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The Indian News
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Exile
by Navtej Sarna- A Review


More often than not, I tend to disagree with journalist Barkha Dutt. In the case of The Exile by Navtej Sarna,however, I have to agree with her. She said, during its release, that Mr. Sarna was 'a soulful writer,' something that I thought was very evident after reading this book.

In his fourth book, Mr. Sarna vividly depicts the morose life of the last 'Sovereign of the Sikh State' Maharaja Duleep Singh and manages to portray a life so shallow and utterly useless without letting me fall asleep.

Maharaja Duleep Singh was the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sukerchakia misl, who united the twelve warring misls to form a Sikh Confederacy. The places occupied by the father and son in history are poles apart. While Maharaja Ranjit Singh, perhaps deservedly is portrayed as one of the great Indian leaders of the early colonial era in India, his son Duleep Singh is shown to be an incapable exile who spent the greater part of his life as one of Queen Victoria's party decorations. In The Exile Navtej Sarna traces the life of this pensioned off Prince as he went from Lahore to Fatehgarh to his hunting estate in Elveden to Russia and finally that cold, desolate hotel room in Paris where he met his end. While on this journey, Duleep Singh even found time to become a baptized Christian and then eventually convert back to Sikhism. The author uses several narrators picked from those closest to Duleep Singh. The Prince himself narrates a few incidents. The narrators include Arur Singh, his confidante, Mangla Mai, who was the slave girl of Duleep Singh's mother Rani Jindan and the British officer who served as a father figure to young Duleep.

The book can be divided into essentially two parts, the first describing the splendour of Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Seen through the eyes of Mangla Mai and Rani Jindan, Lahore and implicitly the rest of Punjab is described as a land of fabulous wealth and magnificence. It is however clear that the wealth and brilliance is only very superficial. The Lahori society is a tinderbox waiting to explode. The society is very heterogeneous and the only reason why it probably holds together is because of the respect the Sarkar (read Maharaja Ranjit Singh)commands. After the customary wailing and chest beating following his death subsides, all hell breaks lose. The Exile describes in considerable detail the rivalries that come to the fore, the court intrigue, the bloodshed and the decimation of everything that Maharaja Ranjit Singh stood for by factions of Punjabi aristocracy. The Kashmiri Dogras, the family of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh soldiers who fought as mercenaries, everyone begins to bay for everyone else's blood. Every few months a different standard is seen flying atop the citadel in Lahore. At the time of this chaos, Duleep Singh was a toddler, struggling to be able to walk. Rani Jindan felt that being a son of the deceased Sarkar , the Lahore of the day was unsafe for Duleep. She moved to Jammu along with Mangla Mai. Eventually, Duleep Singh is called back to sit on the throne by one of the warring factions.

The second part of the book describes Duleep Singh, the Exile. After the British annex Punjab and the two parties sign the Treaty of Lahore, among numerous others, Duleep is separated from his mother and is forced out of his erstwhile kingdom. It must be remembered that he is barely fifteen when he is pensioned off. He grows up under the care for a British doctor appointed by Governor General Lord Dalhousie for the task. He grows up among British children and is deeply influenced by tales from The Holy Bible. He decides to become a baptized Christian and move to England. He then wastes way his prime hunting countryside fauna in hunting estates across Britain and acting as Queen Victoria's ultimate poster boy, an Indian Prince who has converted to Christianity and completely given in to the British way of life. In this book, realization dawns upon Duleep after a few wasted decades in Britain. He reads the various treaties signed between Punjab and the Company and realizes Dalhousie's deceit and treachery. For the next few years he turns into a revolutionary, albeit a slightly eccentric one. He plots against the British in pre- first world war Europe by attempting to get the Russian Army to accompany him to the North West Frontier Province. There, he tells them, his army will come and join the Russians and the combined forces will overthrow the British at least in Punjab, if not the whole country. Nothing, obviously goes to plan. Maharaja Duleep Singh dies a lonely death in a small hotel room in Paris.

In my opinion, the book is a good buy. The choice of narrators is excellent. I liked the use of ....... in several places. It may sound stupid, but I think it made the narrative very conversational. What I thought was missing from the book, however, was greater attention to Duleep Singh's childhood. In the first half of the book, a lot of the narrative is wasted on describing the political scene. For a few pages in that part of the book, the story becomes very similar to page 29 of my history textbook, though still a lot more readable. This part could instead have focused more closely on Duleep's childhood. The book is essentially a judgement. Who was at fault for the collapse of the once mighty Sikh Empire. Duleep Singh? Rani Jindan? Maharaja Ranjit Singh? This is left on the reader to decide for the author puts forward no concrete evidence for any possibility. The book is a collection of monologues through the readers is expected to reach conclusions and judge the characters. It is for this reason that I believe that the childhood should have been talked about in greater detail because it is a period of life that has immense bearing on what the individual will turn out to be. Since Duleep Singh is the central figure in the narrative, it would have been good if one knew what were the experiences, those of grief, of fear, perhaps of insecurity during the time he lived in Jammu.

All in all, I liked the book and would recommend it to anyone with even a sliver of interest in Indian history.

I would give it a four on five.