The Exile: A maharaja's tragic journey
October 15, 2008

What do you do when you have to chronicle the tragic life and death of the last Sikh maharaja? You write a fiction novel to capture the emotional churn that a human being, of the stature of a maharaja whose kingdom is systematically annexed by the British, goes through without distorting historical facts.

That's what author Navtej Sarna, Ambassador-designate to Israel has done in his second work of fiction, aptly titled The Exile. His first book, We Weren't Lovers Like That was published by the same publisher Penguin in 2003.

Sarna, during his interaction with readers at the book reading session at Crossroad in Mumbai was at his animated best as he read selected passages from The Exile and answered queries from those gathered for the event.

Incidentally, the author spent almost nine years to research his subject -- Maharaja Duleep Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's youngest acknowledged sons. It was under Ranjit Singh -- also popularly known as the Lion Of Punjab -- the kingdom of Punjab spread from the Sutlej to Khyber Pass. His death in 1839 led to a slow and painful downfall of the Sikh kingdom which was sytematically annexed by the British.

The Exile is the heartrending story of Maharaja Duleep Singh who was separated from his mother Queen Jindan after his father's death in 1839 and converted to Christianity. Later he was disillusioned by the treatment the British meted out to him and became a Sikh again. However, this rebellion came in a tad too late as the British botched every attempt Duleep Singh made to return to his motherland. As fate would have it, Duleep Singh met his tragic end in a cheap hotel room in Paris.

The story is narrated by six voices including that of Duleep Singh. Each one was chosen because the author was looking for a person who'd have an authoritative voice; somebody who'd have easy access to the maharaja throughout the 55 years of his life.

To gather as many facts as accurately as possible the author traced Maharaja Duleep Singh's footsteps across several continents and countries. His love of labour took Sarna to England, Moscow, Paris, Lahore (capital of the Sikh kingdom) and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Actually, being a diplomat helped -- he was posted in Moscow, Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Teheran and Washington, DC -- as most of his travel to these places was work-related. Sarna, though, had to spend time beyond work for his research.

'Twixt fiction and fact

On the cover of The Exile, noted Sikh historian, author of many acclaimed books and the official history of the Sikhs, Khushwant Singh writes: 'In (The Exile) Navtej Sarna presents a gripping tragedy: a sordid tale of intrigue, treachery and cold-blooded murders that greeted the end of the Sikh kingdom, and of the exile to England of its last maharaja, Duleep Singh. A dextrous mix of fact and fiction by a master storyteller that holds the reader spellbound to the last page.'

So how much of The Exile is fact and how much is fiction?

"That's the judgement the writer and the critics have to make after reading the book," says Sarna in response to a question from an avid reader during the book reading.

"There is a temptation to romanticise, there is a temptation to sentimentalise," when somebody ventures out to write about the agony and the sadness in the life of the last Sikh Maharaja, notes the author.

"But I think anybody who does that exposes himself to the danger of severe criticism," he adds.

The author said he has tried to be very careful and stick to available historical facts and where he wanted to extend the mood using fictional devices or created a comment he tried his best to keep it "within the realm of the probable".

"If you read the man's letters you understand what he must have gone through and felt; so you know you are not really out of sync so much with his thoughts except they haven't been written down. So you are not going into wild imagination," he asserts.

Their history, our history

The interesting fact about Sarna's The Exile is that it is an attempt by an Indian to chronicle the life and times of the last Sikh maharaja who oversaw the British taking away the Koh-i-noor, the most priced possession in his toshakhana (treasury).

While attempts were made by foreign writers to chronicle the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh, Sarna's book "explores the emotional and psychological dimension of the various dilemmas that he must have faced" under the British tutelage.

But wouldn't an Indian author, writing about an Indian maharaja deliberately try to glorify a king condemned by history, asked one more discerning reader during the book reading.

Interestingly, about five years ago Khushwant Singh had cautioned the author not to make Duleep Singh a hero when he discussed his interest in writing on such a subject.

"I am extremely aware of that; he's not a hero, he is not a superman. In fact, when I met Khushwant Singh whose comments are on the cover he'd warned me not to make Maharaja Duleep Singh a hero. So I told him I will not make him a hero but will try to tell only his story," replied Sarna.

Sample what the author had to say about his subject:

"The fact is that Maharaja Duleep Singh is a weak, irresolute man; he is a man who can go from saying I want to go back to India, giving up on every thing and then saying, no, no, but this winter there is a great shooting in Sardinia and I want to go duck shooting." "In fact, Duleep Singh comes out as a man whose personality was deeply impacted by the sense of loss and non-belonging. I agree with you that there is a fair danger of doing that (glorifying somebody condemned by history) but that's where we have to be true to our own conscience."

Sikh, Christian, and Sikh again

When the British took away Maharaja Duleep Singh from Lahore, Lord Dalhousie -- the then viceroy of India -- decided that he should be taken to a place called Fatehgarh, a small, little, mosquito-ridden camp of indigo planters on the banks of the Ganga in UP (then United Province). He was taken to UP because the British had no intention of keeping any symbol of Sikh political power in Lahore.

However, his entry into the Christian fold and back into Sikhism is an interesting story in itself. He didn't become a Christian because he loved the religion or didn't come back into the Sikh fold for the same reason.

"I suppose it was an emotional moment but I think what comes out again is the sense of political rebellion" that Maharaja Duleep Singh showed in doing what he did, says Mr Sarna.

Essentially Duleep Singh was in the keep of one John Logan -- a surgeon in the British Army and also a Presbyterian missionary -- and his wife. In that instance he had attendants who were Christian and was made to believe that Christianity was the right way to live. He knew very little of Sikhism and he thought that Hinduism was only ritualism. So in comparison he was attracted towards Christianity.

According to the book Lord Dalhousie had prepared a very detailed document to prove that there was no undue influence used to convert Duleep Singh to Christianity.

However, 30-odd years later Duleep Singh once again expressed his desire to become a Sikh and he did it against all odds. The British wouldn't let him travel to India fearing political trouble. So a delegation of five Sikhs congregated in England and baptised him back into Sikhism.

It was a clear indication that he had renounced and rejected Christianity in the same rebellious way he had become a Christian earlier.

Jinhe Lahore nahin dekhiya... To conclude the book reading session Sarna chose a very poetically written passage about Lahore in the voice of Mangla, a maid-servant of Queen Jindan who becomes a very influential personality as Duleep Singh's tragic journey continues. In fact, Mangla is one of the six narrators apart from the subject himself who tells you Duleep Singh's story.

Mangla: I still remember the time when I reached the city of my dreams. A city whose glory was to become my glory, at least for a while. We used to say in our village that he who has not seen Lahore has not been born...