So this weekend I spent my time with King Wajid Ali Shah. The name may not ring a bell to many but then, his story will give you a detailed insight into the time when Britishers were gaining quite a grip on India. The year 1857 was full of turmoils, with Indian Sepoys opening mutiny under Hazrat Mahal, Wajid Ali Shah’s wife and without any intention of harm, the King of Awadh found himself in the center of this tornado.
Annexation of his kingdom, on the other hand, was the last nail in his coffin. But the story continues, with Wajid Ali Shah setting up his own small kingdom, a Pearl by the River Hooghly in Kolkata, known as Metiabruz. And what made this exile happen is the crux of this novel by Sudipta Mitra. Events become clear only when you peep deeper into the past and read a few more books regarding a subject. Gladly, I have read few books on Wajid Ali Shah, his mother Janab-i’Aliyyah and his first wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal who went down in the history of India as a hero who stood up against British during the revolt of 1857 (Sepoy Mutiny).
Pearl by the River begins when the Kingdom of Awadh which was long protected under the British Treaty for their own personal gain, was annexed on 11th February 1856. Under the treaty of 1801, the Britishers had already annexed most of the kingdom of Awadh using the techniques of demanding loans. Awadh was kept independent because the Britishers wanted a buffer between North and South, and also a Mughal hand in India so that people don’t turn rogue.
The population of Awadh loved their king, but for Britishers, Awadh was a piggy bank they wanted to break. Resident Sleeman was sent to Awadh to make a case out of Wajid Ali Shah’s rule in Awadh and came back with the required artillery to finish Awadh. His report provided a facade of benevolence the Britishers were looking for and provided them the official basis to annex Awadh. He reported that The King was busy with his concubines while the kingdom was facing a downhill when it comes to commerce and upkeep of general public.
Devastated as much as he was on such accusations by Sleeman, Wajid Ali Shah was asked to exile to Garden Reach in Metiabruz, which at that time was a suburb of Calcutta near river Hooghly. He decided to go to England to plead his case in front of the Queen, but due to his ill health was advised not to travel. Instead, Queen Janab-i’Aliyyah, his heir and his brother traveled via foreign waters to get back what they own. They were warmly received, and then brutally ignored when the First War of Independence reached Lucknow, and the sepoys installed one of Wajid Ali Shah’s son to the throne of Awadh, backed by his Queen Hazrat Mahal.
At one hand, his mother was trying to coax the Queen of England to give them back their life and glory, and on the other hand, sepoy mutiny was burning his Awadh to the ground. In the end, Wajid Ali Shah was imprisoned in Fort William for 25 months with the charges that he might become a rallying figure for the sepoys. This small spark of fire also burned Wajid Ali Shah’s last attempt to return to Lucknow.
After his release from Fort William, he was allotted the area of Metiabruz to reside. However, heartbroken from leaving Lucknow, he carried his native place in his heart and decided to convert a small part Metiabruz area just like Lucknow. He even carried his musical taste and recreated musical environments of his beloved Kaisarbagh Baradari.
But, the Pearl by the River was not just the structure, it was Wajid Ali Shah’s deepest feelings towards the game plan of Britishers in which he got stuck. The politics and blame game that engulfed him makes up for a brilliant read in this book. I especially loved the part where I was surprised to read how desperate Lord Dalhousie was to remove Wajid Ali Shah from Awadh and confine him to a single area where he can perish. Also, the melancholic desperation of Queen Janab-i’Aliyyah, where she pleads Wajid Ali Shah’s case to Queen Victoria is another brilliant angle to this book. Pearl by the River filled up the gaps of information that previous books created, and I truly enjoyed it.
Also, Pearl by the River had many other incidents that a reader may not be aware of, and that acts like a plus point for this book. I loved the way the overall book has been populated, beginning from Wajid Ali Shah’s exile and running parallel to it Hazrat Mahal’s story, Lord Dalhousie’s desperation and the creation of Pearl by the River, Metiabruz.
Although, at first a reader may tend to believe that the facts may be revolved around Fictional instances. I was one of those readers. The book is a truly a non-fiction one, full of facts and instances picked up carefully from our country’s history. So for those who are looking for the story line, they might not find one in this book.
All in all, Pearl by the River makes up for a good read. So make sure you grab a copy if you are in the mood for some non-fiction historical dose.