The Exile – A Book Review

Author – Navtej Sarna
Publisher – Penguin Books
ISBN – 9780143068822
Price – Rs. 299

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Once in a while, you buy a book by sheer chance, never having heard of it before and therefore, naturally, never having desired it. You exercise such a choice at book fairs, literary festivals, road side stalls or on being seduced by the ever pleasant book covers in the hands of children trying to make a sale at the footpath. And, sometimes, a book bought in such a manner turns out to be beyond expectations; engrossing, enriching and enigmatic. It is what one may call the serendipityof reading. And I happened to chance upon one such accidentaldiscovery in a literary fest. The book in question was – The Exile, authored by an Indian Foreign Service Officer, Mr. Navtej Sarna.

The book, in a mere 250 pages, beautifully narrates the life of the last Maharaja of Punjab, Maharaja Duleep Sing, the youngest acknowledged son of the famed brave Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Set in the nineteenth century, as a wonderful mix of facts and fiction, it tells the story of the life of the rulers of Punjab after Maharaja Ranjit Singhs reign, the annexation of Punjab and the exile of its former rulers. The plots, politics, schemings and betrayals are woven together to give a coherent and  chronological account of those years.

Divided into five major parts are the five phases, so to speak, of Maharaja Duleep Singhs life. The kingdom of his father, his life at Shish Mahal as a royal prince and then King at the age of five, the annexation of Punjab by the British through their deceptive means and scheming minds, the exile of the Maharaja in England and his life thereof, and the realisation of all that was lost to and snatched from him leading to his rebellion; the five parts are put forward to the reader in form of narration by various central characters of the story. This form of narration makes the story easy to follow and personal to relate.

The frankness, daring and affection of Mangla, the slave girl of Maharaja Duleep Singhs mother, Maharani Jindan, who saw him coming into the world and the the obedience and servitude of Arur Singh, Maharaja Duleep SInghs servant of many years, who was the closest to him at his last time are reflected in a very subtle yet clear way through the written words. As is the reflection of the ways through which Dr John Login and Lady Lena Login (Superintendent of the Maharaja and his wife respectively, sort of foster parents to him) seem to justify all their actions and those of the British Government, at least on the paper. The narration of General Charles Carrol Tevis, who acted as a spy of the British against Maharaja by pretending to be his well wisher and confidant, leaves the reader angry, bitter and at the same time dejected and pitiful. The last two hold true the most for the narration of the Maharaja himself, who has been portrayed to be pitied and cared for, foolishly trusting and yet a royal rebel.

Of special interest are the descriptions of the circumstances which led to Kohi-Noor moving hands from India to England and the conversion of the Maharaja to Christianity.

All in all, the book leaves the reader feeling despair and pity for the protagonist and an indescribable anger, helplessness and disgruntled admiration for the cunning of the British and everybody else who betrayed and humiliated the last Maharaja of Punjab, Maharaja Duleep Singh.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in taking a glimpse in the history of the times when Kohi-Noor still dazzled and shone bright in India.

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