JLF 2017: The adventures of a Scot-American in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court | books$ht-picks | Hindustan Times
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JLF 2017: The adventures of a Scot-American in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court

On the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, historian John Keay recounted the story of traveller Alexander Gardner, a Scot-American who found his way to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court in the early 19th century.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Updated: Jan 21, 2017 17:07 IST
Zehra Kazmi
According to historian John Keay, it was a photo of Alexander Gardner in his tartan suit and turban, taken in Kashmir, that first ignited interest in Europe.
According to historian John Keay, it was a photo of Alexander Gardner in his tartan suit and turban, taken in Kashmir, that first ignited interest in Europe.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

If you want to start your day with a tale of swashbuckling adventure, the story of traveller Alexander Gardner, a Scots-American who found his way to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court in the early 19th century, would fascinate you.

On the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, historian John Keay recounted the story of Gardner, the “raffish white man gone native” to a captive audience. Writer William Dalrymple, one of the minds behind JLF, introduced Keay as someone who has pioneered narrative history, history which is “meant to be read”.

The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner, is Keay’s biography of this splendid character who seems straight out of Kipling: a strapping 6-foot Highlander with an Irish accent, who lived like an Arab sheikh, claimed he was American, born to a half-Spanish, half-Aztec mother and involved in desperate exploits from Afghanistan to Kashmir.

Newly discovered papers and accounts of Gardener helped Keay sketch out the extraordinary life of the man.

According to Keay, it was a photo of Gardner in his tartan suit and turban, taken in Kashmir, that first ignited interest in Europe. This photo, which assumed a “life of its own”, prompted Gardener’s inclusion in works on colonial explorers, a perfect ambassador of a cultural crossover.

Newly discovered papers and accounts of Gardener helped Keay sketch out the extraordinary life of the man in that photo. From Russia, Gardner travelled through Turkestan and then to Afghanistan, enlisting in the army of the carefree prince Habibullah. “The first American to enter Afghanistan was also the first American to fight there,” joked Keay.

Invited by a high-ranking British officer – who had heard of this amazing European living like a native -- to narrate his story, Gardener had said, “Carving out a name for myself became a maggot in my brain.”

His name became synonymous with the romantic adventurism that was still possible in the 19th century – the exploits of ‘Alick’ Gardner in the 1960s Flashman series were based on him.

Gardner carried no less than 15 wounds on his body – including a hole in his neck, acquired over the years. While he had many tales to tell – of battles he fought, places he discovered, people he met – without dates and names, these stories were hard to believe. “It seemed the more he remembered, he remembered more than there was,” said Keay.

After his wife and child were killed in a battle with Habibullah’s antagonists, Gardner fled further into Asia, landing up at the court of the Sikh Maharaja as a colonel of artillery. Here, in accordance with Sikh beliefs, he gave up beef, tobacco and barbers, and married a native woman. “When he was transferred from Ranjit Singh’s court to his chief minister’s, his new master presented him with yet another wife,” said Keay.

Gardner had several wives, many children, owned many villages, played his part in bloody battles and amassed a fortune, the whereabouts of which remain shrouded in mystery even today. Was he a scoundrel? A confirmed mercenary? Or an intrepid traveler like Marco Polo? Well, one thing is sure: Alexander Gardner makes for a truly great story.

Click here for our full coverage of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017

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