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Once upon two kings

The concept of crossover cinema (Indian films made in the English language, first by Indian-born producers like Ismail Merchant and then by native citizens like Aparna Sen and Nagesh Kukunoor) has been given a novel dimension in the fictional "Return To Bhanupur" (Penguin Books, 2012, Rs 250) by Giles Tillotson who taught Indian

books Updated: Jun 12, 2012 13:03 IST

The concept of crossover cinema (Indian films made in the English language, first by Indian-born producers like Ismail Merchant and then by native citizens like Aparna Sen and Nagesh Kukunoor) has been given a novel dimension in the fictional "Return To Bhanupur" (Penguin Books, 2012, Rs 250) by Giles Tillotson who taught Indian history and architecture at London University from 1990 to 2004 before relocating to Gurgaon.

More than the genre, it is the subject of Tillotson's novel which is fascinating. At a time when India's 24-by-7 TV news-channels are inundated with news of scams and the educated Indian is wondering whether Churchill was correct when he described democracy as "the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time", Tillotson's novel of an Indian prince who puts the interests of the people first strikes a chord. Tillotson's fictional Amar Singh II even arranges his own demise through illness so that he will not stand in the way of the future of his people when the time comes for the British Raj to wind up and hand over power to an independent India into which the princely states are to be merged. Abdication is not an option since that, as he tells his prime minister Chatterjee,  would leave a taint of scandal and blot the image of Bhanupur. And so he arranges his exit from the world through illness so that he will be succeeded by his 10-year-old adopted son who is too young to rule, leaving the British Resident with no choice but to run Bhanupur in the interim and, thereby, develop a vested interest in negotiating the best possible deal for the kingdom when the time comes for the inevitable merger.

"It is the first duty of kingship to be as the people wish to see me", says Maharaja Amar Singh II who strikes a balance between his duty to the British King-Emperor and his concern for the praja in Bhanupur. And so even while presiding over banquets in his palace in honour of the British, Amar Singh refuses to eat with his guests so that his people are aware that he is keeping his distance. Tillotson's maharaja seems to be practising not so much the divine right of kings as their divine duty. Kautilya would have approved of Amar Singh II, especially the maharaja's reaction on seeing a stage-production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in 1902 London: "The poetry sounds very fine but the story struck me as absurd. Two people die for love. What is the use of being a dead lover, if you have never been anything else? What is achieved by making passion so central to your life that you are defined by it? It seems to me that we are ultimately defined by the work we do. I have always felt defined by the role that was handed to me when I was adopted (as the next king of Bhanupur), and I live that role every moment."

Manju Jaidka's Scandal Point (Rupa Publications, 2012, Rs 195) takes you to the other extreme in her fictionalised account of the affair between Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala and the  daughter of his Irish friend Charles Bryan who looked after the royal stables in his capacity as Master of the Horse. The maharaja's senior wife and his subjects were not too happy with the marriage but history tells us that the king resolved the crisis by getting his Irish wife to convert to Sikhism. However, she subsequently died of pneumonia during a sojourn in the Himalayas and Rajinder Singh transported the body all the way back to Patiala for the last rites. In her fictionalised account, Jaidka recreates the popular myth that the maharaja actually eloped with the viceroy's daughter and that the story of his marrying the beti of the Master of the Horse was a smokescreen to contain the scandal to manageable proportions. And so Jaidka narrates how at Scandal Point on the Lower Mall road from the British Raj's summer capital of Shimla, the maharaja swoops down on his black steed Sultan to carry away the viceroy's golden-haired daughter who is waiting for him that October day in 1892. Shades of "The Highwayman" poem by Alfred Noyes where the protagonist tells his beloved "I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way", lines Gaidka would be aware of since she is a professor of English at Punjab University, Chandigarh.

History tells us that Rajinder Singh, who died of a riding accident at the age of 28 on November 8, 1900, was a  fascinating person. In its obituary published three days later on November 11, The New York Times remembers him as "one of the best and most interesting products of Anglo-Indian rule and the first reigning prince to blend the elements of the educated English gentleman and the Indian potentate". The NYT goes on to add, "Educated at Cambridge, he returned to India and put in force in his rich kingdom the reforms which he had carefully absorbed in England, endowing free hospitals for women, establishing orphanages, drilling troops, sending them to help a British expedition and leading them personally." The maharaja's passion for reform was matched by his king-size libido, going by contemporary media reports of his 365 wives--one for each day of the year! He could also be remembered for his sporting exploits as the best polo player in India, a very talented cricketer and one of the finest amateur billiards players of his time. All of which should make for a fascinating biography which Scandal Point is obviously not since it confines itself to that one liaison between Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala and the daughter of his Master of the Horse who is `actually' the viceroy's beti!