The hooves of the galloping horses hit the dirt road, sending up clouds of dust. I adjusted my position on the saddle — I had been riding for over five hours straight. My companions surrounded me, all of them flicking the reins of their horses every now and then. Trees lined the sides, arching over the path. The moon shone bright through the leaves, bathing us in silver light. Apart from the chirping of the crickets and the galloping of the horses, there was absolute silence.
Soon, we reached a large gate that was connected to high walls on both sides. We had arrived at the Mughal Empire. The guards stationed there blocked our way, one hand on their guns.
I dismounted. “Peace, men,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender to show that I have no weapons. “We are fellow soldiers from Barrackpore, friends of Mangal Pandey.”
The guards widened their eyes. I exhaled a sigh of relief— I wasn’t sure if tales of Mangal Pandey had reached this far west so quickly. Our comrade had only been hanged for his rebellion against the usage of the Enfield Rifle two days ago.
One of the guards hung his head. “My condolences for your loss. I heard that this Enfield Rifle that the British are forcing you to use was unpleasant to deploy?”
“Worse,” I grimaced, “The cartridges that we were being forced to open with our mouths before each shot are sealed with pig and cow fat.”
The guard shuddered. “Violating key laws of Hindu and Muslim faiths. The British have no respect for our culture.” The other guards also looked like they agreed with him.
I nodded. “Which is exactly why my men and I have instigated a rebellion against our European superiors. Five hours ago, we freed our companions who were imprisoned because of their involvement in the late Mangal Pandey’s actions and set fire to the training headquarters. We intend to turn this rebellion into something more — a mutiny. A sepoy mutiny, if you will.”
Behind me, one of my men chimed in, “Let us through, and you can join the resistance against the oppressive British. Mangal Pandey has created the spark, it is our job to fuel it until it becomes a flame. The Europeans have wronged us too many times, now it is our turn to return the favor. For India!”
“For India!” The rest of the soldiers chanted back.
The guards looked at each other and then let go of their guns. They went over to a couple of horses tied to a pole in the ground and untied them, mounting them with ease. The guard I had been speaking with bowed his head slightly.
“Lead the way, soldier,” he said.
I nodded towards him and mounted my horse as well. We continued through the gate and a couple of kilometers in, we spotted the first village. By this time, the dawn had started rising above the horizon.
Drowsy farmers who were leaving their houses to begin the day’s work gawked at us as we passed by. Some of them worried that we were searching for an escaped criminal despite our obvious lack of urgency; and others ironically thought that we were here to prevent a rebellion from breaking out. Either way, soon the neighboring villages were informed of our arrival, and their neighbors, and their neighbors. Ever so often we would spot a soldier who was on patrol and convince them to join us with the same speech we used on the guards at the gate; and most agreed. Soon our group swelled in ranks and began attracting even more attention.
As we neared the center of the city, the scattered villages were replaced by small towns, and eventually cities. Street vendors lined the sidewalks, trying to tempt us to buy their items. Shops and small restaurants continued with their business as always, while customers flocked inside to escape the heat. We could see laborers working at factories and construction sites (under the orders of the foreigners, of course), looking like they have barely slept in the past few days.
Since there was more British law enforcement in the cities, our group split into three and disguised ourselves as peasants transporting their harvest to sell. We acquired our disguises from the street vendors and played our part well enough to avoid suspicion — the British policemen barely paid us any attention. After a few more hours of traveling, we had finally reached our destination. The legendary Red Fort.
At the palace gates, it took considerably less effort to convince the guards to let us through than others. I have a feeling that they were secretly hoping some good could come out of this rebellion. Perhaps they were curious to know what it could be like to write our own laws, lead our own people, and be free of the whims of the British. It was an unimaginable future, but also an enticing one.
We left our horses and disguises outside the fort and brushed the dust off our uniforms. The soldiers from Barrackpore wore dark green liveries; the Mughal guards wore royal purple. Some of us even had one or two medals adorning our clothing. We’ll change the design to something less British once we gain independence, I thought. For now, we need to wear these solely to symbolize our military rank.
We arranged ourselves into formation and marched into the royal gardens surrounding the fort. True to its name, it was made out of red stone and stood out against the green shrubbery. Flowers of every color lined the cobblestone path leading to the fort, arranged artfully. The scent was intoxicating. Large trees grew at intervals, with lush green leaves and thick barks. They look like they could have been planted here during Emperor Aurangzeb’s time. Despite its pleasantness, we left the gardens and entered the fort itself.
The interior of the fort consisted of wide arches, domed ceilings and intricately patterned walls that let in just enough golden sunlight. Servants stopped and stared at us as we passed by like the farmers, but only more alarmed because the Emperor’s residence is supposed to have very tight security. Then they realized that the said security was marching along with us.
We stopped a boy carrying supplies to the kitchen and asked him to direct us towards the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He took one look at our guns and immediately complied, leading us to a large room with high ceilings and lush carpets, where the Emperor and his family were dining. I guessed that that was the banquet hall.
The royal family looked puzzled as we entered the room. We knelt to them respectfully to indicate that we came in peace.
“What is the meaning of this?” Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar demanded.
I stepped forward. “We are the late Mangal Pandey’s comrades. These other men are people who are employed by none other than you who we met along the way and agree with our cause. We all are victims of the Britisher’s oppression, and so are you.”
“And how does this give you the right to storm into my home?” The words were authoritative, but the way the Emperor delivered them was not. He is intimidated by us, I thought incredulously.
The soldiers and I exchanged glances. Best to stop beating around the bush.
“We have incited a mutiny, and want to crown you the official leader.”
There was pin-drop silence in the banquet hall. Finally, the Emperor replied, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
“Then I’m sorry, but I cannot help you.” He had let go of all pretense of being dominant, and instead muttered the words resolutely. “May God help you escape the Britisher’s wrath.”
Some of my soldiers turned to leave, but I remained in my place. “Foreigners have invaded your home, and you intend to do nothing to resist?” I asked him indignantly. “What would your ancestors who entrusted you the Mughal Empire say if they knew?”
“I’m old and frail, I am in no position to lead a rebellion!” The Emperor countered, getting annoyed.
“Sure you are! You are the Emperor of the only kingdom that is said to have encompassed all of India at one point in time!”
“And how would that help overthrow the British?”
“The Marathas, Sikhs, Rajputs, and other territories of India still have residual respect for the Mughal Empire, and therefore they have respect for you. If you were to send messengers to them now, you could convince them to unite and fight against the British! With all of India resisting them at once, we have a good chance of overthrowing the government. Even if we don’t, our struggle will go down in history and will inspire other struggles after us. Either way, our efforts will not be wasted. The 1857 Revolt will be remembered, and so will you.”
The Emperor sighs. “I see you have made up your mind about crowning me the leader of your movement, and I doubt there is anything I can say to change your mind,” he admits defeatedly. “Very well — I shall be the face of your mutiny.”
The other soldiers wore relieved smiles, but I suspect they would have given loud cheers if they weren’t in the presence of royalty. The 1857 Revolt had begun.
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