Saturday, April 7, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The great Maharaja of Punjab
By Khushwant Singh

PLANS to celebrate the second centenary of the coronation of Ranjit Singh as Maharaja of the Punjab on a grand scale all over the country are being drawn Maharaja Ranjit Singh up: they begin in April to go on for a full year. Apart from the inaugural speech by the Prime Minister, holding of conferences and seminars and display of relics borrowed from Pakistan, England and private collections, a mobile light-n-sound programme is being prepared. Needless to say there will also be a lot of media coverage: Tara Punjabis’ Kishwar Ahluwalia is making a documentary, Kamna Prasad is translating the biography of the Maharaja written by me in English into Hindi. Perhaps other regional languages will follow suit with better biographies than the one written by me.

Ranjit Singh deserves all the adulation that will be showered on him. He was undoubtedly the greatest son of the Punjab. I only hope his admirers will not make him out into a handsome, anaemic, saintly character which he certainly was not. He was a small man who loved the good things of life. He loved horses and liked to lead his troops in battle. To wit Rudyard Kipling:

Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001
Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
March 17, 2001
A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001
Mystery behind mystic numbers
February 3, 2001
Of time-wasting rituals
January 20, 2001
Dying flame burns bright
January 13, 2001
Honouring Gurudev
January 6, 2001

For things greater than all things are

Women and horses and power and war

While still a boy, Ranjit got smallpox which blinded his one eye and left his face dotted. Emily Eden, Governor General Lord Auckland’s sister who was with him when they called on the Maharaja, described him "exactly like an old mouse, with grey whiskers, one eye and a grey beard." A legend goes that his favourite Muslim mistress Bibi Mohran in whose name he had a coin struck once asked him where he was when God was distributing good looks. He replied, "When you were asking for a comely appearance, I asked him for power." Before meeting him, the Governor-General asked the Maharaja’s Chief Minister, Fakir Azizuddin what his master looked like. Azizuddin gave a diplomatic answer: "His face has so much jalaal (dazzle) that I have never dared to look at him."

Emily Eden wrote about Ranjit Singh’s partiality for strong liquor. Dr Martin Honigbarger who prepared gunpowder for the Maharaja’s artillery, also prepared brandy for the royal table. At the state banquet, Emily took care to sit on the blind-eye side of the Maharaja, who himself poured drinks in the gold goblets of the guests seated on either side of him. Every time he turned to talk to the Governor-General, Emily quietly emptied her goblet on the carpet. Ranjit filled it over and over again and then turned to one of his courtiers and said in Punjabi: "Mem taan khoob peendee hai" (This white woman can hold her drink). Once he asked a French man whether it was better to drink after a meal as some doctors advised or before the meal as others said. The man replied, "Drinking both before and after meals was good for one’s health". The Maharaja roared with laughter.

One aspect of Ranjit Singh’s character which made him unique among Indian rulers was his being totally free of religious prejudice .... Though slaughter of kine was forbidden and many of his Hindu and European officers did not cut their hair and beards to please him, he did not impose his views on anyone. His council of ministers was dominated by the three Fakir brothers: it included Dogras and, of course, Sardars: Sandhawalias, Majithias, Attariwalas and others. Likewise his army trained by European officers comprised all communities. The cavalry constituted largely of Sikhs, the artillery commanded by General Elahi Bakhsh had more of Muslims and the infantry had a mix of Dogras, Gorkhas, Sikhs and Muslim Najibs. Commanders on the battlefield were men like Diwan Mohkam Chand and his son Diwan Chand, Hari Singh Nalwa and Prince Sher Singh. In short, it was a composite Punjabi fighting force which created history by reversing the tide of conquests back to the homelands of traditional invaders — Pathans and Afghans. Nothing more proves Ranjit’s credentials than the decision he took to determine the future of the Kohinoor diamond. Instead of leaving it to one of his sons or donating it to the Harmandar Sahib which he had renovated in marble and gold leaf, he wished it to be given to the Temple of Jagannath in Puri.

It is ironic that it is the Akali-BJP government of Punjab led by Parkash Singh Badal which is taking the lead in organising the coronation celebrations because Ranjit Singh had little respect for Akalis of his time. He described them thus: "kuj faham wa kotch andesh" (of crooked minds and short-sighted).

Basic library

Books have become expensive and not all of us can afford to build up libraries. However, there are some that you must own and keep beside you for reading reference — no matter what they cost. On top of this list, is a medium-sized dictionary. You must always consult it to make sure that a word you are not familiar with means exactly what you imagine it does. There are a few other books which are a must and should be within easy reach. Not all of us can afford to have encyclopedias in our homes but there are small books of reference which cost much less. The two that I keep on my writing table are Historical Dictionary of India, compiled by Surjit Manshingh, and Geographical Dictionary of India by Basil Johnson, both published by Vision Books. I have already written about Manshingh’s compilation. Johnson is Emeritus Professor of Geography in Canberra. He served with the Indian Army during World War II and later visited India many times to compile material for his dictionary. What exactly a geographical dictionary is he explains us in the first paragraph of his preface: "Essentially it tells in words what an atlas tells in maps. It answers the questions: What is it? What is it like? Who lives there? What do they do?

Whether it is Chandigarh, or Coimbatore, Jhelum, Brahmaputra or Cauvery, you’ll find it in this dictionary.

Hidden camera

My mind was full of doubt

I thought it couldn’t be true

How, without a visible device,

God could know what I do?

The other day, on the small screen,

I was wonder-struck to see

Laxman accepting wads of notes

With willing hands and obvious glee:

Such are the miracles of a hidden camera

Mind you, a camera made by man,

In one go, it exposed them all

George Fernandes, Jaya Jaitley and Jain

Now, has wisdom dawned on me

How God watches all actions of mine.

He has admittedly a hidden camera

Which is equipped with lens divine.

(Contributed by G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)


Why can’t we see God?

"Because after making such a mess of the world, He can’t show His face to anybody."

(Courtesy: J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)