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The Maharaja who became a gentleman
DNA
19 October 2008

Dilip M Menon

The Exile: A Novel Based On The Life Of Maharaja Duleep Singh
Navtej Sarna
Penguin
264 pages
Rs450


By the middle of the 19th century, British paranoia regarding the possibility of an invasion from Russia made Punjab under multiple rulers an unstable frontier. In 1849, it was annexed and the problem arose as to what was to be done with Rani Jindan, Ranjit Singh’s young, impetuous and headstrong wife and his son Duleep Singh who, though a child, could act as a focus for dreams of a new and resurgent Sikh rule. Then of course, there was the matter of the untold personal wealth of the late maharaja, which included the Kohinoor, the golden chair of state, silver summer house, the Kuljee (plume) of the last Guru, and the sword of the Persian hero Rustum.

Navtej Sarna’s elegiac novel is told through the reminiscences of Duleep Singh, Mangala (Jindan’s maid), John Login (the Englishman appointed to act as moral tutor to Duleep), and Arur Singh (the man to whom Duleep turns in later life as he tries to recover his Sikh roots). The overwhelming sense of the novel is of a world that was lost; a world governed by honour and valour as much as chicanery and intrigue. The descriptions of the struggle for power after Ranjit Singh’s death are marvelous in summoning up a time when integrity clashed with opportunism and braggadocio with statesmanship. Jindan moves from being the sheltered queen to discovering the steel within herself as she fights for herself and the life of her son. In the end, Duleep is condemned to a life of exile, living out in England the English fantasy of an Oriental prince, undecided whether he should be a playboy of the eastern world or a noble, wronged figure.

Sarna’s narrative takes us through four stages of Duleep’s life. A child caught in the whirlwind of political changes, an unwitting symbol of a future unity for the Sikhs, he is unaware of the raw struggle going on around him. Jindan shelters him fiercely from the attempts to recruit him into bids for power, realising that a renewed Sikh realm is a lost cause. Duleep is then brought under the tutelage of John Login, a Christian official and model of rectitude who is put in charge of the young prince’s moral development. While Login is drawn by the unbridled enthusiasm of the young prince, he is also aware that his duty is to temper Oriental passion with a sense of duty and an attachment to God.

Duleep is drawn towards the simple, Manichaean pieties of Christianity and decides to convert, horrifying his far-flung constituency who see this as another example of British perfidy. His new identity as Oriental, yet Christian prince, wins him friends, admirers and lovers in England where he is sent to prevent any backsliding into earlier affinities.
He is given an estate at Elveden, where he devotes himself to organising game shoots and gains entry into prestigious clubs; the transition to a gentleman seems complete. He marries, on impulse, an Egyptian Christian girl called Bamba, and loves her fitfully amidst other entanglements of the heart. In his old age, beset by debt and a sense of betrayal, he is drawn towards his Sikh roots, accepting pahul, and the quixotic delusion of winning back his empire with Russian help. He dreams of returning to Punjab but the imperial authorities are clear that he cannot be allowed to; misguided and addled as he is, he is still a symbol of Sikh pride.

In 1893, Duleep dies in a hotel room in Paris, alone and still dreaming of return. In his death, his life becomes a story to be appropriated by the English and the Sikh alike. Navtej Sarna’s novel is evocative and redolent with nostalgia. His prose, however, drowns the characters in its richness and poetry, and we are left with portraits rather than living people. History does tend to preserve its heroes like so many flies in amber.
Dilip Menon teaches Modern Indian History at Delhi University.