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The saviour who never reached his people
Navtej Sarna

THE MAHARAJAH'S BOX. Christy Campbell. 474pp. HarperCollins. £19.99. - 0 00 257008 4.

All that is over as a dream and I have awakened to my new life and the destruction of the British empire", wrote Maharaja Duleep Singh to his son Victor from Moscow in the summer of 1887. That was a turning point in one of the most poignant lives in recent Indian history, a life entwined as much in Sikh lore as in Britain's imperial intrigues. Once fussed over affectionately by Queen Victoria and later suffered with weary contempt by the mandarins of the India Office, the aggrieved Maharaja had become, in his last years, an "implacable foe of the British government". Six years later, tired and sick, ensnared in webs of intrigue he could scarcely comprehend, he died alone in a hotel in Paris.

Christy Campbell found the peg for this fascinating tale in a dormant Swiss bank account of Catherine Duleep Singh, a forgotten daughter of the Maharaja who died in wartime Buckinghamshire. The account came to light when details were released by the Swiss Bankers' Association of accounts untouched since the Second World War. Campbell pieces together a tale that stretches from the glorious days of the Sikh court at Lahore to the bitter bickering of present-day claimants over the "Maharajah's Box", supposedly containing "lost treasure". At the centre of it all is the youngest of the acknowledged sons of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Duleep Singh, who came to the throne when the Punjab was beset with conflict and about to fall into the waiting hands of the avaricious Lord Dalhousie. The child king signed his inheritance away, including the fabled Koh-i-noor diamond.

Removed from the Punjab as a ward of Dr John Login, the young Maharaja converted to Christianity and, in accordance with imperial design, went away to England. He became a personal friend of the Royal family and alternated between playing the country squire in Suffolk, as the master of magnificent shooting parties, and the London dandy, equally at home in boisterous theatre halls and conservative clubs. A late realization of his lost legacy, the distant but persuasive echoes of an apocryphal prophecy predicting his victorious return to Punjab and bitter disagreements with the India Office changed all that. Angry and rebuffed, he sought to return to India but was held along with his family at the sweltering outpost of Aden. There, with the help of a cousin from Punjab, he once again became a Sikh.

With ideas of a rebellion and hopes of leading an uprising that would throw the British out of India, he reached Paris. There, Pan-Slavists, Irish Fenians and French revanchists made common cause of weakening the Russian-German alliance, an alliance under-written by Britain, and to all of them Duleep Singh was attractive as a potential thorn in the side of the British. Soon he was embroiled in the Byzantine conspiracies that linked the Afghan border to the bazaars of Cairo and the salons of Paris.

Campbell re-creates the richly textured but shadowy world in which the Maharaja chased his destiny, stretching from the aloof imperial court at St Petersburg to a beach in Pond cherry where Sikh sympathizers waited for the saviour's return. The saviour would never reach India, and Russia would not come to his aid. Accompanied by his English second wife, Ada - a quixotic cockney chambermaid turned Maharani - he returned to Paris after a futile wait in Russia. The Maharajah's Box fleshes out the hitherto flimsy persona of Ada, and brings together valuable stray details of Duleep Singh's children by the first Maharani, including the fascinating Princess Bamba who died in Lahore in 1957. Campbell's impressive research also unmasks, somewhat triumphantly, the spy known only as "Our Correspondent" in the archives, a General Tevis, who functioned as Duleep's chief of staff in Paris and ensured that the Maharaja's rebellion was stillborn by sharing every letter with the British Prime Minister.

Campbell's incisive inquiry is not as thorough when handling earlier history. Several accounts of varying authenticity exist of the last days of the Sikh empire, and it is necessary to pick and choose. The dramatic killing of Jawahar Singh, Duleep's uncle and Prime Minister, is described on the basis of the doubtful account of an American adventurer, Alexander Gardener, while even Campbell points out in a footnote that commentators regard Gardener's accounts as flights of the imagination. Jawahar Singh was put to death by the Khalsa army, not for having ordered "the death of a popular general", but because he was implicated in the killing of Prince Peshaura Singh, another of Ranjit Singh's acknowledged sons. Salacious tales about Maharani Jindan, known to have been written to besmirch her character, need not have been repeated. The view, based on a later account, that Duleep Singh's unfinished journey home was designed only to dump his first family and run away to Paris with Ada is difficult to accept - going, as it does, against the entire purpose of his perceived mission in India and his very real sense of injustice.

The Maharajah's Box succeeds eminently as a racy, thrilling account with Campbell expertly putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle of spies and spymasters, of feints and counter feints. It does not, however, succeed completely in evoking the full emotional predicament of a man who was not essentially an exotic conspirator chasing a wild dream but a king who had been duped, deprived and, finally, defeated.

Perhaps this is due to the occasional hint of condescension in the language: the Maharaja "skulked around Paris", "was strutting round Moscow", bored "everyone senseless at the Carlton" and indulged in "the same old tirade of whinging, cringing and insults". One needs to tread more softly on the tragedy of a man who changed his religion twice, suffered a long separation from his people and was reduced from wearing the Koh-i-noor on his arm to justifying petty bills to stuffy bureaucrats.