|Saturday, June 10, 2000||
WE Indians are prone to making heroes of historical characters who, when examined closely, are found to have feet of clay. One such example is Maharaja Dalip Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who was pressurised into handing over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British when his kingdom was annexed. He died unmourned and unsung. His grave in a nondescript cemetry of a country churchyard in Suffolk has become a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs visiting England.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh took his mother Jindan into his harem of wives and concubines in 1835, four years before his death. Dalip Singh was born two years later in June 1837. However, a couple of years before the Sikh kingdom was annexed all Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s sons were dead and Dalip Singh was proclaimed Maharaja of the Punjab with his mother Rani Jindan as the Mother-Regent. On annexation Dalip was removed from the Punjab and put under the tutelage of an English clergyman.
A few years later (1853) he cut off his long hair and converted to Christianity. He was then taken to England, provided with a handsome pension and a large country estate. He became a great favourite of the Queen who adopted him as her godson. He was often invited to the Buckingham Palace and began to move in high English society. His mother joined him in England but stayed in seclusion in her son’s palatial house till she died in 1963. Dalip sailed to India to immerse his mother’s ashes in the Godavari. On his way back to England he stopped at Alexandria. While visiting a girls’ school his eyes fell on a half-caste girl born of an Arab mother and German father. He married this girl, Bamba Muller and brought her with him to his country mansion in Elvedon, Suffolk. Though there was little communication between the two, as Bamba only spoke Arabic, they produced five children in quick succession — two boys and three girls.
Dalip Singh turned profligate, blowing up his pension in lavish entertainment and arranging big shoots on his estate where hundreds of pheasants were shot in a day. He began to drink heavily and smoke expensive cigars. He had to often plead for a larger allowance to pay off his debts. Queen Victoria and her advisers soured towards him. He went to the press about the injustice done to him. He wrote letters to the Czar of Russia and ruling princes of India, his distant cousins the Sandhawalias, announcing his plans to return to India and asking for their help to restore his kingdom to him. He began to describe himself as "the implacable foe of the British people". He announced his re-conversion to the Sikh faith, but he did not let his hair grow because by now he was almost bald and continued to trim his beard. He had also become grossly fat. None of his children accepted his conversion to Sikhism.
For some years he lived in Paris and toured Europe. He blew up the little money he had left with him in forwarding his ambition to become Maharaja of Punjab. To the Sikhs he sent copies of a spurious document called Sau Saakhi (100 tales), a series of prophecies ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh predicting that in a particular year Russia would invade India. Indians would rise against the British and Dalip Singh would re-occupy the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
He deserted his Arab wife Bamba and took up with an English chamber-maid, Ada Douglas Weatherall. When Bamba died he married Ada and proceeded to have more children with her. His finances were in a mess and he was on the run form his creditors, lest he be put in jail as a defaulter. Ultimately it was Queen Victoria who came to his rescue. In 1891, she got his debts cleared and granted him pardon. He accepted both with gratitude. He continued to live in Paris, drinking more heavily than ever before. He suffered a paralytic stroke and died in October 1893. His body was brought to England and buried with Christian rites in the Churchyard of Elveden.
A very readable biography of Maharaja Dalip Singh was published some years ago. I forget the names of the two authors except that one of them was Mulk Raj Anand’s daughter. Recently Harper Collins published The Maharajah’s Box:An Imperial Story of Conspiracy, Love and a Guru’s Prophecy, by an English journalist Christy Campbell. It is based on the report of the Swiss Bankers Association, published in June 1997, claiming that they had in their possession a box left by Maharaja Dalip Singh. The box remains unopened, its contents unknow. This got Campbell working on documents and letters exchanged between Dalip Singh and the Russian and French heads of state and some Indian princes. It is a massive tome of 474 pages. There is a lot of hitherto unpublished material, much of it on international conspiracies with little bearing on the main theme and makes very tedious reading. Dalip Singh’s life is good material for a sensitive novelist because he was a tragic figure not cast to play a heroic role.
It is not difficult to explain why more Stephenians make it to the Indian Foreign and Administrative Services and top jobs in the private sector than the products of any other college in India. They come from well-to-do families in which premium is placed on academic achievement and their fathers are often government servants and mothers teachers or doctors. The language spoken in thier homes is English. They come from the best public schools in the country which give preference to English over Indian languages. They are the cream of brown-sahib society which is the backbone of the Indian bureaucracy and high society. It is not surprising that a large number of Indo-Anglian writers who won acclaim in the English-speaking world also happen to be from St. Stephens College. But to describe them from the St. Stephens’ school of literature is stretching things too far. The Bloomsbary set in London was so called because these writers happend to be living in the same locality at the same time and interacted with each other after they became poets or writers of fiction. Not so the Stephenians. Some happened to be students at about the same time; others half-a-century before them and their experiences during their college years were poles apart. However, the two compilers of the Stephenians literary saga, Aditya Bhattacharjea and Lola Chatterjee have put up an impressive list of celebrated writers to make their case: Amitav Ghosh, Allan Sealy, Upamanuyu Chatterjee, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor, Ramesh Menon, Gopal Gandhi, Anurag Mathur, Vijay Singh, Makaranad Paranjape and Jayabrato Chaterjee. Some of them have written about their college days, a few outsiders have rubbished the notion of a St. Stephen’s school of literature. The controversy provides good reading. The Fiction of St. Stephen’s has been published by an ardent ex-Stephenian, Ravi Dayal. The introduction is by yet another product of the college — myself.
When the crops wither
and the animals die,
(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)
Note: Khushwant Singh is away on holiday. There will be no column next week.