BUILD­ING AN EM­PIRE STATE

Much can be learnt from this en­joy­able retelling of sto­ries from Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh’s court

India Today - - LEISURE - —Av­tar Singh

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

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