1857, and the politics of memories

In Delhi, as history students we would sometimes go on these wild goose chases. To try and step on the very site that some event had taken place. The ruins – even as they just that – in ruins offer some sort of a respite. They become a part of Delhi. Picnic spots, make-out spots for hapless lovers, gambling dens at night and even jogging tracks. But sometimes we’d yearn to spot memorials. It’s one thing to kindle memory with a crumbling monument, but where were the plaques? No, we didn’t expect everything to be on an India Gate scale, but on an average the small memorials were defaced a lot more than the ruins.

At the Rajpura Cemetery, we were greeted by a forlorn looking archway. At the Lothian cemetery, we felt like we’d stumbled on a large open air toilet. All these places, where some memories of 1857 reside, are flung away. Delhi doesn’t like memorials I think. Perhaps they don’t make good picnic spots. And so 1857 is sort of relegated to text books. And myths that surround the ruins. The few memorials that are usually for those who lost their lives to the “native forces”. You keep hunting for something that marks the memory of the “natives” who died. And just wring your hands.

Till I actually started studying history in undergrad I knew so little about 1857. Perhaps it has something to do with huge time lag between 1857 and 1947 – the lost years in which the official memory was different from “native” memory. Perhaps we were never really allowed to build our own memorials. In Dover last year, I spotted this – and felt a strange melancholy. The Mutiny, or Uprising is long over, but the battle over memories rages un-quiet in various circles and sites.

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to 1857, and the politics of memories

  1. so, so, identify with the history/memorial bit. Have seen some poignant pics earlier from Britain, again related to 1857..

  2. “You keep hunting for something that marks the memory of the ‘natives’ who died.”

    I think I just found something.

  3. km

    Great to see you blogging on cities again :)

    You should do a “1857 for Dummies” post someday.

  4. Ohh, a cities post. I like.

  5. I always yearn to c parts of my city that were! Mumbai satisfies me in that sense. I go into town and I see all this fabulous architecture. Seeing the fotus of used to be and what life was before..what that building meant…makes it so much more valuable to me. I love Mumbai – the frenetic pace apart, the city is old…speaks my heart..makes me call it home!

  6. Brilliant post.. especially the photo.. something shook within me as i saw that photo.. this is one post with a difference..

  7. Narratives are seemingly beyond our grasp as Indians, instead finding succour in dramatic breast-beating over perceived insults to ‘memories’ of the fallen while the places where they fell continue to crumble amidst apathy – you only have to see the state of myriad forts to know how.

    It took White Mughals to bring the spotlight back, else you could trawl the south and be prepared to find people drying their clothes on the ruins of Hampi while their goats are anchored to ancient columns.

    But for someone looking for signs of how Indians are coping with their past will find joy in the tethered goat as proof that we’re actually living in it, amidst it.

  8. prathama banerjee

    u r right. i guess to have a taste for memorials a community must see itself as indelibly modern – beyond the past, as it were. interestingly, delhi is all het up about 1857 this time, which it really wasnt in 1957, for the centenary. so delhi as arrived to global moderntiy, or so it believes, a we shall see more of commemorations and monuments.
    1857 anyway was a difficult event – neither here nor there, neither nationalist, nor millenarian, nor restorative. so .. yet more difficult to remember with ease

  9. Keith

    I am very surprised by this article and the lack of memorials in India.
    Being an American and growing up in New Jersey, where many of our revolutionary battles against England were fought (and mostly lost by the Continental Army ) We have markers, road signs and battle reenactments every year. I also recently visited Gettysberg, the site of the biggest battle of our Cvil War. At that site their are easily several thousand battle markers and monuments recording every moment of the three day batttle. Also in our south, several states still celebrate the Confederate Memorial Day, remembering the southern soldiers who lost their lives in the war that ended in 1865. I wonder why we are so different from India ? I feel sad for India’s lost years. Maybe it will be the young people of the next generation to remember them.

  10. Twilight Fairy: Glad this post found some resonance.

    justine: And what would that be?

    km: We blog in phases. But we keep coming back to cities.. and 1857 is such a complicated year – doing a post would really mean opening a can of worms!

    megha: If you like madam, then it must be good. Heh.

    Kits: Mumbai has its own charm. But when it comes to ancietness, I think Delhi goes back way further, in the sheer number of structures that have survived the centuries. But, I love old photographs of Bombay.

    Thejas VR: Thank you so much.

    Anil: Preservation doesn’t seem to be high on our agenda, as much as interpretation is. But narratives are complicated no? Who structured that narrative, who is it supposed to speak to? There are so many accounts of the Raj – some very readable ones – but most of them are so focused on the memsahibs and sahibs. Almost as if we’ve dehumanized the “natives”.

    Our ruins are alive I think. They never really become “historical”.

    prathama banerjee: I think we choose to look at 1857 as nationalist, when it probably was more a socio-economic reaction. After all, the country was used to being invaded by “outsiders”. But perhaps what really made the difference was the unbreakable hierarchy. I see your point – in a sense, you need to have made peace with the past…

    Keith: For ninety years and beyond after 1857, the event was seen as a “mutiny”. A sort of anti-establishment movement against a legitimate authority. A sore point. To commemorate that – in a way that is compassionate to all parties involved would mean that the Brits would have to admit to being “wrong” somewhere. Also, the outcome of 1857 was actually rather harsh on the Indian subcontinent. It didn’t have a concrete outcome beyond political rearrangement. If anything, the imperialist motives were further written in stone.