Columns

The stuff of legends
PARTHA CHATTERJEE
02 November 2008

Sarna captures well the pathos and humiliation of Duleep Singh growing up in a world of betrayals and turmoil.


The Exile, Navtej Sarna, Penguin/Viking, p.251, Rs. 450.

The Exile, by Navtej Sarna, is a very readable, indeed interesting novel on Duleep Singh, the last legitimate Maharaja of Punjab and son of Ranjit Singh, whose life was the stuff of legends. Unlike his warrior father, Duleep grew up amidst uncertainty and fear, both political and personal. He was five years old when he ascended the throne in 1839 on his father’s death.

The Lahore Court of the Child Sikh Maharaja was rife with intrigue. It was his wise mother Jindan Kaur who had managed his succession and along with a few trusted advisors tried gallantly to fight off the British on the one hand and murderous pretenders to the throne on the other. It was, however, a losing battle from the beginning.

Ranjit Singh, through bravery and wile, managed to conquer Punjab and keep it together. He died at 59, worn out by the cares of kingship and rigours of the battle field. His son Duleep, by his youngest queen, also died at 59, but unsung, heartbroken in Paris, struck down by a stroke. He was buried in his estate in the English countryside at Elveden. A deposed king deprived both of his kingdom and faith.

Life of turmoil

Duleep was bundled off to England on Lord Dalhousie’s orders at 16 lest he be used as a rallying point against the British by his mother and her advisors. He was converted to Protestant Christian faith and indulged in by Queen Victoria, whose affection for him may also have been, in part, maternal.

Jindan Kaur, a Sikh lady, did not mount the funeral pyre of her husband, unlike the Hindu Ranis of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to commit sati. Instead she was “rewarded” with imprisonment by the British. Somehow she managed to escape to Nepal, suffering great hardship on the way. She was reunited with her son, then a young adult, in England and was to die there in her forties, careworn and half-blind, sometime later.

Intriguing structure

The structure of the narrative is intriguing. It weaves versions of the story by a dying Duleep Singh in the Parisian autumn of 1893; Mangla, the slave girl and Queen Jindan Kaur’s personal attendant who brought him up as a child; Arur Singh, valet and confidante of Duleep Singh; John Login, superintendent of Duleep Singh after the annexation of Punjab and then his mentor in England; Lady Lena Login, the doctor’s wife and a maternal figure in Duleep’s early years in England; and General Charles Carrol-Tevis, an American soldier of fortune who spied on Duleep Singh in Paris at the behest of the British government.

Duleep Singh’s sense of outrage at being diddled out of his kingdom by the British, despite his decadent ways was real. He went to Paris and then to Moscow in an attempt to find support to make a comeback in the Punjab. He reconverted to Sikhism in Aden, sent messages to Sikh soldiers now serving in the British army, who were by all accounts ready to rally around their deposed Maharaja to drive out the Firangee from Hindustan. But that was not to be.

Charles Carrol-Trevis, Duleep’s confidante in Paris duly conveyed to Her Majesty’s Government in London all of his plans. Every precaution was therefore taken to thwart him. His debauchery was encouraged further and his health began to fail rapidly.

Duleep Singh fathered eight children from two marriages. The first was the Bamba Muller and the second to Ada Douglas Wetherhill. Neither wife had remotely to do with the aristocracy of the day.

The novelist scores on two important points: the first, he captures the climate of intrigue that prevailed after Ranjit Singh’s death, and second, Duleep Singh’s own confusion, humiliation, and pathos growing up in a world of betrayal and continuous political turmoil and his vain but sincere effort to come good. The “Rashomon-like” multiple narrative technique is necessary here, because very little is known about Duleep Singh’s mind, though there is a reasonable amount of information available on his daily life as an adult in England.

Sarna is good on the conspiracies and intrigues that destabilised and destroyed Ranjit Singh’s kingdom within a decade of his death. He deems the eclipse of the Sikhs as a triumph of greed over character. Duleep Singh emerges as a sad, befuddled, good-hearted man robbed by the Fates. Jindan Kaur’s thwarted ambitions for her child and her own life blighted by the tricks of history has genuine pathos. Kudos to Navtej Sarna for telling such a moving story.