Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Siege of Lucknow

High pillars rise into the gloom. The walls are white-washed brick broken where canon balls slammed into them in 1857. We circle down and down, descending below the thick walls of the British resident’s house in Lucknow to a deep cellar, its vaulted roof forming the ground floor of the house above. Arches lead from room to room

Dark. For the victims of the Siege of Lucknow, what little light they had came from small half-moon windows up at ground level, many of the spaces were black holes, litterally.

Here was where most of the women and children were sequestered. They were the wives, mothers, and offspring of British officers who had elected to live in India. They were young women who had come out from England to visit relatives and, they hoped, find a husband among the many eligible bachelors posted with the regiments. They were the most unlucky among the unlucky.

I can visualize them in little family groups, trying to make some sort of a life as the siege of the British compound continued for month after month and into the searing heat of summer. They lacked all sanitation, had little water, ran out of food and candles. They were killed by cholera, typhoid, starvation, scurvy, small pox, heat stroke, the occasional canon ball, and plain fatigue.

...fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars ...

Outside the deep hole occupied by the women, the buildings on the British compound slowly disintegrated under regular pounding by Indian artillery. We walk around the ruins, and I’m amazed at the size of the homes, termed bungalows. These mini-palaces were occupied by the senior officers.

I gawk at the regimental doctor’s home, which features in the history books. I had no idea. It’s three stories tall with a massive portico that would dwarf the finest southern mansion’s entry. How the mighty were fallen. On one day in 1857, the middle class British of Lucknow fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars and behind the walls of the residency. There they died or there they stayed for time beyond imagining.

At the end, some seven hundred members of the British community holed up in Lucknow lived. Two thousand died. At the end, the British triumphed over incredible odds and despite appallingly dreadful leadership.

“This place,” our guide says as we look at the hole a canon ball made on the cellar wall, “is the only place in India that I can feel sorry for the British. The only place.”

Later, we’re standing in the middle of a street. Just up the way is the cellar of the women. All around are the tatters of brick that once shaped buildings. Then, there is the impressive ruin of the doctor’s house with its reminders of the British Raj and its injustices. “I feel sorry for the people,” I say. “All of them.”

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