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The Glory that was the Empire

Ravi Vyas

By John Pemble
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1979, pp. xi 303, Rs. 48.00

By Alexander Llewellyn
Macdonald and Jane's, London, 1977, pp. 182, Rs. 90.00

VOLUME IV NUMBER 5-6 March-April/May-June 1980

Though not a particularly scholarly work, John Pemble's book explores new arenas in the fashionable subject of the 1857 uprising. The first part of the book, entitled the 'City', is an eminently read­able depiction of the Court life of Lucknow, with interesting observations on the emergence and themes of Urdu poetry that flourished in the Court of Oudh. It comments with insight on the particular styles of many well-known and the lesser-­known poets of the time, and ably traces the gradual decadence and lack of pro­fundity that came to characterize Urdu 'culture' in the 19th century. One wishes that the original Urdu had been given for the many poems and ghazals quoted. (Much of the original seems to have been lost in translation, especially in view of the author’s penchant to rhyme the verses). The main drawback of this portion is the conspicuous absence of any attempt to depict the life of the common people of Oudh. Life after all did not revolve around a fast-degenerating Court alone. The book falls prey to the popular western fallacy of a ‘changeless’ Indian society —allegedly popularized by Karl Marx (who is quoted here on this point). The book makes no attempt to incorpo­rate recent research on this subject, not­ably by Professor Irfan Habib, who has all but exploded this longstanding myth. The author also seems slightly confused as regards the nature of landholdings in India, and fails to distinguish between the regional diversities on this question. At places however Pemble shows rare insights into history. For instance he covers the role of Maulavi Ahmadulla Shah of Faizabad with sympathy and correctly identifies him as one who gave a 'popu­lar' character to the revolt— significant point, but not very well followed up. He quite appropriately discusses the prevari­cations of the large Taluqdars of Oudh, and points out that they were the last to join the rebellion and the first to extricate themselves from it, when they saw the tide turning. True, but where then did the rebellion find sustenance? Here the role of the small landowners and the peasantry in general needs to be studied in much greater depth than Pemble has attempted. In fact the vernacular sources consult­ed by the author are scanty. In the absence of that, the book falls short of a 'real' history of the period, and lapses into repe­titious ...

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