Tragic tale of Dalip Singh
Khushwant Singh

IT is said that when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was shown a map of the world with British possessions, including all of India, except his kingdom, painted red, he scanned the map of India with his one-seeing eye and remarked: Ek roze sab laal ho jayega (one day all this will become red). His prophecy turned out to be correct. He died in 1839. In 1849, after defeating the maharaja's armies in several fiercely-fought battles in two wars, the British annexed the Sikh kingdom. His last remaining son, Dalip Singh, was ordered to sign away his possessions, including the Kohinoor diamond. He was kept in confinement in India under the tutelage of John Login and converted to Christianity.

Later, he was shipped to England. He became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and was given an estate, Elveden, in Suffolk county and granted a handsome pension. His mother Rani Jindan escaped from prison and fled to Nepal. Later, she joined her son in England. Dalip Singh inherited his good looks from his mother, who was the daughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's kennel keeper. Bazaar gossip had it that by then the Lion of Punjab was impotent and Dalip's real father was a bhishti (water carrier), who watered the royal garden.

In his infancy Dalip Singh had been exposed to the murder and beheading of his uncle and other assassinations. It was not surprising he developed a streak of cruelty. At Elveden he arranged shooting parties in which at times over 600 partridges, grouse, pheasants, snipes, wild ducks and rabbits were massacred. He took to heavy drinking.

Once on his way from India he stopped at Cairo and married a girl from a Christian orphanage, Bamba Muller, who was the illegitimate daughter of a German through an Abyssinian woman. She bore him many sons and daughters in quick succession. This did not stop Dalip from having affairs with other women, amongst whom was a chambermaid who bore him two daughters. He lived well beyond his means and was always in debt.

But he could never get it out of his mind that he was the son of a king and had been deprived of his kingdom. To reinforce his claim, he went through a ceremony of conversion to Sikhism and had it announced far and wide. He went to Russia to persuade the Czar to invade India and get him back his throne. The Czar refused to see him. He settled down in Paris, disillusioned and disheartened.

He was so heavily in debt that he had to live in cheap hotels. He had a stroke, which paralysed his left side. He was a broken man. He was persuaded to beg Queen Victoria's pardon and permission to return to Elveden. She pardoned him, cleared his debt and restored his pension. He died in 1893. He was given a Christian burial and rests among other members of his family in Elveden's church cemetery.

Dalip Singh was not cast in the heroic mould. He was vain, unstable, dissolute and dishonest. Nevertheless, today's Sikhs honour his memory because they look upon him as their last maharaja. Navtej Sarna of the IFS, who was the chief spokesman of the Foreign Office and has been appointed Ambassador to Israel, has done a commendable job in reconstructing Dalip Singh's life through his letters making up versions ascribed to his Sikh valet and maid servant, notes by Login and his wife and others concerned to tell the tragic tale of this non-hero. His novel, The Exile (Penguin Viking), is a masterly mix of fact and fiction and makes a spine-chilling story of sordid intrigues, murders, betrayals and delusions of grandeur. It is gripping.