SINGH WHO WAS KING
Viking, Rs 450
Navtej Sarna’s portrait of Duleep Singh, the last maharaja of Punjab, is as much about the exile within as it is about his estrangement from his land. Seema Chishti Posted: Oct 05, 2008 at 1307 hrs IST
A couple of years ago, William Dalrymple, in some interviews given prior to the publication of The Last Mughal, set the cat among the pigeons by comparing the popular historian in the western world with what was the case in India. He said that while in the West, you had historians like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson engaged in popular history, writing biographies of interesting and intriguing characters or coming up with a historical perspective on contemporary events in regular columns, historians in India weren’t doing that. Indian historians descended on Dalrymple like a tonne of bricks and insisted that appropriate and relevant work in India was indeed going on. The debate, like several such, generated more heat than light and wasn’t exactly settled.
This is not to say that Navtej Sarna’s Exile belongs to that genre of writing history in an accessible way (which perhaps also implies historical themes handled in English, more journalistic than academic, and brought out by a big publishing house, out in paperback very soon). Sarna does not even make such a claim. In his note, he admits that he has pushed the boundaries of fact and merged it with fiction, if only, as he says, to “reach for the edges of Duleep Singh’s story… pushing available facts towards the realm of fiction, but pushing them gently, so as not to distort them”. To the author’s credit, he does it well, and fulfils, at least in some measure, the need for taking on a subject with a deep historical resonance, appeal and context.
In a system like ours, obsessive about dates and heroes as far as history went, The Exile is an interesting attempt to look at the life of Duleep Singh, the youngest of maharaja Ranjit Singh’s “acknowledged sons”, who at the age of 11 was the last maharaja of Punjab. Duleep didn’t really know his father well, he was almost doubtful of his paternity, in this novel, and exhausted by the inheritance which he describes as "crushing".
As the young Duleep Singh is taken by the British and sent off to live in the UK as a "country squire" (not before converting him to Christianity), the novel tries to detail his life through, apart from himself, four contemporaries — his ADC, his mother’s maid, his British guardian and his “trusted” chief of staff, who is by self-admission, fascinated by his "talent for misfortune". The details and the narrative that emerge are rich and make good reading because of the five pairs of eyes that take you through the tragedy of Punjab as it splintered after Ranjit Singh’s death. Even the account of the maidservant, the charming and ambitious Mangla, details an important segment of Indian life in the 19th century. It is almost Manto-esque, with descriptions of Lahore, Hira Mandi, the punkahwallahs, the kanjarkhana, and the deep desire of a girl there to escape the gullies and bazaars and make it to higher quarters. The Exile deals with much more than just the estrangement of a failed prince from Punjab, who found both his father’s legacy and the hostile circumstances unbearable.
Duleep Singh dies a lonely man, broken and miserable in the novel, in a nondescript hotel in Paris. However, for all the loneliness in the end, Duleep Singh’s is a crowded exile, which perhaps makes it even more difficult to cope with. He describes how those who baptised him used water from the Ganga "to add a holy dimension of the river for me". Duleep does trust his new extended family for a while — on church visits and gossip sessions in the sun with them — but soon enough the truth about Dalhousie’s devious plans sinks in, of people who took away all his possessions, including the Koh-i-Noor, with a pension purportedly to buy his rights and his soul.
Duleep tries to give up his (deeply unfulfilling) second life and makes an attempt to regain his identity by reconverting to Sikhism. He meets his mother (Bibiji) in her final days and describes his fascinating visits to Buckingham Palace and being allowed to hold the Koh-i-Noor in his hands. Duleep loses her, as she dies soon after, and he undertakes a voyage to immerse her ashes in India. It is a voyage that ends dramatically in Duleep’s discovery of a second love — a half-Abyssinian girl with a “saintly” demeanour, an act very much the subject of ridicule for his English guardians.
There is an excerpt from Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile in the beginning, which poignantly ends with how “the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever”. But The Exile doesn’t see Duleep Singh “achieving” or doing very much, he is pretty much tossed about by circumstances. It can also be seen as a parable for the misery and dilemma of the numerous princely families the British dealt with. The royals, desperate to maintain their status and wealth, were eventually stripped of it all and pensioned off by the British. It left behind a royalty with crumbling memories and nostalgia for a riyaasat that they had lost but they thought they could vaguely stake claim to. The exile within is what the book deals most with, imaginatively.