She looked at the postage stamp in her hand again. Baba had handed it over to her today. There he was, her great grandfather, ‘Mangal Pandey’ the freedom fighter. She had heard numerous tales about him.
“Baba, do you think I can be as brave as him, someday?” Mili asked. “Of course, my child,” Baba was quick to respond. Mili’s eyes shone brighter than the sole light bulb in their little shanty.
“Always believe in yourself, my child,” said Baba. “Faith can move mountains.”
“Yes, Baba,” said Mili, her eyes shining with excitement. Oh! She was brave all right. “I am going to make a difference someday.” Mili’s curiosity was unbridled now. “But Baba I don’t want to wait till I grow up. I want to make a difference now. How, is all that I am wondering. Now the country is free so what can be my mission?” Her father smiled at her innocence.
“The mission is in your heart, darling. The day you are ready, your mission will be right in front of you,” Baba assured her. “Now go off to sleep and I will share another story tomorrow.”
‘Our Mili will do something really big in this world. She has the heart of a dove and the courage of a tiger. She needs the right direction. Tomorrow I’ll tell her another story of bravery.‘
The next morning, with the postage stamp clutched in her hands, Mili sauntered off to her best friend Durga’s. She had to tell her great grandfather’s brave story to Durga. And together they could hatch a mission too.
“Durga? Are you there?” she called out from the verandah, peeping inside the door.
“Mili? Yes, yes I am here. Come around to the back my friend.” Excitedly Mili hopped around to the back where Durga was.
“Durga, see what I found!” Milli showed the stamp.
“It’s Mangal Pandey! We read about him in our class. How brave he was.” Durga said looking at the stamp. “Where did you find this?”
Sattu, Durga’s brother, looked at the two girls and shook his head. “These tales, these heroes,” he said. “Seriously girls?”
“You will be shocked to know that he was my great grandfather!” Milli replied excitedly.
“What?! You are joking, right,” Durga was stupefied.
Mili was not going to be intimidated by Sattu today. Sattu was a bully and she was the great grand daughter of Mangal Pandey! She could deal with this twit! So what if he was a head taller than her. Today everything was possible.
“No Mili., sacchi… I am not joking. Oh! He was a brave brave man,” said Durga.
“I know, Durga. We should do something great with our lives too.”
Sattu collapsed on the charpoi with laughter. “You crazy girls, you can’t go to the market alone. What great things do you plan to do?
“Our desh is azad now. Mast ho kar jiyo,” said Sattu stretching on the charpoi as he picked up the half eaten sugarcane. Mili and Durga looked at each other. Mili was irritated by Sattu’s incessant interference. She asked Durga if she would like to come to her place. Her Baba had a story to tell.
“Sattu, don’t judge us by our size. Look at this stamp of my great grand father. I am sure you won’t recognize him because you sleep in the history class always. He is the brave Mangal Pandey. Now wait and see what we girls can do. Maybe not the market, but we go to school. And I guess you would have heard about Rani Laxmi Bai, who had fought in the 1857 war of rebellion. She was a WOMAN,” Mili retorted
There was quiet determination shining in Mili’s eyes today. She was feeling inspired and there was this restlessness to do something wonderful. She turned her back to Sattu and his negativity and nudged Durga towards the door. ” Chal, we have things to do,” she said.
“No”, said Mili, “let’s go to Baba. He told me he will also show me something special that my great grandfather left for him.” Sattu’s ears perked up. “Could it be a gun? Or a grenade?” he thought excitedly, the fool that he was. “Not that I want to, but I’ll walk you girls to Mili’s house.” he said, trying to hide his excitement.
Mili and Durga giggled! They knew they could not keep Sattu away from an evening of storytelling. All his stupid superior airs were such a dikhawa. “Hurry up then,” said Durga, “we don’t want to be late.”
“Baba, Baba please tell us the story of Mangal Pandey who was my great grandfather so that Sattu will understand that I don’t lie,” Mill called out to her father who was in the kitchen.
Sundays were a treat at Mili’s home where Baba would cook the choicest food and she’d relish it with abandon. The girls found Baba in the kitchen where the aroma of sweet rice was wafting from.
Baba looked at the excited trio and smiled. “Of course he was her great grandfather. But then everybody knows that. What I want to tell you today is a story that very few people know about. A story of great friendship and supreme sacrifices. A story of friendship and love.” Mili and Durga shifted excitedly.
“Do you have his gun? His grenade?”, Sattu exclaimed, “Baba, show it to us, na.”
“Sattu beta,” said Baba, “there are more powerful weapons than the guns and grenades. You cannot win wars with barood alone. Trust, confidence and loyalty are the true weapons of victory.”
Sattu slumped against the wall. This was going to be a boring gyaan wali evening, he thought to himself.
Baba looked at his crestfallen face and said, “You can go home you know. I won’t mind.” Sattu could get the whiff of that delicious rice cooking in the background. “No baba, I will stay. Tell us the story, na.”
Baba settled against the big pillow. Mili, Durga and Sattu leaned forward. There was a quiet peacefulness of the mid morning around them. Intermittently a koel would launch into her song or a dog would let out a lazy bark. But otherwise it was all quiet. Baba took a sip of his chai and said…
“This is the story that my grandfather had told me. His father joined the Bengal Army in 1855 and was recruited in the 5th Company along with Mangal Pandey.” Baba set the premise for the eager kids.
“Fun, frolic and merriment was all a part of young Mangal’s life. Serving the British army was not only incidental but brought along respect for youngsters. Mangal was no different. He loved his high life.
“Whenever he visited the village, people would stare in awe. His livery shined, his moustache aroused fear, his gait was so regal! Mangal lapped up the adulation. The only one who could bring him back to earth was Dharmal, his childhood friend. His friendship with Dharmal was the talk of the town. They were always together, through happiness and sorrow. They fought and made up again in no time.
“‘Apni aukat pe aaja, oye Mangal,’ he would say giving him a friendly whack. Dharmal had also enlisted with him. Dharmal is the first person Mangal would turn to if he wanted an opinion. Although Dharmal was fun-loving by nature, Mangal knew he could rely on him anytime.
“So when the British introduced a new type of cartridge which was, apparently, made of cow and pig fat, Dharmal was the first to have broken the news to him. That changed everything for him and the country.
“Amongst hushed discussions and likelihood of the use of the cartridges, Mangal was furious to note the divide that it caused in Hindus and Muslims. He saw it as a British motive to divide the country.
In spite of Dharmal’s protests, Mangal vouched to kill the first British that he saw that day. Dharmal was worried because he knew that any tension now would only make the situation worse than it was.
“Anything that you do now, will only bring unrest. Maybe it’s a rumour. Who knows if such a cartridge can ever be made,” Dharmal reasoned, knowing pretty well that he was taking a chance with Mangal.
“But Mangal remained adamant. He would do it with or without help he said. Dharmal was in a quandary now. And friendship won there. Together they formulated a plan intended to hurt the East India Company.
“Unconvinced, Mangal picked his gun, got up furiously and left. Dharmal guessed that the most he would do was to have some bhaang, get sloshed and crash in his shanty. That is how Mangal is, he reasoned.
“But Mangal was hatching his own plans. His blood was boiling simply thinking of how callous the administration could be to the religious sentiments of the people. His reason was enough for him to take charge. Contemplating his actions, sitting outside his shanty, he gulped his second lota of bhaang and let out a grunt, ‘these bloody goras, think they will go about ruling our lives like we are their slaves. Huh!’
“Mangal had a plan ready. He talked to the other soldiers and made them his accomplices in his plan. Unity and strength was needed to take it forward. Mutiny was on his mind.
“Any protests from anyone were met with defiance. Mangal was on fire and his fury was now taking shape. Having the confidence of some of his fellow soldiers was comforting. ‘Why is Dharmal defiant,’ he quizzically wondered.
“Meanwhile Dharmal, under the influence of bhaang realised that though Mangal had the physical strength, he had no brains. No battle could be fought without a strategy. It was the time to set examples of true camaraderie.”
“Just like Mili and me,” exclaimed Durga.
“You are right, Durga. True friendship is supporting your friend when they are fighting for a true cause. And reasoning with them for your defiance if you think otherwise.” Saying this Baba returned to the story that he was narrating.
“Dharmal didn’t want Mangal to be too agrressive. That could be dangerous for his friend. After all East India Company was powerful. He was protective of his friend but Mangal was unstoppable now. He had tried to reason with him and failed.
“But he also knew from his sources about the truth behind the cartridges. Somewhere deep inside his heart he knew Mangal was right and was going to create history. He was just too concerned for his life.
“Let it be rebellion then, if we die, we die together. I am not going to back off and leave my friend alone to face those butchers. Now, let me garner more people, instill more confidence in them,” thought Dharmal.
In the evening, as they both enjoyed their bhaang, Dharmal told Mangal, ‘You and I are not tied by blood, but we have grown up together. I will kill for you and I will die for you. We have been partners for life and with this as well, I shall be with you.’
“At the home front, Dharmal’s alliance had been fixed with a girl from his village. His elder brother, Rajpal who worked in the same company could sense the fire of revolt fuming in their hearts.
“Rajpal requested few days off for him and his brother. He took him home on the pretext of some work. The family was visibly upset when they got to know that Dharmal was still friends with the notorious Mangal.
“‘Us or him?’ He was posed with a dramatic situation. His heart cried out Mangal’s name whereas his mind urged him to choose wisely. But Dharmal’s love for Mangal was beyond reasoning. He was horrified to know that his family had promised his hand in marriage to their neighbor’s daughter. The extension of leave was accepted by the regiment. Dharmal was married to Shanta. His heart was in the regiment but for the next two days, Shanta was all he could see.
“On one side when Dharmal would hold Shanta’s slender hand, he would be reminded of his gun. On the other side, Mangal was busy planning his next move. The next few days were going to be the turning points.
“‘You dare get married without me around,’ roared Mangal when he saw Dharmal a few days later.
‘I was helpless,’ pleaded Dharmal. But the joy in Dharmal’s eyes calmed him down.
“Dharmal’s family pressured him to quit his job for the British and join them in farming. But he knew if he betrayed his friend, he would be a mole in the history of friendship.
“Dharmal convinced his family to give him a few months. They reluctantly agreed.
“But when Mangal came to see his dear friend, he was insulted by his family. ‘What do you think you are doing? Trying to turn my peace loving son into a rebel like you. We are sure something is cooking between you two else Rajpal would not have brought him like this.’
‘Dharmal are you out of your mind,’ Rajpal yelled at his brother. ‘That Mangal will lead you and our entire family in trouble,’ he continued.
‘Listen to me brother, you cannot agree on everything Mangal tells you,” Rajpal tried to convince his brother. He tried to calm his brother down, appealing to his nationalistic fervor.
“Back in the regiment, it became clear that whatever had to be done needed to be done before the rains. Dharmal’s mind was working overtime. He couldn’t let Mangal do what he wanted to without thinking of the consequences.
“Meanwhile Rajpal couldn’t tolerate to see their plans taking shape and he decided to spill the beans in front of the officer. He was definitely someone who would put his selfish interests before the interests of the nation.
“He tried to lure few other sepoys to join him and speak against the two. They thought, ‘What difference could a handful people make? Mangal doesn’t have a family, no responsibility. He is simply a lunatic.’
“While Mangal thought about confronting his officers, Dharmal thought of only one thing. A fist is more powerful than the individual fingers. Similarly, they would need people to be united with them for this cause.
“It was indispensable to educate them on why they should go against the British. Increasing taxes, westernization, introduction of the Doctorine of Lapse and playing with the religious sentiments were reasons legitimate enough.”
Baba could read the eagerness in the eyes of the children. They were desperate what Baba would utter next. It was the first time someone was introducing children with such golden friendship and nationality. They were curious about the plan.
Baba continued, “Some colleagues were hesitant but then they realized that Dharmal was right. They all got agreed to support Dharmal and Mangal.”
Milli excitedly clapped, “Then?”
Baba continued, “That night they all met.”
‘Friends,’ Mangal addressed his soldier friends, ‘we cannot continue to live like slaves anymore. In spite of how much we have given, we are always treated with disrespect and distrust. This cannot go on. Not anymore.
‘We must rise. Together. I say this because the company’s intention is to divide us, so we must all stand united in this as one. Fight them to the finish. Are you all with me?’
‘But we are just too meek in front of the goras,’ agonized one.
‘What is it that we can do?’ quipped another one.
‘We can get together and stop taking orders from them,’ Mangal declared.
‘That cannot be a solution, Mangal, my friend,’ said the first soldier. ‘We have children to feed. We are at the mercy of our employers. How is an uprising possible with empty stomachs?’ he continued tearfully.
‘If we do not show our displeasure on the changes that they are bringing, then they will consider that we are okay with whatever regulations they levy on us. This is slavery, if not anything else.’ Mangal was not backing out. And amongst the crowd, he realized, there was not a similar wave of angst that he was seeking. Some of the soldiers were with him, while the others seem to wane.
“At the end of the meeting, nothing substantial turned out. The crowd dispersed without a result. Irked by the reaction of his friends, Dharma and Mangal sat cornered, burning in the fire of a rebellious streak.
“Dharmal tried to reason with Mangal, ‘I knew there will be doubts and dissent,’ he said, ‘but Mangal, what you are asking from them is huge. They need to feed the family. Protect their family.’
‘If that’s how it’s going to be, then even if I have to be the sole crusader, I’ll do my bidding. I know that if we won’t stop them now, it’ll be too late,’ Managal sighed.
‘Dharmal, what is this life? We live for the goras, we kill our own brethren. They are just a handful. We ARE the army. Why do we have to be so scared? We only die once, but these godforsaken goras kill us with humiliation every day if our lives,’ Mangal fumed.
“The next morning, Mangal was unsure what he’d do. But he knew for sure what he wished to. Unwashed and unkempt, he sauntered out of the house and into the market, holding a pitcher of bhaang.
“He met the very first soldier who had expressed disinterest the night before. ‘Mangal, I thought about it all night. Now is the time. We could not live a free life but atleast our children could.’
“What Mangal did not know was that one of the soldiers had spilled the beans to the officers and all hell had broken loose in the regiment.”
Mili shuddered at the thought of what was to come. “Baba, Mangal Pandey ko pakad liya? Unko kya hua?
“Beta, yahi toh main batana chahta hoon. The world is unaware of this.
“Dharmal was alone in the tent when the officers barged in,” continued Baba.
‘Saala! Tum kala log hamse panga lega?’ The officer screamed. Dharmal was faced with the choice of his life.
Should he tell on his friend or should he… Dharmal took one deep breath and said, ‘Sir, Mangal is just my lanky. The plan is mine. Mangal is such a coward. Bloody man cannot be persuaded.’
‘I will not allow my religion to be screwed by you scums.’ Dharmal was shivering inside but he had to put up a strong front. He had to buy time. That idiot Mangal will be back any moment.
Mili clutched Durga’s hand. Sattu was also sitting in stunned silence. They saw Baba’s moist eyes and figured that Dharmal must’ve died a painful death in the hands of the cruel tormentors.
“When Mangal returned, ” Baba continued, “he saw Dharmal’s mangled body. The soldiers recounted Dharmal’s supreme sacrifice for his friend. Mangal let out a heart curling scream. His sorrow was compounded by the fact that he had a letter in his hand from his father.”
‘You stupid silly man,’ he sobbed, ‘you were going to become a father. What face will I show to Shanta now? What have you done?’ Mangal was inconsolable.
‘And if you think I’ll give in to these bastards, you are mistaken my friend,’ Mangal roared. ‘The mutiny will now be a fight to the finish. Your sacrifice will not go waste. I swear on your unborn baby.’
Baba took off his glasses and wiped his tears. The children sat in silence. Sattu was staring into space. “The rest…,” said Baba tiredly. “The rest is history. The mutiny took place. Secretly the mission was called Jai Dharmal. A fitting tribute to that courageous man.
“Go have some food now,” Baba said. Reluctantly the three kids got up to go. Sattu turned from the doorway and asked, “Baba, will you help us fill out the NCC cadet forms tomorrow?”
Baba smiled. As he folded his glasses to put away, he recounted the rest of the story in his mind. Mili was too young to know yet.
Shanta’s son was adopted by Mangal Pandey’s family. Shanta had died in childbirth. The son, Baba’s father, meant more to the Pandey family than any blood son would ever have. But then this story he would keep for another day.
That night as the three young minds went to bed, they could feel the pain of Dharmal’s family and his best friend Mangal. The next morning meant knowing more about what happened to Mangal.
The next day the kids woke up much earlier than usual. Took shower, had breakfast and headed towards Mili’s home. A flare of patriotism had sparked in Sattu’s heart and he couldn’t wait to get his NCC form signed.
On their way to school, Sattu casually remarked, “So, Mangal Pandey’s not really your great grandfather, after all.”
“Well,” Milli turned towards him. “It’s not the blood in your veins that matters but the soul in your heart. I know the bravery of my soul will shine, regardless. And now more so, because now I know my purpose.” Milli stated.
Durga asked, “What would that be?”
The glint in Milli’s eyes said it all. “To uphold the truth, at all times. Because there is something even bigger than your person.” Milli flashed her trademark smile towards the siblings.
“Just like one’s nation and the passion to live for it.”
Sheetal Ashpalia, Kajal Kapur, Shristee Singh, Shweta Singh, Sonali Prasad, Sonal Singh, Anjali Sharma, Amruta Wadekar, Ruby Kapoor, Maneet Gulati Ahuja, Rinku Budhia, Tripti Sharma, Sheena Gupta, Sheena Jain, Preethi Warrier
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