Seema Chishti
Posted: Oct 05, 2008 at 1307 hrs IST

The Exile,
Navtej Sarna,
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

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."