Jules Verne’s Indian revenge story
An obscure novel set in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising
The sepoy uprising of 1857 produced a considerable body of fiction, most of it by the British, depicting atrocities by the mutineers. Understandably, the French had a somewhat different take, often taking potshots at their erstwhile colonial rivals in India. Thus, in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the enigmatic Captain Nemo turns out to be Prince Dakkar, son of a Hindu raja of Bundelkhand and, improbably, also a descendant of Tipu Sultan of Mysore. After losing his family and kingdom in 1857, the prince develops an implacable hatred for the British and scours the world’s oceans in his submarine. All this is known to anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with Verne’s oeuvre.
But Verne wrote another, and much more obscure, novel set not just in India but in the aftermath of the events of 1857. Titled Le Maison À Vapeur. or The Steam House, the novel was published in 1880, and had several alternative translated titles, such as The Demon Of Cawnpore, The End Of Nana Sahib and Tigers And Traitors. As these titles indicate, the novel deals much more directly with the events and characters of 1857.
Verne would not be Verne if this was a straightforward historical novel. The very first paragraph of the novel informs us that the time is now 1867 and that Nana Sahib is still at large: “A reward of two thousand pounds will be paid to anyone who will deliver up, dead or alive, one of the prime movers of the Sepoy revolt…” This notice appears in the city of Aurangabad, but in the second chapter, the action shifts to the imperial capital of Calcutta, where a number of British army officers are gathered. The first-person narrator is a recent Indian arrival, and his host on that spring day in Calcutta was Colonel Edward Munro, whose wife had perished in the Kanpur massacre of 27 June 1857. So the scene is set for a tale of revenge, with Nana Sahib and Colonel Munro as the chief adversaries.
The young British officers congregated at Colonel Munro’s house are all keen engineers and excitedly discuss the spread of the railways across India. It is at this point that Verne unleashes his mechanical marvel—nothing less than a steam house pulled by a steam elephant! This contrivance makes its appearance in chapter 5: “On the morning of 5th May, the passengers along the high road from Calcutta to Chandernagore, whether men women or children, English or native, were completely astounded by a sight which met their eyes…drawing the caravan, came a gigantic elephant. The monstrous animal, twenty feet in height, and thirty in length, advanced deliberately, steadily…. This elephant drew after him a train consisting of two enormous cars, or actual houses, moving bungalows in fact, each mounted on four wheels.”
But could one elephant pull such a weight? Verne does not leave us long in suspense, the elephant jets steam from its trunk. “It was but a marvelous deception, a gigantic imitation…. In fact, this elephant was really encased in steel, and an actual steam engine was concealed within its sides.” Voila! Steampunk in one of its earliest iterations, traipsing out of Calcutta by the Hooghly river on a summer’s day in 1867. True to form, Verne describes the technology of the steam elephant in loving detail, down to the paddle-wheels attached to the feet of the elephant to negotiate rivers.
There is also a good deal of historical commentary in the opening chapters of the novel. Verne summarizes, from a neutral point of view, the events leading up to the uprising of 1857. The third chapter recounts the chief events of the uprising while the fourth chapter establishes Nana Sahib as the symbol of resistance. Interestingly, the spectre of Nana Sahib is resurrected a decade after 1857 to unsettle the image of an India at peace under the crown. Historians will find a lot to chew over Verne’s depiction of the Nana, but for the more casual reader, some of the chief delights of the novel are the descriptions of the elephant’s progress across the Gangetic plain, as well as the marvellous illustrations accompanying the original Hetzel edition of 1880. The chapter titled “A Few Hours In Benares”, and the description of the Ganges, is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s effusions on the Grand Trunk Road in Kim, while the three illustrations of the city’s ghats are wonderfully detailed.
A caution to would-be readers though: The book is difficult to find online, and the English rendering, fairly banal. Time for a new translation perhaps?
Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press.