BUILDING AN EMPIRE STATE
Much can be learnt from this enjoyable retelling of stories from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court
IT WAS NEWS TO ME that an American Quaker had served Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the 19th-century Sikh kingdom of Punjab. The merchant of the title story of The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia is Josiah Harlan and it is his story that kicks off this collection of lively and, obviously, deeply-researched tales from that tumultuous era. The sweep of Sarbpreet Singh’s potted history and character sketches takes in the decline of the Mughal empire, the emergence and fading of the Afghans and the rise of a charismatic Sikh who took advantage of the vacuum in Punjab to proclaim himself king.
There are many primary accounts available, both Indian and foreign, of that fascinating era. Singh sifts carefully through them to give the reader an accessible introduction to the conditions of the time, while examin
The darbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ing the biases of the commentators and preserving context. So, contrary to the mythmaking of the past two centuries, the Sikhs themselves plundered Lahore (and other places). The robust living of the chiefs of Punjab finds mention and, among other nuggets, there’s this classic from the British agent Broadfoot: “Sometimes I feel like a parish constable at the door of a brothel, rather than a representative of one government to another.” The treachery that led to the downfall of the short-lived empire is discussed too.
But the most interesting thing about this book is its characters. There is Sada Kaur, Ranjit’s formidable mother-in-law and adversary, who tried at one point to make common cause against him with Begum Sumroo! There is the dashing French commander Ventura, an ex-Bonapartist who grew his whiskers in the Sikh style and took an Indian wife and the free-spirited Akali Phoola Singh, who whipped Ranjit for his marriage to Moran, a Muslim courtesan. Moran gets her own chapter, though, as the author admits, it is “halfrealised” due to the paucity of reliable material.
It is a compelling narrative, not least because it humanises the Dogra brothers, otherwise routinely vilified. However, the volume has its drawbacks. Each chapter harks back to events in the preceding ones, as if there was no thought to the individual chapters being part of a coherent whole. The lack of a bibliography is also puzzling, given the extensive reading the author has done.
These are quibbles, however. Depending on the commentator’s background, the people of that time in Punjabi history have hitherto either been eulogised or damned. Singh seeks to give context and humanity to those long-dead people and for that this volume deserves applause.
THE CAMEL MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh by Sarbpreet Singh TRANQUEBAR `699; 256 pages