Saturday, June 02, 2007

299. The Gathering Storm

Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862), last Mughal Emperor of India.


My dear Ghalib, you are exceedingly arrogant,
and seem to think you know it all:
I cannot follow your obscure ghazals.
Zauq is more the man for me, he is also
the chosen poet of our discerning king.
People say openly you should learn from him.
His language is limpid, pure, and clear.
Ahh, the son of Channa Lal, the moneylender,
I do believe. Forgive me, I am not mistaken?
Run back to your counting house, young man,
and do not presume to pass ignorant comments
on things you cannot comprehend. I am
the Light of Delhi, a star in the firmament,
and you, no more than a smoking guttering lamp.
I think we shall not speak again. Good day.

Captain Collingwood

Interfering oldJennings wants to convert the locals
and of course they bloody well resent it, even our
own people think he is pushing too hard.
We have more and more of these Blue Light
religious chaps, even in the Army, and I can
tell you, mark my words, it bodes ill for the future.
Incidentally, I met Elizabeth Skinner the other day,
very gentle-mannered and perfectly charming.
She's quite light-skinned even if her father's half-black.
The grandfather came out in the last century,
and like so many of those early Company men,
married into one of the best local families.
These days, of course, it's not the done thing.
Natives of the better class can be perfectly polite,
but while aping our manners, can never be English.


Bahadur, I am most grateful for the basket of mangoes,
intones the new royal poet, walking beside his patron
on the Raj Ghat, along the banks of the Jumna River.
Now that Zauq has passed on, I am conscious of your favour,
and yet I feel you have not quite shown me the same honour.
The Emperor, known to the Angreezi as the King of Delhi
walks slowly on, a smile comes fleetingly to his lips.
My dear Ghalib, perhaps you did not enjoy the kite flying?
It can be rather tiring to watch an old man behave like a child.
No, My Lord, it was enthralling; it was a pleasure and an honour.
I perceive it is an even greater honour that you seek, Ghalib?
In truth, My Lord, as your court poet it is no more than my due!
I see, Ghalib. You could never understand why I favoured Zauq?
I could not, Bahadur. His poems were too childish for my taste.
Childlike, Ghalib, not childish. Therein lies the essential difference.

Captain Collingwood

Take the King of Delhi, for example, a poor old codger,
surrounded by fifteen wives and at least forty children:
a museum piece, really, ensconced in the old Red Fort,
the last of the Grand Mughals, descendant of Timurlane,
living in the lost nostalgic corridors of a ruined past
with hardly ten rupees to call his own. I've been told
that his last great public procession through the city
with rented elephants and fireworks and marching bands
has put him firmly in the hands of the Jain moneylenders.
Our own people, not surprisingly, will do nothing for him.
The Punjab is ours, we took over Oudh last December,
and general official feeling about the poor old boy
is that he is the last of the line. On the other hand, he is
still widely admired, not only as the figure on the throne,
but as a quite subtle and accomplished native poet.

Hakim Asanullah Khan

Asanullah Khan stands with worried eyes in the doorway.
My Lord, this is not wise at your age, you must know that!
Yes, I know, but I am in my eighty-second year, old friend,
and must not pretend I can live forever. And I like the kites.
A great deal more than you care for the proud Ghalib?
Now, now, Hakim. I take an old man's pleasure in teasing him.
Why do you look at me so? O God, is it the concubines again?
I fear so, My Lord. Young Lalkoti with the Captain of the Guard.
Whip the damn scoundrel and send him off somewhere.
Should we execute the girl? What? No, of course not. Put her
in the kitchens for six months, no, better make that three.
My Lord, really, the punishment seems hardly sufficient, if I may ...
Yes, yes, but I may not live another six months! I could manage three.
Send for Chaman Lal. A skilled doctor, even if he has lost his wits.
I need my feet attended. Converting to Christianity at his age!

Emily Metcalfe

I know my father was poisoned by the emperor's concubine,
that evil schemer, Zinat Mehal Begum. All Delhi knows.
These filthy people are so beastly and corrupt, I hate them!
My dear good father spent his whole life among these heathens,
and he brought them Justice and the blessings of British Rule.
My Uncle Charles, and my brother Theo, along with dear father,
forged a tradition of Christian service within this benighted land,
but there is no such thing as gratitude among these conniving people.
I was there, I saw with my own eyes how my father wasted away
on the eve of his very first holiday in seven years; within weeks
my dear sister-in-law followed him, having given birth to a child
to the boundless joy of my brother. It was unbearable to see
his grief at her death, the wracking sobs that tore his frame apart!
They killed her as well. I know they did, I feel it in my heart.

Hakim Asanullah Khan

Bahadur ... jaldi, jaldi ... come here to the window, My Lord!
What is happening on the Bridge of Boats, what is that smoke?
What is the meaning of this, Asanullah, at this ungodly hour?
It is nothing good, My Lord. I fear the Army is in revolt.
But ... but, that is the army of the Angreezi. We have no army.
Nevertheless, they come to Delhi, My Lord. They come to you.
To me? Whatever for? What can they expect from me?
You are the King, My Lord, the descendant of great kings.
They want you to lead them against the Angreezi.
O God, first the concubines, now this! Can I have no peace?
Look, they have crossed the bridge, they approach the Fort.
They are calling out for you. My Lord, you must show yourself!
I have no intention of showing myself, Hakim Asanullah Khan.
Send these people away. Send a messenger under cavalry escort
and tell this rabble to go back where they came from!

Lieutenant Smythe-Pickering

They weren't bad soldiers, by and large, but times had changed.
They all came from the same villages as their fathers before them
and they thought they'd be treated as our sons and nephews.
Maybe that was the style in the old days, but those days had gone;
they were in uniform and paid to obey orders, and that was it, really.
We knew the words of command, but didn't really take to the lingo
since we were hardly going to chat with the black bastards!
They were always ready to make trouble of some kind or another,
usually starting with one of their nonsensical religious taboos
about beef or pork or some bloody thing. They were trying it on,
to my mind, in the midst of the overpowering heat and the general
short-tempered atmosphere. We had just issued the new cartridges
and set out to train this surly lot of peasants how to use them,
but do you think they would listen? In my opinion they were just
looking for any bloody excuse, and that's how the whole thing started.

Hakim Asanullah Khan

Forgive me, My Lord, for disturbing your repose.
Sawars have arrived, rough soldiers, and will not go away.
Also, I fear, they have entered the city gates
and have engaged in a slaughter of Angreezi civilians.
Riots have started and local Christians are under attack
and many, perhaps all, have been killed. The poor
have joined with the soldiers and wholesale looting has begun.
The banks and the moneylenders were the first victims
but now they are plundering the havelis of all the wealthy.
There is no force to prevent this, the kotwalis are deserted
and the Angreezi do nothing, they seem to be in disarray!
Ah, the moneylenders, said the King, with sly satisfaction,
but such badmash lawlessness cannot be condoned.
The English Resident must be informed and order restored!
Alas, that gentleman, My Lord, now flees for his life.


Glossary of Indian terms

ghazal - an intricate form of Urdu poetry, much admired.
Bahadur - Emperor, King of Kings
Angreezi - the English
jaldi jaldi - quickly, quickly
Sawar - native Indian cavalry trooper
haveli - a walled home with enclosed gardens and courtyard
kotwali - police post
badmash - hooligan

Notes & Sources

With the exception of the two military gentlemen, Captain Collingwood and Lieutenant Smythe-Pickering, all other people mentioned in the poem represent actual historical characters.

1) Indian Mutiny
3) rebellion 01.shtml