The Ranee of Jhansi, D. V. Tahmankar

One of the many books that I have finished a single or two sittings. While the obvious genre of the book would be historical analysis or biography, I would happily put this on the storybook shelf.

The story of the Rani of Jhansi is one that most of us have heard in our childhood – without the details and the context of the circumstances prevalent during the Revolt of 1857. We heard the story of being brave and being patriotic – to an extent the passion of freedom – Mai apni Jhansi nahi doongi! (I will not give up my Jhansi).

This book was written by D. V. Tahmankar (d. 1982) and first published in 1958. Little information about Tahmankar is available on the Internet. According to the book, he:

[…] was a correspondent of the Marathi newspaper Kesari before becoming the UK correspondent for the Deccan Herald till 1980. He set up the Lokmanya Tilak Memorial Trust and also wrote the biographies Lokamanya Tilak: Father of Indian Unrest and Maker of Modern India (1956) and Sardar Patel (1970).

His stint in the UK undoubtedly helped in the writing of the book (though it isn’t clear if he was in the UK when this book was published), however, according to the Open Library, this book was first published by Published in 1958, MacGibbon & Kee (London). He acknowledges the ungrudging help from the Librarian of the Commonwealth Office Library

The premise and the purpose of the book has been defined right from the first page. The story of this character has been biased by accounts of the British officers, and Tahmankar is out to ensure that

her career [which] has borne a blemish all these years as a result of one-sided accounts of the massacre at Jhansi of English men, women and children.

is cleared through the reference of other sources and a deeper analysis of existing sources. And he does it well. I only regret the lack of a formal bibliography, and cross-references are embedded in the book rather than listed at the end. The references to Vishnu Bhatt Godse’s Majha Pravas (My Travels), published in 1907, by Chitrashala Press, Pune is something I’d like to lay my hands on. One clear assumption, when reading the book, I had to make, was that the references were valid.

More often than not, when an Indian writer picks up a story to be presented in the “correct context”, it usually leads to a blanket negation and grandiloquent discrediting of all British accounts and the glorification of all Indian historical personalities as heroes – usually, without valid references. This is not to say that the British accounts were in any way accurate – however an argument loses credibility without necessary support and references.

Tahmankar, on the other hand, presents a very balanced view of the personalities in his book. Whether it is Tatya Tope or Nana Saheb or Sir Hugh Rose, he relies on multiple references and their verifiable actions to present the true character of the personalities. Where necessary he is surgically analytical and boldly critical without being under duress of presenting a pompous or glorious Indian edition of the story.

The language he employs is simple and clear, with interesting shades of Indian English would have been prevalent at that time. It flows without interruption and each word is well-placed like a jig-saw puzzle that has been gently sand-papered to create a picture without the distorting grooves. He writes, for example:

This economic impact of British rule changed the even tenor of Indian social life with brutal suddenness. The process of disintegration was accentuated by the disrupting aspects of Lord Dalhousie’s administration which showed little respect for religious susceptibilities and political sentiments.

All through the book, Tahmankar makes precise use of adjectives to set the mood for the story. There is an uncanny tension that prevails throughout the book, and keeps your opinion balanced without making the book an effortful academic read.

Immensely enjoyable, I wish for more writers to take up the challenge of writing about Indian history that comes close to Tahmankar’s cogent presentation.

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