Archiving poetic historyArchiving the memories of the bygone year or years is a fascinating subject in Nepal because emotions, more than the calendric calculations, are evoked by the changing cycles of years here.
Archiving the memories of the bygone year or years is a fascinating subject in Nepal because emotions, more than the calendric calculations, are evoked by the changing cycles of years here. We change several calendars within the span of one Gregorian calendric time. The years that come and go during that time are emotional, performative, political and cultural. To go with the temporal exuberance as in Victorian English poetry, we are ringing the old Vikram year 2073 out and the next one in. I begin by wondering which ones to archive as the memorable experience or events of the past year and which ones to leave out.
In memory studies, two things are always taken into consideration—what you experienced and how you see the connection of that with the overall social experience. In times when the mega events dominate your life, details of your personal memories may not matter so much; they will drown in the cacophony of the boisterous times. I would not so much want to rescue the very personal memories as I would like to review their social significance. That is precisely what I have attempted to do in this short article.
A memorable experience
I begin with the latest one that happened on April 7, 2017 at the Indian library in the Nepal Airlines building in New Road, in which a documentary on the life of Begum Hazarat Mahal was screened, followed by a talk by Dr Talat Fatima, the great great grand daughter of Begum Mahal. It was a memorable experience for me because I consider Hazrat Mahal as a great icon of freedom struggle and South Asian bonding, and one whose life and stay here can give poetic magnitude to Nepal India relations, though Mahal’s life in Nepal still remains unrecorded and unexplored. This was particularly because she was a freedom fighter who had taken political asylum here. This combination itself is intriguing. Jung Bahadur went to help the British quell the Lucknow rebellion of 1857. The documentary shown on the occasion mentions Jang’s Lucknow venture as one inspired by various mixed perceptions.
Whatever may be the case, Jung returned with his soldiers intact and carrying some wealth. That action of Jung is remembered in Nepal for the territorial reward he received from the British. But the intriguing part about Jung’s character is that he gave political asylum to the woman, the Begum of Awadh or Oudh, the first wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who orchestrated a rebellion against the British East India Company at the time of the widespread mutiny of 1857. Jung had just returned after helping the British quell the rebellion, and naturally he was eagerly waiting for the British response to his favour.
Any diplomatic move even today would be a reactionary one in such situation, and the stakeholder would continue to see how his help to the neighbour would benefit him and his country. But Jung, by giving asylum to Hazrat Mahal who had given the British a hard time in the same metropolis where Jung went to quell the rebellion, kept the two things apart. That is intriguing because we do not know enough about the character of Jung, especially his diplomatic handling of the relationship with the British power or with a strong neighbour.
To understand this subject better by another example, we should read John Whelpton’s book Jung Bahadur in Europe (1983, 2016). The text presents the picture of Jung, at the very opening of it, as quite intriguing. The scribe who wrote the text of Jung’s travelogue supposedly under his guidance puts the purpose of his visit to Britain in these words, translated by Whelpton, “The territory of the English sovereign, visited in 1906 (BS) by Shrimadrajkumar Kumaratmaj Shri Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief General Jang Bahadur Kunwar Ranaji borders on our own; yet its army, arsenals and weapons, the country and its wealth, its revenues and expenditure, its institutions, the whereabouts of the empire’s seat of government, Belait, the nature of the city of London, and the character of the nobility and of the population as a whole were all unknown until then since nobody from Hindustan had visited London Belayat (132).”
I am citing this to show how little historians know about the psyche of the dictatorial ruler, the founder of the Rana oligarchy, and one who, according to the border expert Buddhinarayan Shrestha, is ‘the only Nepali ruler’ who understood the concept of borders with a sense of accuracy, justice and friendship with the neighbours.
Poetic, inspiring, sombre
Therefore, Jung’s decision to provide asylum, space and perhaps maintenance to Hazrat Mahal is an interesting matter. The documentary shows, like other historical records, that Mahal’s courage as a woman, especially the resistance she put up after her husband was sent into exile in Calcutta, is a remarkable phenomenon. She took over the affairs of her state of Awadh and took Lucknow under her control. Betrayed, in the end by her own people, she could not resist the British force, but would not surrender to them. She chose to seek asylum in Nepal, and after a long and hard walk with her people and her son of 14, she arrived here. That part of the journey following her decision to give up fighting remains a mystery. But the most interesting and moving part came in the speech of Dr Talat Fatima.
Her short speech sounded like a poetic reading of history. Her words came out of the memories of history bequeathed to her family, who naturally lived in Calcutta because their ancestor Nawan Shah was exiled there. Dr Fatima stressed on the independent spirit of Hazrat Mahal. She said that Mahal in the end wanted to live in a place which was free and not under the British control. She was full of sublime thoughts about Nepal. She called Nepal the birthplace of Buddha, a peaceful bhumi or land that rises to the height of Mt Everest. The happy matter was that this was the first time Dr Talat Fatima, Manzilat Fatima and other family members visited Nepal.
I feel happy to close the year with this poetic and inspiring albeit sombre occasion.