Penguin Books India
Published: 29 October 2010
N avtej Sarna THE EXILE A novel based on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh 251pp. Penguin Books India.
978 0 14 306882 2 The Indian prince Duleep Singh is best known from his magnificent portrait painted by Queen Victoria’s favourite artist, Franz Winterhalter, in 1854. At seventeen years old, the young man is already a regal figure in gold satin, Kashmir shawls, pearl necklaces and turban. He holds a sword and in the background are the towers and domes of his palace at Lahore, then the capital of the Sikh kingdom. Winterhalter’s portrait was commissioned by the Queen, on Duleep Singh’s arrival in England, and it was painted in London, so the Lahore background was a fiction, and a cruel one too. The prince had been exiled by the English East India Company from his kingdom, which he had inherited after a decade of internecine warfare, only to be forced by the greedy Company to surrender it for annexation in 1849. The Kohi-noor diamond, now among Britain’s crown jewels, was part of the annexation loot.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the old, one-eyed “Lion of the Punjab” who died in 1839, was Duleep Singh’s putative father, although there are intriguing hints in Navtej Sarna’s novel that this might not have been the case. The story is told in a series of imagined reminiscences by Duleep Singh himself, by his former servants, and by Dr Login, the Scotsman put in charge of the young prince, and who oversaw his conversion to Christianity. This made Duleep Singh even more attractive to Queen Victoria, who hoped that a marriage could be arranged between him and another Indian convert and exile, the Princess Gowramma of Coorg. But the prince chose to marry an illegitimate mixed-race woman from Cairo, who spoke only Arabic. After this he fell out of favour and the remainder of his life was spent fruitlessly trying to win back his own estates in the Punjab, and later, to get his kingdom back. Duleep Singh never found a role for himself in any country. For a time he played the part of a tweed-wearing country squire with an estate at Elveden in Norfolk, hosting hunting parties. Later he reconverted to the Sikh faith and tried to persuade the Tsar of Russia to support his cause against the British in India, but the time for foreign intervention had passed. There is something of a Bonnie Prince Charlie about this unfortunate Indian man. Both were exiles from their birthright, both handsome men whose youthful good looks were soon dissipated by drink and disappointment, and both subject to hero-worship after their deaths. A fictionalized biography gives the novelist an opportunity to select a strong story-line. In presenting a picture of the chaos following Ranjit Singh’s death, the early chapters are themselves a confused mixture of events with too many characters. Overuse of Hindustani words will baffle non-Indian readers, for there is no glossary. But with the dying prince’s memories the book picks up pace and genuine pathos as it heads towards an inevitably tragic conclusion.