These lines were written as Forward to Prof. Hari Ram Gupta’s biography on Mohan Lal from Allahabad on July 13, 1940. --Editor
By Jawaharlal Nehru
Many years ago - it is so long that I have forgot ten where and when it was, in England or in India - I came across two battered volumes, heavy with age, as I was indulging in the pleasant pastime of browsing in a bookshop. They had been published in the early forties of the nineteenth century in England and the title attracted me.
They were the Memoirs and Journal of Mohan Lal Kashmerian.
The title was attractive and even more so the picture of a remarkably handsome young man which was given as a frontis piece. Who was this very attractive young Indian, I wondered, hailing from my old homeland of Kashmir, who had ventured so far, and, what is more, written about his travels in the English language, so long ago? I had never heard of him. I was filled with excitement, as of a new discovery, and concluding my bargain with the keeper of the bookshop, hastened away with these volumes.
I read them and my interest and excitement grew. Here was a person full of the spirit of adventure, to whom adventure came in full measure before he was out of his boyhood. He did not shrink from it, but welcomed it, and wrote about it, so that others might share it a little with him. Danger and difficulty were his constant companions, and disasters sometimes overwhelmed his party. But he never seems to have lost his resourcefulness and his quick mind and soft tongue were equal to any occasion. He had an amazing aptitude for the ways and intrigues of diplomacy, and it is astonishing how he could win over even hardened opponents to his side.
The British power profited by Mohan Lal's ability fully. Often, as Mohan Lal admits sorrowfully, he gave definite pledges on behalf of the British authority, which were not subsequently kept.
In a free India a man like Mohan Lal would have risen to the topmost rungs of the political ladder.
Under early British rule, whatever he might be or whatever he might do, he could not rise higher than the position of a Mir Munshi or at most a Deputy Collector.
After his first exciting fifteen years or so, his life seems to have become dull and empty.
There was apparently no place or activity suitable for him in India, and he must have lived largely in the past when he was the honoured guest of the rulers of Asia and Europe, or when he was a central figure in a stirring drama of life and death. Probably this very prominence that came to him early in life became an obstacle in later years. His superior British officers were jealous of his ability and of his contact with sovereigns and others, who were beyond their reach. Mohan Lal's later years are pathetic and depressing.
Accustoming himself to an expensive standard of living, he was continually in debt and sending appeals to the British authorities for help or compensation for the moneys spent by him during the Kabul campaigns. These appeals were rejected.
When I first read Mohan Lal's Journal and Memoirs, I was eager to know more about him. I managed to obtain his life of Dost Mohammed, but this did not help me much. I enquired from Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, who is a repository of all manner of curious information and knowledge. Sir Tej Bahadur knew of Mohan Lal and his family but he could not enlighten me much. I was delighted to learn, therefore, from Dr SK Datta that one of his students had undertaken to write a life of Mohan Lal. Shri Hari Ram Gupta has evidently taken great pains over this work and he has done something that was worth doing.
This book, enables us to know something about a fascinating person.
It gives us intimate and revealing glimpses of the early days of British rule in north India, of the Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, of the British campaigns through Sind and in Afghanistan, of the disasters in Kabul, and of the prevailing conditions in Central Asia in the thirties of the nineteenth century. These glimpses are not flattering to the British.
For a student of history and of economic and social conditions this book has importance. There is one thing, however, that I miss in it. There is very little about Mohan Lal as a man or about his personal life. That he was an adventurer, there is no doubt, but he was something much more, and even his adventures have a high quality - welcoming risk and danger, and facing death often enough, he was yet a lover of pleasure and the soft ways of life - a politician and scholar, with something of the poet and the artist in him, which peeps out continually from his Memoirs and Travels. In the middle of a narrative of political happenings and economic data, he begins to admire the charm of nature, or to describe the beauty of the women he saw in the market-place or drawing water from a village well. I should like to know more about this unusual and attractive and much married man. I should like to know what happened to his daughter who was sent to England for her education.
Perhaps now that attention is being directed to Mohan Lal by this book, more information will be forthcoming from various sources.
Mohan Lal was a typical Kashmiri Pandit. From the race he derived good looks, natural grace of expression and virile courtliness. To his own family he was indebted for sensitive pride and capacity to put up with the rough and tumble of political conflicts. He inherited from his parents a shrewd instinct for getting and keeping, a distinct gift of courtiership, and great enthusiasm for things of the mind.
He was tall and very handsome with classically regular features. "In appearance Mohan Lal is agreeable with pleasing manners, his features are marked and countenance intelligent". His slim and manly figure, his majestic turban, his fine dress, his well-trimmed moustaches, sharp-pointed nose and large, prominent eyes, all inspired an emotion of their own, and gave an added interest to his conversation.
His laugh was melodious.
He possessed a sweet disposition and scattered sunshine and good cheer by giving a kind word and throwing a pleasant smile to every one. Few of those living in his company ever found it possible to resist his fascinating and merry charm. It was not so much that he was extraordinarily witty in society; but he created an easy atmosphere, in the midst of which every companion thought and talked with ease and spontaneity. He was a fine talker.
His demeanour, his humility, his impulsiveness, his effective delivery, and his magnetic personality, made him a delightful companion. He could therefore dominate both men and women. A. Burton, the Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, says : "When I first came here I cultivated his acquaintance from a desire to hear from him an account of those stirring events in which he had borne a part and likewise from a feeling that a man who had been so well-received in England and other parts of Europe by the very first people, Kings and Queens not excepted, should not be ignored by the British society of this country as I found Mohan Lal was and thus be driven back in his heathen and ignorant associates to the inevitable deterioration of the enlightened ideas he had acquired in his European tour".
"I like Mohan Lal. I find him a very agreeable, well-informed, companionable man, plenty to say, and by no means unobservant.
He got into bad hands, as was natural, for the best English society seems not to have been open to him. I have been told he drank at military messes and made himself disagreeable to the army officers in that way. Then his associating with Nubee Buksh and Mr. Hodges was of course against him; but he has had no fair chance on his return from Europe; from dining with princes he found himself shut out except from the converse of men like Hodges, a discharged clerk of this office who drank his champagne and encouraged him to drink it likewise.” Another remarkable trait in his character was intuition, subtlety and divination which enabled him to understand and appreciate those who came into contact with him. He was cool and courageous. He was never so happy and so resourceful as when confronted with most serious problems. His fierce and restless energy was a great asset.
When required, he could work for long hours with enthusiasm and even with relish.
He was an adept in the art of pleasing.
His personality always attracted, never repelled.
There was a heartiness in his expression, in the smile, in the handshake and in the cordiality with which he greeted people.
Capable of both thought and action, and equally at home in matters of daily routine, he was at his best in the midst of miseries and misfortunes. In the time of political crisis alone he could display his great talents to the full. Then he found a continuous interest in political work and a constant compulsion to use his full weight in the game. He could then force co-operation with men of different classes and temperament.
At such times he showed that he was endowed with mental powers of the first order, and that his readiness and resources were extraordinary.
He was at his best when he was required to persuade people, not ordinary persons, but leaders of men. Then he could bring everyone to the point at which he could be used not by deception but by suggestion.
In a word he was a born diplomat and the real field of his work was politics.
He had a passion for beauty and for beautiful things. He was at home with literary men in the library, with sportsmen in the field, and with poets in moonlit gardens.
He was familiar with the best that the Persian poets had sung, and the loveliest that the artists had created in form and colour.
He loved with the charm of roses and lilies, singing birds and green boughs. He enjoyed life, and believed that this world was really a place worth living in. He was never too tired for more festivities, more songs, more wine and more women.
"Wherever he went he managed to take a new wife unto himself, usually marrying in the highest circles".
When forced to lead a life of retirement at the young age of thirty-four, he found himself freed of all obstructions, usually imposed by public life. Consequently, passion now found itself untrammeled. Formerly, he was carried away by the love of glory, and snow, he was swept away by the love of wine and women. He could not devote himself to a pursuit, whether politics or pleasure, half-heartedly; it possessed him entirely. He did everything with a gusto, every nerve and every fibre. He was a man of literary taste, and had a library of his own. This escaped destruction at the hands of the mutineers in Delhi, and was donated by him at his death to the Municipality of Ludhiana. He was a writer of no mean merit. His Journals, Travels and Life of the Amir Dost Mohammad Khan of Kabul clearly show that he possessed deftness and exterity in writing his personal experiences. All these works suggest considerable possibilities. He is said to have kept a detailed diary for the last forty-five years of his life. If it comes to light he will undoubtedly rank as the greatest Indian diarist of modern times.
His numerous letters in manuscript display an easy style of English in spite of his eccentric phraseology. He had a command of language and a felicitous touch in sketching an incident or a character.
In reading these letters we feel that his aim was truth rather than effect. His observations on persons and places are interesting and illuminating. He was free and frank while giving counsels to his superiors on events and tendencies which affected the grave issues of peace and war and the lives of thousands of men and women.
Exhilaration of spirit, buoyancy of mind, vigour of body, keenness for achievement, will to power and the awareness of great faculties - these were the elements of his success.
All that remains of Mohan Lal's activities in this world are his three books mentioned above. At Ludhiana he built a religious place for the Shias known as Agha Hasan Jan's Imambara. Close by it there ran a road bearing his name. His grave in Lal Bagh, Delhi, was in ruins in 1939 and has now disappeared.
Mohan Lal's life does not challenge the attention of the world, but modestly solicits it.
(Source: Punjab, Central Asia and the First Afghan War)
Source: Kashmir Sentinel
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