SHASHIKIRAN MULLUR writes from Bangalore: It was the end of the walk. A lady asked: “Can you call Tipu Sultan a martyr?”
We were a group of about fifteen, water in hand and backpacks over most backsides.
We had done the city-hike with a local heritage-preservation team, a three-hour stretch titled “The 1791 War Walk.”
Its purpose was to tell us about the siege and fall of Bangalore in 1791. The siege had lasted six weeks, but after the storming the main fort was taken in less than two hours.
“Was he a freedom fighter?” a second lady asked.
She was middle-aged, and was blessed with an agile neck, using which she executed perfect rounds with her head both while speaking and listening.
“No,” a third lady answered, an artistic type in an elegant rough-kurta who spoke at a slow, measured pace, using the time to insert just-the-right-word in her sentences. “We were not taken yet. It wasn’t time for a freedom struggle.”
The walk had begun at the Yelahanka gate of the Pete fort which the British took first and settled there their siege cannons to soften the main fort.
The Pete fort and the main fort were as conjoined twins.
The Pete fort housed the markets and all commerce and the residences of the merchants, and the main fort secured the king’s defences and administration.
In Bangalore, Tipu was deeply invested: he made his armaments here, and, besides standard ordnance, his quite-successful Tipu rocket.
We were standing where the fort had been breached during the battle. The breach is patched now and a plaque in the place commemorates the fateful night, and tour guides halt before it to name the valiant vanquished who fought on the site.
“But there’s no doubt he was an intelligent man,” the first lady said.
On the night the British stormed the fort, Tipu was camped some distance from it, some kilometres away, and when his general begged for a command to go aid the defenders, Tipu dithered. And decided to turn back and take the battle to his capital at Srirangapattana.
“He was brilliant,” the third lady said. “He had a great library.”
Everybody nodded to that, everybody seemed to know about Tipu’s collection of Persian tomes which in the end went to England.
I was tempted to say he was an intellectual, but I checked my tongue which is anyway leaden with inertia in these settings.
“He is guilty of conversions. He did that. That he did, that he did,” the second lady, she with the agile neck, chanted.
The leader of the group was also a lady, a learned one. With eyes focused on the ground and gesticulating with all of herself, she delivered final words.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “People gloss over the good things Tipu did and they gloss over the bad things Tipu did.”
Several of us in the group were men. We listened, but for some reason none of us participated in this final exchange regarding this brave man who was ever in battle to extend and save his kingdom, and who died on his feet, fighting, having never considered to retire from war and surrender to the luxuries of the British vassal’s life.
Photograph: Shashikiran Mullur