The emperor everyone forgot
What if you died and no one even knew where you were buried?
What if you died and no one even realised it? What if people forgot you had even existed? What if no one had any idea where you had been buried? I know of a man to whom this happened.
In the late 1980s, working in a Delhi newspaper, I probably said his name five or six times a week. I'd get into a scooter in the morning and say, "Bahadur Shah Zafar" and be taken to New Delhi's Fleet Street, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, the avenue where most of its newspapers were.
His name told me he was Muslim. The Shah in it told me he was a king but he was certainly not one I recalled from my history books. Emperors like Shah Jahan, Akbar and Aurangzeb were top of mind for one reason or the other — their wisdom, style of governance, some monument or perhaps their unspeakable cruelty. Bahadur Shah Zafar drew a blank.
I didn't know when he lived and I certainly didn't know when he died. And then one day, walking down an empty street in a country not that many people visit, I stumbled upon his grave.
In October 2017, having some time on my hand, I went to Myanmar, looking for something Orwellian to write about. Like India, Myanmar had been colonised by the British, and as with India, their legacy there has been egregious, harsh and self- serving.
One of those days in Yangon, I was walking down a broad, tree- lined avenue called Ziwaka Road when a name from my past leaped out at me. In gold- painted metal letters across a trellis gate were the words Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Emperor of India (1837-1857).
Within was a mausoleum housing the graves of Bahadur Shah Zafar, his wife Zinat Mahal, and his grand- daughter Raunaq Zamani. In a country where Muslims are a mere 4.3 per cent of the population, the dargah is a lonely, neglected monument with hardly any visitors. Tourists don't flock to see it. The Muslim devout come in their numbers to pay their respects to the so- called Emperor- Saint on auspicious days.
But this heart-wrenching man, scholar and saint, reluctant emperor, falsely accused, unfairly tried and banished by white, mercenary barbarians who barely understood his greatness, seemed to have lived a life where oblivion was the norm.
He was a pretty bad emperor, as far as governing his kingdom and subjects went. As a respected Sufi Pir, he was well- versed in the highest subtleties of Sufi teachings — but they didn't help him when the British faced the first open Indian rebellion — the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The sepoys asked Zafar to be their leader. He dilly- dallied, hating the idea of conflict and deaths, but they used his seal without his knowledge to carry out crimes and killings in his name.
After the British crushed the rebellion, they came for Zafar. At the trial, Zafar was accused of aiding and abetting the Sepoy Mutiny, encouraging war against the British and causing the murder of Christians. The poor man didn't have a chance.
At age 83, Zafar was exiled to a small bungalow in Rangoon, Burma, not far from the Shwe Degon Pagoda. With this, the Mughal empire in India ended with a whimper. Queen Victoria was declared the "Empress of India". Zafar died in 1862, aged 87. The British, wanting no trace of his memory left, buried him in the back of his garden in a brick- lined pit and covered it over with turf.
The British Commissioner, H N Davies, confidently wrote that over time the grass would grow back and no vestige would "remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests". An illustrious Muslim Sage- Emperor who explicitly believed that both Hinduism and Islam shared the same essence and encouraged a multicultural composite Hindu- Islamic Mughal culture was exiled from a country that demonises its Muslims today — and sent to a country that is ethnically cleansing itself of millions of Rohingya Muslims today. Being Muslim was obviously no fun back then either.
In February 1991, workers digging for a drain discovered a "brick lined tomb" with Zafar's remains. Pretty soon the body's identity had been confirmed. The dargah was inaugurated in December 1994.
Most of us will die not knowing if we will be remembered or forgotten. But Zafar knew that he was being erased without a trace. He dealt with this foreknowledge in his ironic poetry, which mingles regret and bitterness with philosophical acceptance. The couplet about his own miserable ending went thus —
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar.
Dan ke liye Do gaz zameen bhi na mili kueyar mein
(How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved)
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your feedback to mailbag@ mid- day. com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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