Camp, Delhi Cantonment, 16 August, 1857.
Things have changed forever. A day spent in the company of my old friend Knox made it clear. These distances can never be bridged.
The pole of his tent snapped in the storm yesterday; and for the sake of old friendship, I offered Knox my humble abode. But his rancour was jarring. His determination to teach the enemy a lesson, the unshaken belief in the rightness of our mission– such bitterness asks too much of friendship and duty.
Earlier we went over the battlefield. One of our regiments was destroying the village near the bridge to prevent the enemy from getting cover in it. Elephants were pulling down the walls. The villagers stood by as their houses turned into mud while the monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfortunately, they were the Jats, who, for the most part, are our friends. We decided that the destruction of their homes and fields was necessary. Twenty-three men – their countrymen – were lying together in the ditch at the back of the village; we weren’t sure if they were the rebels. A party of Rifles killed then en masse, just to be sure.
We left the village with our bags swollen like raisins in water. And who can blame our light-fingered gentry? Armies are said to travel on their stomach.
At some distance from our camp, I can see the sun setting over the fort of Delhi. It isn’t much different from the first sunset I witnessed here years ago. How things have changed! We came with a mission – to know this exotic land, to bring the light of knowledge and civilization to its darkness. Now the memory leaves me embarrassed. These massive red walls made me uneasy even then. Today they mock our camp again. Whatever be the outcome of this devil’s wind, it has revealed the banality of our mission.
Knox’s bitterness is an expression of the anger in the camp. When the cannons are quiet, the silence resounds with confusion, with terror, with rage, but most of all with the question ‘Why?’ As we sit around a small fire every night, the question rages in every mind. ‘Why the mutiny? Haven’t we brought the glory of civilization to this land of superstition?’ These thoughts simmer as we deal with hunger, heat and rain.
But soon these questions will be forgotten. The winners will annihilate the other side. Already I see the madness in the eyes as rumours reach us from other places – Cawnpur, Jhansi, Lucknow. Madness will soon be let loose.
I often feel that the answers that elude me today were within my grasp a short while ago. They are somewhere near, yet unreachable, like the time gone by.
I promise to look for them once I have found her again. For she, I feel, holds a part of it.
So every evening, I try to escape this madness by thinking about her, Princess Meera of Navgarh, a rebel soldier and my wife. It is the third year of our marriage. Three years of tenuous links and fragile understanding. It was only a matter of time before an explosion happened. And it happened that eventful week when Navgarh too burnt in the fire raging all across India. The news that the sepoys in Meerut had rebelled spurred both of us. Did I expect Meera to be a dutiful wife when all her beliefs, her convictions pulled her in the opposite direction? Was I surprised on knowing that she was in Delhi, amongst the rebels? Would she be surprised on knowing that I have followed her as an enemy… a British officer? And as I follow her, I stand here once again, after five years, outside the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi.
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