Part 2: Letter Home, Jang-e-Azadi
Vatan Se Dur (Away From Home) is a quasi-historical fiction of early Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri pioneers who braved the high seas and the dangers of the then dark and unknown African continent to carve out an enterprising community away from the distant homeland.
In this second installment, young Jaffer Alloo, having arrived at Muscat, the first port of call of his voyage to Africa, writes home to his father explaining his reasons for running away and asking for forgiveness and understanding.
With the first light of dawn, Jaffer was up at the deck, looking at the brightening reddish eastern sky. He would always remember and cherish the beautiful dawns and dusks of India. He leaned on the railing and watched the heaving ocean and tuned his body with the bobbing ship. Yes, he must write home, and send the letter by the first vessel returning to Mandvi.
Squatting on the deck floor and with pad on his knee, he started writing carefully in Gujarati:
Sagar Samrat, March 8, 1958
Inshallah this letter will greet you and the family in the best of health. By the grace of Allah, I am fine and am on my way to Jangbar, having boarded the Sagar Samrat in Mandvi. I beg forgiveness of you and Maa for leaving home without your permission, but I know it in my heart that as your first-born, Maa and you would not have let me go. So I had no choice but to leave home and then advise you of my whereabouts.
Three of us left home together; Mongi (auntie) Fui's Peera, Sumar and myself. Peera decided to go to Mumbai. He said that he had some relatives from the Rawhi family who would help him get settled. He assured me that he would write to you on reaching Mumbai and so I hope that his letter has reached you long before mine. Sumar decided to come with me to Africa so please convey to Mongi Fui and Rawji Fua of Sumar's welfare. I shall take care of him as much as he is taking care of me.
Bapaji, I feel that Hindustan is torn apart from within by the British (East India) Companywalla. The Great Famine of 1856, Chappaniya Dukal, has devastated the land. There is no fodder for cattle nor food for humans. Hindustanis, women, children and men, are dying like flies.
The Moghul badshahat has corroded to the core and is now therefore totally ineffective to govern the country. The Rajas and Nawabs are deep in their conspiracies, tearing the country apart. The British Companywalla have mischievously played one Raj against the other, each time like the monkey in the panchatantra story, taking a bite of the roti as the cats quarreled. The East India Company has slowly and surely swallowed Hindustan until the whole of Hindustan becomes theirs, of Rani Mata Victoria.
Hindustan until now was a Hindu body with a Muslim soul, a strange apparition, but it has survived hundreds of years. But now Hindustan has lost its soul. It is neither Hindu nor Muslim. She will now sing God save the Queen, the national anthem of Britain. Any British commoner, to an Indian, will now be a Sahib.
Punjab has now been pacified, conquered and annexed to the British Raj. The irony of Hindustan's misfortune is that henceforth, revenues of the rich Punjab will fuel the expansion of the Raj. It will be our people and our wealth which will deliver Hindustan to the Raj.
What Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of the Company, did was clearly inspired by the Raj's greed for more revenue. It is daylight robbery of the property of Hindustan and it hurts to be alive and not be able to do anything. Bapa, we are not Nawabs, landed aristocracies or princes; but surely we are Hindustanis and our life blood is being sucked while we lie hopelessly in watch. Our zamir and independence are being destroyed.
Dalhousie never anticipated the long range political implications of the changes set in motion, no more than he anticipated the violent aftermath of his reign which was primarily a reaction to the events of 1856, and most of all to the annexation of the Shia Ithna-Asheri state of Oudh, one of the richest regions in India. This was his worst blunder. Never before had the Company blatantly ignored a treaty it had honoured for more than half a century.
Can you visualise this, Bapa, the column of troops that marched north from Cawnpore to take control of Lucknow were ranked with men who had been born in the very land that they were now invading. No shot was fired. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah came in his black mourning robes to place his turban in the hands of the Chief Commissioner, Sir James Outram, pleading for his homeland and his legal rights. That proved futile. He raised no armed resistance, within or outside his palace walls.
He left peacefully for Calcutta with his entourage to appeal directly to Dalhousie. But the Governor General was on the eve of his departure for home, a sick and lonely man with no other interest in India or a Nawab whose throne he had usurped.
Nawab Wajid Ali thought that in London he might find a more sympathetic ear. So he took his case there only to be confronted with the same expressionless wall of British faces as he had encouraged in Lucknow and Calcutta. He returned to India a bitter and disappointed man. He was now willing to take arms with his countrymen who were among the forty thousand brahmans and kshaytriyas of Oudh who formed the backbone of the Sepoy Army of Bengal.
The annexation of Oudh undermined the faith of the Bengal Army, and in general, the people of Hindustan. Further, Lord Charles John Canning, successor to Dalhousie, enacted several unpopular measures during his first year in Calcutta. The most distressing of these to sepoys was the General Service Enlistment Act which required Indian soldiers to accept service "anywhere", whether in the home province or across "dark waters" - "kala pani". The Act allowed the Raj to use Indian soldiers to fight British wars in any part of the world.
Some soldiers said that British missionaries were conspiring with officials to send all brahmans and other high caste Hindus overseas so they would become permanently polluted and thus easier targets for conversion to Christianity. Canning's Company Sarkar passed another Act in 1856 permitting Hindu widows, those lowliest of outcastes, to re-marry, as though the abolition of "Sati" had not been intrusion enough into the household customs and traditions of India's majority community.
Calcutta's vernacular press was quick to point out that in 1850, Dalhousie had carried through a Disabilities Act which permitted native converts to Christianity to inherit property. Put all together, to the masses it looked like a concerted policy, and Christian conspiracy, aimed at undermining the very foundation of Hindu orthodoxy.
Of Dalhousie's three great "engines of social improvements"; the railway, uniform postage and the electric telegraph, they were all introduced to strengthen the grip of the British Raj over India.
I recall a few words of my brother Rashid. He loves the great Urdu poet, Mirza Asadullah Ghalib, and recites his verses often. Ghalib lived in Delhi and was a witness of life in the Moghul Darbar. He had long foreseen the break-up of the old system, and two years before the mutiny, he had written:
The old fool, Ghalib, believing that a new dawn will arise from the ashes of Moghul Sultanate of Delhi! That speaks of his addiction to his favorite brand, "Old Tom" whisky.
While I am mentioning Ghalib, I heard a funny story about his being arrested in Lucknow and taken to Thana by sepoys of the Raj. The sepoy, not being able to tell from the dress whether Ghalib was a Muslim or a Hindu, asked him:
"Are you a Muslim?" Ghalib replied, "Aadha, Half". "How come half. Either you are a Muslim or you are not" said the sepoy. Ghalib quipped, "Sharab pita hu, lekin suwar nahi khata" "I indulge in liquors but do not partake in swine meat".
Once again, the old rascal could not refrain his sense of humor, even in trying circumstances.
The whole country has suffered this first bid of jang-e-azadi, which has failed miserably. The Companywalla are now calling the freedom fighters as mutineers according to their own martial law. The last Moghul Badshah, Bahadur Shah Zafar, has been dethroned and is being held prisoner in Rangoon by the British. His two sons have been killed thus ensuring the end of the Moghul Dynasty.
The British are now on mopping-up operation. While Hindustan will continue to bleed, the British will not be satisfied in sucking the life juice of India. On the world stage of shetranj, India is their first move. Their hungry eyes covet the Ottoman Empire. They will now move to create dissension among the Muslims and break the Ottoman power. Having done that, they will occupy the Muslim lands, milk it and suffocate Islam.
There is no land on this earth that one can run to and not be followed by the British. I am angry Bapaji, and I am confused. At least I will try life a new in Jangbar.
Bapaji, for generations to come, there will no room for a Hindustani to earn a respectable living in India. I have taken my destiny in my hands and have entrusted it to Allah Subhanahu wa ta'ala. Like you always taught me, He is merciful, rahman, rahim and razik. I trust in Him alone. I need your's and Maa's blessings.
Our farm of twenty bigha can hardly maintain the growing family that we are now. In this dukal, famine, there has been no rain for the past two years. The land is parched and will not yield much fodder, vegetables or onions. My brothers Hasham, Rashid and Mamad are now all grown up and you will have their help in tilling the land and selling the crops for cash.
As I leave India, the embers of revolt are still burning. You will understand Bapa, that under these trying circumstances, it is difficult for me to live in India and I might as well find my fortune where my destiny takes me. I shall not forget you or Maa, ever, and one day I will return.
Bapaji, I love you. I fondly remember our early morning rides on our cart when you sang bakhtis. I particularly remember:
I shall write to you again from Jangbar. My love and affection to Maa, my brothers Rashid, Mamad and Hasham. Also, give a loving hug to my little sister Pubi. Wherever I go, and whatever I do, I will make you really proud of me. I long for your aashish and duas.
He closed the letter with a Khuda Hafez and signed it, Your Loving Son, Jaffer.
He read the letter, twice, and then carefully folded it into an envelope and wrote the address; Alloo Manraj Keshvani, Keshav Chowk, Mundra, Kutch, and sealed it. He would now hand it over to the Ship Agents at Muscat to be taken to Mandvi.
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