-Babylonian proverbial literature. It was the Hellenistic Jewish world that invented the synagogue. ‘Holocaust’ was the Greek word for ritual cremation of whole animals. Only Greeks and Jews made fire sacrifices of whole animals.

Judaism was imposed at the point of the sword (and the circumciser’s knife) on neighbouring peoples like Itureans and Idumeans. In the first century BCE the Roman general Pompey marched through the Temple, tearing aside the curtain veil and entering the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was admitted. But he spared the temple, as Alexander had done centuries ago. Eventually Vespasian would destroy it.

The mass social upheaval in the towns and villages of Palestine, the coming of Jesus and his crucifixion, the exaltation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, the birth of Islam, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews by Christians in various parts of Europe, and the horrors of the Inquisition are set out in explicit detail. One is left feeling sorry for the Jews, although the author recounts the atrocities committed by the Jews as well.

There is much that would evoke shock and/or surprise. Here are some examples:

  • Judaism and Zoroastrianism had shared purity obsessions,including a belief in the uncleanness of menstruation.
  • Peter the apostle refused to share a table with the uncircumcised.
  • The Prophet Muhammad first commanded the Believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. It was only when the Jews of Yathrib rejected his beliefs that he switched the orientation to Makkah.
  • Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest. So it wasn’t just the Jews and Muslims who had this prohibition!
  • Much of the heart of Westminster Abbey comes from the estate of Licoricia the Jewess and her husband, David of Oxford. The Crown had appropriated the estate in the thirteenth century. Soon thereafter the Jews of England were all sent packing. This happened in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. By the time Columbus had set out to discover America in 1492, Spain had been wiped clean of its Jewish population and five years later Portugal followed suit.!
  • When Vasco da Gama returned in triumph after his India expedition he brought to Portugal back not only spices and animals but also a Polish Jew. I wonder what became of the poor man in a country that had evicted all its Jews!

The book has a sequel. I intend to read it soon.

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara


This is a book about the Cuban Revolution by one of its legendary heroes. It was compiled in 1963, four years after the triumph of the guerrilla war that brought Fidel Castro to power on 1st January 1959. Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla fighter Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had fought shoulder to shoulder with his Cuban comrades to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A universal symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice, Che believed that revolutionary uprising was the only path to liberation of oppressed peoples.

Talking of his harrowing experiences in the first few days after the small band of warriors landed in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, and all but 20 of the 82 men died in combat, Che writes, “I immediately began to think of the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind.”

The innocence of youth is striking. “As a trophy from the Battle of La Plata, I had taken a helmet from one of Batista’s corporals, and I wore it with great pride.” The helplessness of the invalid is apparent. “My asthma was somewhat aggravated and the lack of medicine meant I was almost as immobile as the wounded.”

The mind of the quintessential revolutionary is evident. “The people in the Sierra Maestra grow like wild flowers, untended and without care, and they wear themselves out rapidly, working without reward. We began to feel in our bones the need for a definitive change in the life of the people.”

The sensitive humanist also surfaces from time to time. “Blind and unrewarded sacrifices also made the revolution. Those of us who today see its achievements have the responsibility to remember those who fell along the way, and to work for a future where there will be fewer stragglers.”

Che describes his efforts at dentistry with characteristic humour. “Besides the meagerness of my skill, we had no anaesthetic, so I frequently used ‘psychological anaesthesia’ – a few harsh epithets when my patients complained too much about the work going on in their mouths.” When Batista’s forces leave behind a trail of destruction after failing to find the guerrillas, Che observes: “In the midst of the smoking ruins we found nothing but some cats and a pig; they had escaped the destructive fury of the invaders only to fall into our gullets.”

Che recounts his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, tells us how they both landed in jail, how they bribed their way out and how they made the dangerous sea crossing to land on Cuban shores after running out of food, water and fuel. “It was a shipwreck rather than a landing,” he writes. He describes how they ate raw crabs, horse meat and anything they could lay their hands on, how they drew water from holes in the rocks using hollowed out sticks, and how they dealt ruthlessly with traitors and informers.

There is deep pathos in his references to fallen comrades. “We must make time to weep for our fallen companeros while we sharpen our machetes.”

If Che Guevara hadn’t become a guerrilla commander he could have been a best-selling author. He was such a prolific writer – and he had so much to say.

Overall Assessment: Must read.

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006 (first published in Spanish in 1963)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan


“If you do not have a sword,” Jesus instructed his disciples, “go sell your cloak and buy one.” Was this the same man who said, “Turn the other cheek” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself”?

Iranian born American author Reza Aslan makes a valiant attempt to unveil the real Jesus – and in the process unearths some curious facts. The gospels were recorded by Greek speaking diaspora Jews. The gospel of Luke was written in Antioch and that of John in Ephesus. Almost every story written about Jesus was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. (In 70 C.E., the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground.) The Kingdom of God never came. But Jesus, the messiah, was gradually transformed from a revolutionary nationalist into a spiritual leader espousing a message of peace and brotherhood.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus seems to have pre-dated the gospels and other written sources. But only two facts about Jesus are absolutely certain: Firstly, that he was a charismatic preacher who led a Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century. Secondly, that Rome crucified him for this crime. The plaque they placed above his head on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. (However, Mathew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.) There’s no evidence for the ‘born in the manger’ story or the ‘immaculate conception’ theory.

Jesus performed faith cure and exorcism – and never exacted a fee. There’s more historical material confirming his miracles than either his birth or his death.

Jerusalem had a history of conflict long before the birth of the saviour. The story of Moses and the great exodus is well known. But the Jews did not live happily ever after in the Promised Land. The Babylonians obliterated King Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. Later they were defeated by the Persians who allowed the enslaved Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Then Jerusalem fell to Alexander the Great and was subsequently ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 164 B.C.E. the Jews regained power and held it for the next 100 years. Roman dominion began in 63 B.C.E., and when Herod died in 4 B.C.E. a period of violent uprisings followed. Jesus was born sometime between 4 B.C.E. and the takeover of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 6 C.E.

In 28 C.E. an ascetic preacher, John the Baptist, began baptizing people in the River Jordan. Jesus was baptised by him – and probably began his ministry as John’s disciple. Sometime between 28 and 30 C.E. John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas, one of Pontius Pilate’s lieutenants.

After his baptism Jesus went out into the wilderness of Judea – and returned home only after the arrest of his mentor. By then he had metamorphosed into a preacher. He called himself ‘Son of Man’. He had both male and female disciples who followed him from place to place. Women disciples named in the New Testament include Joanna, Mary, Salome, Susanna and Mary of Magdala.

The matter of Jesus’ bachelorhood also remains unresolved. Celibacy was extremely rare in Jewish society, being restricted to monastic orders such as the Essenes (custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The prophet Isaiah had foretold that Israel would be redeemed, that God’s Kingdom would be established on earth. Jesus merely said the Kingdom of God is at hand. But it amounted to saying the end of the Roman Empire was imminent. His “blessed are the poor….” statement implied a reversal of the prevailing social order. It was a call to rebellion. Consider this quote from Matthew and Luke, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

After Jesus’ death his brother James became leader of the early Christians. The Lord did have brothers and sisters – which goes to disprove his mother’s perpetual virginity. Joseph, the father, disappears after the infancy narratives. He is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke, as is the story of the virgin birth. According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus first begins preaching in Nazareth, the villagers ask, “Is this not Mary’s son?” Males in Palestine were never called by their mothers’ names. Burial after crucifixion was not normal practice either. It was customary to leave the corpses on the cross to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey. So why and how did Jesus get a burial?

Saul of Tarsus (who became Paul after his conversion) rejected Jewish law and began teaching believers not to circumcise their children. He had serious conflicts with James and the apostles. In the early sixties Paul was arrested and extradited to Rome, where Peter, the first of the 12 apostles was already living. In 66 C.E. as Jerusalem erupted in revolt, the emperor Nero had Peter and Paul executed. Their martyrdom made them the most important figures of Christiandom. There had been messiahs and martyrs before and after Jesus, but today he alone is God.

Though James headed the first Christian community and eventually died a martyr, he was overlooked in later chronicles, and almost wholly excised from the New Testament.

The book throws light on some ancient Jewish traditions. I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of the daily rites of the Temple of Jerusalem to that of our Hindu temples. The burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the sounding of trumpets, and the animal sacrifices (which are now unlawful), the purification rituals and the shaving of heads would be all too familiar to any practising Hindu. Menstruating women were not allowed to enter the Temple.

Overall Assessment: Great read, though it does appear that the author has a bee in his bonnet.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
AUTHOR: Reza Aslan
PUBLISHER: The Westbourne Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh” by Kuldip Nayar

Without Fear

A mother who advises her young son to shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ when he stands at the gallows. Vidyavati Kaur, mother of Bhagat Singh. We ought to remember her name. It’s the least we can do.

23rd March, 1931. Lahore Central Jail. 3 young revolutionaries are hanged – Bhagat Singh, Shivram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. That’s when the countdown begins. The beginning of the collapse of the mighty British Empire.

Bhagat Singh once said to Congress leader Bhimsen Sachar, “Revolutionaries have to die because the cause they represent is strengthened by sacrifice – not by an appeal in court.” When asked by his lawyer Pran Nath Mehta just two hours before his execution whether he had any message for the nation, Bhagat Singh said, “Just the two messages : ‘Down with Imperialism!’ and ‘Long live Revolution!’”

In an article titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, Bhagat Singh wrote, “I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be? A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian may dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hopes should I entertain? I know that it will be the end when the rope is tightened around my neck and the rafters removed from under my feet.”

When Bhagat Singh and the other defendants entered the court singing, “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna bazua-i-katil mein hai, Waqt ane de bata deinge tujheeh asman, ham abhi se kya batain, kya hamare dil emin hai,” the British judge summoned the public prosecutor and demanded a translation. It was the 5th of May 1930. The poem is believed to have been composed by Ram Prasad Bismil, another HSRA member, who had been executed on 19th December 1927 for the Kakori train robbery.

Bhagat Singh wrote 4 books in jail. All of them disappeared without a trace. The titles were: The History of the Revolutionary Movement in India, The Ideal of Socialism, At the Door of Death, and Autobiography. Mathura Das Thapar, brother of Sukhdev brought a copy of the ‘Proceedings Book of the Lahore Conspiracy Case’ from Pakistan to India and deposited it with the National Archives in New Delhi. Sukhdev had scribbled comments in the margins before his execution.

The average age of the 28 accused in the Lahore Conspiracy case was 22. Jatindra Nath Das died after 63 days of fasting in jail. The British made the cryptic announcement: “J. N. Das died yesterday at about 1-10 p.m. His brother K. C. Das received Rs. 600 from Subhash Chandra Bose from Calcutta to pay for the carriage of the body by car.”

Bhagat Singh surpassed the 97-day world record for hunger strikes, set by an Irish revolutionary. He fasted for 116 days in 1929 along with several other revolutionaries. A daring plan was hatched to rescue Bhagat Singh and others from jail. It ended in a fiasco when a bomb exploded in Bhagwati Charan’s hand killing him on the spot. Nine months later Chandrasekhar Azad died fighting the police at Allahabad.

Inspector W J C fern, a British officer who was at the scene of Saunders’ killing failed to recognize Bhagat Singh at the identification parade. It was the testimony of the five approvers that sealed his fate.

Bhagat Singh once wrote to his mother Vidyavati Kaur, “I have no doubt that my country will one day be free. But I am afraid that the brown sahibs are going to sit in the chairs the white sahibs will vacate.”

Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh met in Lahore Central Jail. The former told the latter that one day he would go to England and kill Michael O’Dwyer who had been Lieutenant Governor of Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had been committed. Nine years after Bhagat Singh was hanged, Udham Singh managed to fulfil his promise. On 13th March 1940 he shot dead O’Dwyer in London, a full 21 years after the gory event in Amritsar.

The book throws light on many crucial historical facts – and highlights refreshingly different perspectives. The good the bad and the ugly appear in different shades of black, white and grey. All men and women born in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom should read this book.

Overall assessment: A brilliant book about an immortal subject. Do read more than once.

Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh
Author: Kuldip Nayar
Publisher : Harper Collins (First published in 2000 by Har-Anand Publications)
Year of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Killing Lincoln

Lincoln has his premonitions. Two weeks before the assassination, he has a nightmare which he recounts to his wife and colleagues after a few days: “There seemed to be death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room. No living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms. Every object was familiar to me. ” Lincoln goes on to describe how he reaches the East Room and finds a corpse surrounded by soldiers and mourners. He asks one of the soldiers, “Who is dead in the White House?” Pat came the reply, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” Thereupon the crowd burst into a loud outpouring of grief.

Bill O’Reilly is a household name in America. Together with Martin Dugard, a historian, he puts together a highly interesting account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14th April, 1865. The history books had told us the dark deed was done by an actor, John Wilkes Booth. And we knew there were unexplained coincidences and conspiracy theories. This book tells us a lot more. The authors adopt a countdown format, with the narrative beginning six weeks before the assassination. The events of each day are outlined minute by minute. These are the concluding days of the Civil War and there is violence, bitterness and hatred all around.

It wasn’t a lone wolf attack. There were co-conspirators.William Seward, Secretary of State, who was seriously ill was attacked in his bed on the same day at the same time. He was wounded but survived. Seward went on to buy Alaska for the United States.

While Booth was shot dead 12 days later, 4 others were sent to the gallows within 3 months while a few more served prison sentences. Lewis Powell, the man who attacked Seward, was among those hanged. Mary Suratt, who provided arms and lodging to the conspirators became the first and only woman to be hanged in the United States. Whispers were doing the rounds that Edwin M Stanton, Secretary of War, formerly a brilliant Ohio lawyer, was somehow in the know of things. Was he among the conspirators? No evidence could be found.

The Montreal based J J Chaffey Company had paid $15000 to Booth and a whopping $150,000 to one Lafayette Bayer, a former spy, who was hand-picked by Stanton to head the man-hunt for Booth.

A telegram was sent to Chicago from Water Street on April 2nd, 1865, stating, ” J W Booth will ship oysters until Saturday 15th.” Booth never had anything to do with oysters or shipping but he shot Lincoln on April 14th. After his death, 18 pages of his diary mysteriously disappeared. Booth could have been captured alive but he was killed.The diary was found on him, but the contents were revealed only two years later, when Stanton handed it over. Did he remove the missing pages? It is anybody’s guess. Apparently it was Lafayette Baker who had handed it over to Stanton. This was revealed in 1867 when Baker published a book. Baker feared he would be killed – and he was.

Strange coincidences were a dime a dozen. On the day of the assassination, Lincoln’s bodyguard went on a drinking binge leaving the President unguarded at Ford Theatre. And he was never punished! Earlier, Lincoln’s eldest son Robert had been pushed from a railway platform on to the path of an incoming train. And guess who hauled him to safety? It was none other than Edwin Booth, elder brother of John Wilkes Booth. Another twist in the tale: Robert Lincoln was enamoured of Lucy Hale, who had secretly agreed to marry John Wilkes Booth.

Does the book merit a read? You bet!

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever
Authors: Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: September 2011

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma” by Thant Myint-U

The River of Lost Footsteps

I really, truly loved this book. Let me tell you why. Myanmar is India’s neighbour alright but this is the first time I came across a book written by a Burmese author. It is both historical and personal and tells us what has been happening in this closeted country during the last 100 years. The legacies of British colonialism, the brutalities of the Second World War, the bloody civil war of the late 1940s, the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, independence in the 1960s and subsequent rule by the military are laid bare with rare insight and political acumen.

India and Burma have overlapping histories and a common experience of British occupation. Having lived in India all my life, I had read history and understood international relations through my own special nationalist prism. I found Myint-U’s perception of historical events refreshingly different and authentic too.

The book provides much food for thought. The author points out that like Bahadur Shah Zafar, India’s last emperor, who was exiled to Rangoon, Burma’s last king, Thibaw, was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. His description of the fall of Singapore in 1942 to Japanese forces is revealing: “Despite all the frenzied preparation (at the expense of Burma), the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore fell on 15 February, and Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, with knobby knees and in short khakhi trousers, surrendered at the Ford motor factory to the much smaller force of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the bull-necked ‘Tiger of Malaya’. No fewer than seventy-thousand imperial troops – British, Australians and Indians – had been defeated by thirty thousand Japanese.”

The author informs us that the Buddha died in 484 B.C. at the age of 80 after eating contaminated pork. When Chandragupta Maurya defeated Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator and a peace treaty was concluded, the Macedonians “ceded most of the occupied territory in return for five hundred elephants.” The Burmese word for college, tekkatho is derived from Taxila. When Pagan was at the height of its glory in the 12th century, the kings and nobles wrote in Sanskrit and Pali and experimented with various Indian scripts until finally the Burmese language was reduced to writing (with a script from South India).

In 1106 when a delegation from Pagan reached the Chinese imperial court at Kaifeng, the emperor ordered that they be accorded the same rank and respect as the Cholas of South India. (The author calls them Colas. I guess he too is a victim of Americanization!) However, the Grand Council observed that the Colas were subordinate to the Sri Vijaya Kingdom of Sumatra whereas Pagan was now a big and independent kingdom. (This was one hundred years after Raja Raja Chola built the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.)

In 1657 following the death of Shah Jahan, when Aurangzeb seized the throne, his brother Shah Shuja fled to Burma with his family and was sheltered by Sanda Thudamma, the king of Arakan. The king soon fell in love with Shah Shuja’s daughter Ameena and asked for her hand. Shah Shuja was horrified – and planned a coup in response. The plot was discovered and Shah Shuja fled to the jungle, where he was captured and killed. The princesses ended up in Thudamma’s harem, but soon afterward the king suspected another plot and slaughtered all the members of the Mughal royal family, including a visibly pregnant Ameena. A furious Aurangzeb besieged the Burmese kingdom. A year later when Chittagong fell to the Mughals, two thousand Arakanese were sold into slavery.

Ayutthaya, the capita of Siam (named after Ayodhya of the Ramayana), was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. In the 18th century they were on an invasion spree – they routinely invaded Manipur, and on one occasion almost wiped out the entire population. In 1817 they occupied Assam.

Here’s something I really need to share: “The modern war rocket started its life, not in the West, as one might expect, but in India. In 1799, as the British laid siege to Seringapatam , Colonel Arthur Wellesly (the future duke of Wellington) advanced with his men toward a small hill nearby, only to be attacked by a tremendous barrage of rocket fire and forced to flee in complete disarray. When the fortress finally fell, among the enormous loot sent away to England were two specimens of Mysorean rockets.” This triggered a vigorous R&D program at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal and an improved version soon emerged – the Congreve rocket. Eight years later Copenhagen received the first shower of 40,000 rockets. In 1812 Washington DC was bombarded, burnt, and captured for the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The author can be forgiven for saying that Bihar is the birthplace of the Buddha. It was Gautama’s karma bhumi after all. What if he was born in Lumbini in Nepal?

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

The River of Lost Footsteps – A Personal History of Burma
AUTHOR: Thant Myint-U
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber Ltd., Bloomsbury House, UK

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan” by Shrabani Basu

Spy Princess

I’d read “Victoria and Abdul” by Shrabani Basu and I’d been really, really impressed. It was about Queen Victoria striking up a great friendship with a young man, Abdul Karim, who had been brought from India to work in the palace. The stupendous amount of research that formed the basis for that book and the author’s way with words had made it a most enjoyable read. So I picked up the “Spy Princess” with a basket of great expectations. Noor is a fascinating subject, firstly because she was a spy, and secondly because she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Lion of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799. The book, however, disappoints as it enlightens. Too many characters, too many details, too many sub-plots make it a tiring read.

Born in Moscow to Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian prince who was a Sufi singer, and an American woman, Ora Ray Baker, Noor-un-nisa was the eldest of four siblings, and lived mostly in Paris and London. Neither her genteel upbringing in the Sufi tradition nor her sensitive, refined temperament had prepared her for the stupendous role she was to play during the crucial years of World War II. Noor was executed by the Nazis at the Dachau concentration camp on 13th September 1944. It was only two years after the war ended that this fact became known. On 16th June 1943 she had been airdropped in France along with three others, none of whom survived the war.

Noor’s story is a saga of personal tragedies. At twelve she fell in love with a Dutch boy but her parents didn’t approve. Her father wanted her to marry Alladatt Khan, a man from Baroda, but that was not to be. Noor lost her father when she was thirteen, and took upon herself the burden of looking after her mother and younger siblings. In a short story titled ‘Echo’ she wrote: “Amongst the nymphs who lived on a high mountain slope was a little one who talked and talked and jabbered and chattered, even more than the crickets in the grass, and more than the sparrows in the trees. Her name was Echo.” She soon began contributing poems and children’s stories in magazines and radio.

Noor had learnt the basic Indian ragas from her father and played the harp and the piano. While studying music at the Ecole Normale de Musique, she was involved with a Turkish Jew. The relationship lasted six years and left her emotionally drained.

Noor graduated in child psychology from the Sorbonne in 1938. Her English translation of the Jataka Tales was published in England in 1939. In 1940, she broke off her engagement and decided to move to England with her family. Hours after the fall of Paris they set sail on the last boat to leave France. In November Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Later she was chosen as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent and became the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France to aid the Resistance. The average survival span for a radio operator was estimated by the SOE to be six weeks, and Noor was briefed about this. Her acceptance of the fatal assignment was whole-hearted.

Before leaving England, Noor told her family she was engaged to a British officer and they would marry when the war ended. The mystery man was never identified. In Paris, Noor was linked to Antelme (who was later executed by the Germans) but the nature of their relationship is uncertain. It was wartime after all – and Noor was an unfailing romantic.

For four months after landing in France Noor evaded capture, changing locations frequently, changing her appearance occasionally, and relying on her network of friends who provided cover. She was eventually betrayed and fell into the hands of the Gestapo. When Ernest Vogt at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris told Noor her sacrifice had been in vain, she replied calmly, “I have served my country. That is my recompense.” After making two daring escape attempts, Noor was labelled “highly dangerous” and transported to a prison where she was kept shackled for the next ten months. Despite interrogation, abuse and torture she revealed nothing and remained defiant until her last breath. She was only thirty when she died.

Had the SOE deliberately sent innocent girls to their deaths, knowing they would never return? The compulsions of a country at war cannot be viewed through a peace-time lens, and obviously one cannot expect simple answers.

In 1949, the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honour was bestowed upon Noor. France had awarded her their highest civilian honour in January 1946. Every year on Bastille Day (14th July) a band plays outside her childhood home, Fazal Manzil, on the rue de la Tuilerie. A square in Suresnes is named Cours Madeleine (The French know her by her code name ‘Madeleine’). There is a plaque in her honour at Dachau in Germany, and another at Grignon in France where she made her first transmission. In 2012 a bronze bust of the ‘spy princess’ was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London.

Overall Assessment: Despite its shortcomings, this is a book that begs to be read.

Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
AUTHOR: Shrabani Basu
PUBLISHER: Sutton Publishing, UK

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.