Leaf from history
Shalini Rawat

The Prince and the Sannyasi
By Partha Chatterjee.
Hachette India. Pages 650. Rs 395.

The Prince and the SannyasiJAIDEBPUR, a mofussil town in Dhaka in Bangladesh, was once home to the zamindars of the prestigious estate of Bhawal in British India. It was also a backdrop for a complex legal battle which captured the popular imagination at that time and was later brought alive in gossip, songs, plays, ballads, "jatras" and even a film starring Uttam Kumar.

In April 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the second or Mejo Kumar, accompanied by wife Bibhabati Devi, her brother Satyendranath, the family doctor Ashutosh Dasgupta and a retinue of servants, went to Darjeeling. The second Kumar had contracted syphilis three years earlier. It was circulated that the Mejo Kumar suddenly fell sick and died in early May. He was reportedly cremated there. His wife and others returned to "mourn his death" and claim much of his estate for themselves.

But the prince reappeared in Dacca in 1920 in the guise of a sannyasi. People recognised him and took him to Bhawal. Ramendra displayed enough familiarity with everyone and everything but there was no consensus within the family as to his identity. While his wife and a couple of others insisted that Ramendra had died in Darjeeling, his sisters, tenants and workers thought otherwise. By now, his two brothers, co-heirs to the thousand and a half kilometer of prime property, had also passed away. The estate had been taken over by the British Court of Wards which collected rent from the tenants. Thus, his comeback threatened not only the hierarchal order but also the institution of colonialism.

The sanyasi, under pressure from the people, filed a title suit in Dhaka in 1933. Scores of distinguished Indian and European gentlemen were summoned as witnesses and most of them vouched for him. Ramendra declared that his wife and brother-in-law poisoned him with arsenic. Fortuitously, before the pyre could be lit, a terrible thunderstorm inundated the ghat. His assailants fled presuming him to be dead.
A group of Naga sanyasis nursed him and he lived with them from 1909 to 1920 but he partially lost his memory. When memory returned in flashes, he resolved to settle in Dacca as a sanyasi. He had no inclination to go back to Bhawal and claim his right.

For Indian jurisprudence it was a landmark case, because for the first time, detailed forensic evidence, viz., photos, letters, marks on body etc. was presented as a means of proving identity. After a three-year trial, accumulating a grand total of 11,327 pages of evidence, including the testimony of hundreds of witnesses, the court finally ruled in favour of the sanyasi, and he was proclaimed the true Kumar of Bhawal. Bibhabati Devi refused to accept this judgment. In 1938, she appealed to the Calcutta High Court, only to see them uphold the earlier ruling. After the Second World War, she travelled to England and made one last appeal to the Privy Council. On July 30, 1946, they ruled in favour of the claimant as well. In an unforeseen denouement for the sanyasi-prince, the very next day, as he offered thanks to the Goddess Kali in Calcutta, he suffered a massive stroke and expired.

The sequence of events wrestles with issues of historiography, personal identity, nationalism, subaltern narrative and certainly the broader context of colonialism. As putative readers of narrative history a century later, Partha Chatterjee’s novel is proof that oral traditions have survived in subaltern consciousness. There is no definite conclusion to the novel, yet it is material enough for our very own John Grisham.