The fate of Delhi changed after the 1911 Delhi Durbar. A new city was planned and maps were remade. Famous engineers started working their magic. Many brick kilns were set up near Shaan of Awadh, Mansoor Ali Khan Safdarjung’s tomb. Many poor people got employment.
Once the bricks were ready, they would be sent on carts and trains for the construction of the new Imperial City of Delhi.
On May 11, 1917, in the heat of the midday sun, an old man was taking bricks from the kiln of Khan Bahadur Seth Mohammad Haroon, towards Delhi.
As he was pushing his cart in the hot sun, his white beard and moustache covered in dust, perspiration on his forehead mixed with the redness of the bricks, a motorcar was coming from Qutub Saheb (Mehrauli).
The driver kept honking the bugle but the old man was hard of hearing and couldn’t hear the horn to give way. The motorcar came close to the cart and seemed as if it was about to hit the cart. However, the driver was very good and somehow managed to avoid hitting it. The cart wasn’t harmed.
A fat Punjabi trader, intoxicated by youth and alcohol, was sitting with a professional woman in the car. He saw an old, helpless man pushing a cart and lost control. He was holding a whip in his hand, which was a fashion among young sprigs those days. He got down from the car and started whipping the poor man.
The thelawala (cart puller) was alone, old and feeble, and above all, very poor. But he had self-respect and though he took four strikes of the initial whipping, he picked up the whip he used for his bullocks and attacked the young Punjabi.
He hit the drunkard with the wooden handle of the whip so hard that his head split open. The driver wanted to punish the old man but before he could move, the wood of the whip hit him on his head.
The driver was also bleeding now. The prostitute inside the car started crying in panic and shouted, "Please come into the motor or this villager will kill you."
Both of them got into the car and started abusing the cart driver.
The old man stood smiling at the side and kept repeating, "You are running away after one attack. Its not easy to take a Timurid slap."
The thelawala was hard of hearing so he couldn’t hear their abuses and he came back to his bullock cart. The car went off to Delhi and the cart went somewhere in Raisina to put down the bricks where New Delhi is being built.
The next day two injured men and a few thelawala were gathered in the Raisina police thana. The old man was also present. The darogha asked, "Have you injured these people?"
The old man stood quietly.
The darogha once again repeated his question in anger and said, "Why don’t you speak?"
The other thelawala said, "Huzoor he is deaf."
A policeman went next to the old man and repeated the question loudly in his ear.
The old man replied, "Yes I have hit them. They attacked me and hit me four times with the whip and I gave back as good as I got. These rich people think they can trample us underfoot. 60 years ago the ancestors of these injured people were my servants. In fact entire Hindustan was under me."
The darogha started laughing and said, "Perhaps he is mad and senile. Put him in jail and present him in court. He should be sent to the mental asylum."
The third day the old man in police custody was presented before the city magistrate. The two complainants were also present.
The court inspector read out the charges. The court wanted to take the defendant’s statement. Since everyone knew he was deaf the chaprasi screamed all the charges loudly.
The old man stated, "My name is Zafar Sultan. I am the son of Mirza Babar and Bahadur Shah Badshah. My grandfather was the Shahenshah of Hindustan, Moinuddin Akbar Shah II. After the ghadar (Revolt of 1857/India's First War of Independence) I roamed all over the world and finally came back to Delhi and took up the work of pushing a bullock cart. May 11, 1917 which was as hot and hard as May 11, 1857 is the date of this incident. I am deaf and I could not hear the horn of the motor. The driver and passenger of the motor did not take into consideration my age or my condition in the heat of the day and started whipping me. The blood, which runs inside me, has now got used to being oppressed and being hit but it was not always so. Where the judge sits now, on my order many rebels and criminals have been punished. My heart and mind have still not forgotten those days even though my eyes haven't seen them for an eternity. How would I tolerate being whipped? Yes, I took revenge and hit these two 'brave' young men on their heads. If you are ready to give justice to a gentleman as a gentleman I am ready to accept with a bowed head."
There was pin drop silence in the court after the old man stopped speaking. The European magistrate could only stare at him. A Muslim officer present in the court started crying.
Both the complainants were stupefied after hearing the old man. The court discharged him honorably. The complainants were fined Rs 10 each as they had attacked first in a state of intoxication.
After this the magistrate asked the old man, "Don’t you get a pension from the government? Why are you doing such demeaning work?"
The prince replied, "I know that the British government gives a pension of Rs 5 per month to the members of my family, but I was absent from Delhi and I also feel that it is incumbent on me to earn my living via hard work as long as I am able to. I get Rs 3-4 daily from carting bricks. I spend Rs 2 of on my bullocks and rent, and the rest I use for myself. What will I do with Rs 5 per month? These days I am very happy and content. I am better off as a cart driver than those who look for jobs in your courts and spend a lifetime in chasing BA and MA degrees. There is no humiliation in driving acart. In fact I rule over my bullocks and am not servile to anyone."
The thelawala prince was reading his namaz in the Paharganj Mosque and his house was near it. After he had finished his prayers, a man (the author) went upto him and said, "I was in the court today and I heard a discussion on your statement. Can you relate the events of the ghadar to us? What did you go through?"
The thelawala smiled and said, "Do you have the capacity to hear them? And can you believe these lies? Because it is my belief that whatever has passed, whether good or bad, is false. Relating them is like telling lies. What is to come is just superstition, what has passed is false; only the present is truth. I think we should just believe in what is happening right now and spend time happily and in contentment. We should not mourn or remember the past or worry about the future. Just live in the present, which you can see and breathe in and be happy."
I said, "These are your personal experiences. The trials and tribulations that you have gone through have made your heart so sorrowful. But I am asking you so that I can note down all the events of the ghadar. I have collected many such events and have written down the personal accounts of prince and princesses."
The prince started laughing loudly and said, "Perhaps you are a journalist. I am fed up with them. They tell lies. Alright, come with me to my house. I will not hurt my guest’s feeling and will tell you whatever you want to know."
The prince took me to his house. It was a thatched cottage with two bullocks and one cow tied in the courtyard. Inside the cottage a wooden settee was in the hallway with a bed beside it. A white chandani (cotton carpeting for floors) was spread out on both. One could see the prince’s refinement even in penury.
The prince made me sit on the wooden settee and went into the kitchen to get some food and invited me to first eat and then we could talk. The food was just enough for one person but there were two different types of curries, dal, chutney and a sweet. Even in these straitened circumstances the prince was living an elegant life.
I tried to excuse myself but the prince didn’t take no for an answer and we both ate from it. The prince filled a huqqah and put it in front of me. Once again though I excused myself the prince kept the huqqah in front of me and started his story.
"I am the son of Mirza Babar. Mirza Babar was Bahadur Shah’s brother. Even though Bahadur Shah was just a titular head before the ghadar, he was greatly respected in every subah, city and area. In Delhi everyone continued giving him the same respect and status that was given to Shah Jahan and Alamgir.
I was a very pampered son of my father and even though he had other children I was my mother’s only child. My father died before theghadar (Uprising of 1857). When the ghadar started and the rebel forces entered Delhi, their cruelty towards the British women and children still makes me tremble in revulsion. After that when the British came to Delhi with help from Punjab, and re-conquered it, everyone including the Badshah fled.
My mother was blind and very frail. It was impossible for her even to get into a rath (small covered bullock carriage) but I somehow managed with the help of two women. I too got into it and we left Delhi.
The Badshah and some members of his family had gone to Humayun’s tomb but I set of towards Karnal as a friend of mine lived there. I would often meet him in Delhi and he was a big landowner there.
Though our way was from Lahori Darwaza, but as the British forces were patrolling there, we left from the Ajmeri Darwaza (behind Fatehpuri Masjid). We saw thousands of women, men, and children, old and young, leaving in a state of turmoil with boxes on their heads.
The rathwala said that we should leave via Gurgaon so that we can avoid the British soldiers. Even though we met some gujjars we pleaded with them and reached Gurgaon safely.
But we had only gone around 2 kos (2.25miles) from Gurgaon towards Karnal when a crowd of gujjars surrounded our rath and wanted to loot us. They hadn’t started when a regiment of British Army came towards us. Since they were all gora, the gujjars ran away. The soldiers came to our rath and started saying something in English, which I couldn’t understand but it sounded like sarcasm.
From the western side of the rath where my mother was sitting, a gora lifted the purdah of the rath and seeing my frail and blind mother laughed uproariously. He said something to his companions and they all rode away without harming us.
After they left we progressed steadily till evening. At night we rested near a village. At midnight thieves took our bullocks away and the rath driver also disappeared. I was very worried and tried to hire a rath from the village. The villagers were Jat. Their Chaudhri (village headman) came with us and said that they didn’t have a spare carriage but they would call for one from the next village. Meanwhile my mother could stay in their house.
I agreed and took my mother to the Chaudhri’s house. We had two small boxes with us filled with gold coins and jewellery.
Chaudhri set us down in his house and sent someone to get a carriage for us. After sometime the villagers raised an alarm that the British army is approaching. The Chaudhri came to me and said, run away from here or we will also be killed along with you.
I was very agitated and said, 'How can I run with my blind and frail mother? Please have some mercy on us.' The Jat punched me hard and said, 'Should we be killed for you?'
I also slapped him back.
The other Jats gathered and beat me to pulp till I became unconscious. When I came to my senses I was in a jungle and my mother was crying near me.
She said, 'Those Jats put both of us on a charpoy and left us here in the jungle. I don’t think there was any British army, it was just a ploy to loot our money and jewelry.'
That was a hard time as me and my blind mother were in the middle of a jungle, in the hot sun with no one around who could help us. The fear of the British was always present with us and we had no idea of where to go now.
My mother said, 'Son gather your courage and lets go forward. There’s more danger staying in this jungle.'
I stood up and even though I was badly injured I caught her hand and started moving ahead.
The jungle was full of thorny bushes and our clothes were torn and feet were soon bleeding. I somehow tried to prop up my stumbling mother but even I was injured and weary.
We hadn’t eaten for the past two meals. May no enemy ever have to go through such times.
Under the midday sun my head injuries flared up and I collapsed unable to get up.
My mother kept my head on her lap and started praying loudly, 'Ilaahi have mercy on me and forgive my transgressions and save my son’s life. O Khuda! This blind princess is entreating you, please don’t disappoint her. We have no one except you in this difficult time. The sky and earth have both become our enemies and whom do I ask except You? You can give respect or humiliation to whom ever You please. Yesterday we were owners of lands, elephants, horses and slaves. Today we have nothing. I don’t know why anyone wants to live in this fickle and intransient land. Forgive my sins. Forgive my sins. Mercy O Lord mercy.'
My mother was still praying when a villager came towards us and said, 'Old lady give me whatever you have.'
My mother said, 'I only have this injured son.'
The villager hit my mother with a stick on her head and she screamed out, 'O cruel man, don’t hit my child.'
I somehow got up but couldn’t stand for long and fainted.
The villager stripped us of our clothes. When I came to my senses we were lying naked and there were no signs of the villager.
My mother was in the final stages of her life when I asked her, 'Amma how are you?'
She said in a faint voice, 'Miyan I am dying. I entrust you to God. Woe that I won’t even get a shroud for my burial. I won’t even get a grave. I am the sister-in-law of the Shahenshah-e-Hind.'
Saying the kalma, La Ilaha Illallaah Mohammad-ur rasool Allah, she died.
I was in no position to dig a grave and hid her corpse in the mud there.
I dragged myself under a tree and lay down helplessly there.
After some time a sawaar (Indian cavalry man in British army) passed by and seeing me there came near. I told him everything. He had mercy on me and gave me his sash. I tied it around my waist to cover my nakedness.
The sawaar put me on his horse and took me to his cantonment where he got my wounds attended to.
Once I recovered I started looking after his needs. He was a pious Muslim. He was from Patiala and took me there. I lived with him for sometime. After that I became a mendicant and started wandering through various villages and cities. When I reached Bombay I met a charitable group and left for Mecca e Moazzama with them. I lived in Mecca for 10 years.
I went to Medina Sharif and lived there for five years. After that I visited Syria and Baitul Muqaddas (Jerusalem) and after visiting the blessed shrines there went to Baghdad via Aleppo. I lived there for two years.
With a Memon I came to Karachi from Baghdad and from there to Delhi.
I had been yearning for Delhi and missing it through all these years and so decided to return.
Here, I started working in the construction work going on for the railway line. I was able to generate enough income to look after my needs and save some money too. In two years I had gathered 300 rupees.
I bought an oxen cart in partnership with another cart driver. Slowly I was able to repay him and buy him out.
Now I earn my living through it."
I asked, "When did you turn deaf? It must be very difficult for you as you live alone."
The prince laughingly replied, "Due to God’s grace I have no trouble. In fact I can’t hear all the malice around me. When I was hit in the village by the Jats I had suffered an injury and lost my powers of hearing. I can hear faintly from my left ear. The right ear is totally deaf."
I asked, "Can I write this down in my book?"
The prince replied, "Please do. But also add that everything that happens in this world, whether passing of time, mercies shown to you, or troubles that oppress you, are all transient and false. It is just a warning sent to us by the Almighty."
(This is a story from Begumat ke Aansoo published in 1922. Khwaja Hasan Nizami based it on eyewitness accounts of survivors of the Mughal family who fled from Shahjahanabad after the First War of Indian Independence and the British victory in Delhi in 1857. Translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi who got permission from Khwaja Hasan Nizami's heir.)
- Khwaja Hasan Nizami