Almost two years ago, when I reviewed The Ranee of Jhansi, D. V. Tahmankar, I had expressed a strong desire to lay my hands on Vishnu Bhatt Godse’s Majha Pravas (My Travels), published in 1907, by Chitrashala Press, Pune. While I was quite determined to get my hand on the book – I’ll admit, I wondered if I’d be able to ever get to read that book – it was in Marathi. Being a native Maharashtrian, yet never having learned the language formally is an unfortunate state to be in; since some of the best literature, analysis on society, history and culture are in Marathi. Not to mention original sources, like Majha Pravas.
I was happily surprised when I saw 1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising at Crosswords in Pune – the English translation of Vishnu Bhatt Godse’s Majha Pravas (My Travels). Since I do not take the effort of reading Marathi books, I had to make do with the translation. Some of you may know my thoughts on translations. Having read this book now, I feel the need to go back the beautiful book by DV Tamhankar.
1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising is a well-translated book. Given that I haven’t read the original Marathi book, this statement is open to speculation. Yet, I have heard about this book and its content from family and friends who have read the original – that’s the first premise. The fact that the original was actually written in the Modi Script and translated into Marathi, with some liberties and that Mrinal Pande alludes to using the original, is the second premise. Finally, my own understanding from reading of the book and the uneven granularity of the book, makes me believe that the English translation has not taken (m)any liberties.
Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar (the original author of the book) doesn’t come across as a very good writer (at least not in the English version, the original may some fantastic idioms and nuances that cannot be captured in English), however he has done a great service to history by this book. The book follows his travels for the most part – and therefore the accounts in the book may be treated as authentic. At times however, he seems to rely on hearsay, and it may be worth noting that these are the parts which actually provide the necessary links to the story of the mutiny – and causes the bumpy texture of the presentation. This is perhaps why the presentation is textured, alternating between specifics and vagueness. The granularity of the text is affected by the sheer fact that he did not see everything happening before him and had to rely on second-hand accounts.
In the translator’s note, the circumstances under which this book was written are made clear. It was a time when you couldn’t say exactly what you saw – for you were still under the British rule. The author chose to edit parts of the book. Further, the original structure is not divided in chapters, and it is not clear if the author revisited the writing to smoothen out his work. For example, in the first chapter, the author says:
Little did I dream then of the horrors that lay in store for us, or how close I would come to death during an unforeseen war—not once but again and again. Nor did I foresee that it would be a good three years before I saw my family again.
If we are to go by the structure, nature, and circumstances in which Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar wrote this account, that paragraph is retrospective, and wouldn’t have featured in the original account. The translators seem to have applied some license there (unless the author did revisit the manuscript).
Having said all the above, it is a good read – especially if you are interested in history beyond a story (though this one is written more like a story; a travelogue). The text creates stunning visual imagery, which, in my opinion is very necessary when writing historical accounts. Facts and dates may be gleaned from Wikipedia or any other reference, but a contextualised visual presentation is key for non-fictional historical texts.
That – this book achieves with great aplomb.