Did you see the fascinating story in HT this week about Sir Siremal Bapna, Prime Minister of the former rajwara of Indore, being sent by British Prime Ministers to assess Mussolini and Hitler in the build-up to World War Two?
Given the colonial template, it’s an intriguing tribute to his personal acumen and it’s being told in a book about him by his descendant. This news report brings to mind an extraordinary story by Rudyard Kipling in ‘The Second Jungle Book’.
‘The Miracle of Puran Dass’ was written by Kipling in 1895 while living in America. Much lit-crit on it exists, and analyses of what it really means. As an Indian like many who grew up having both East and West, I’d like to suggest a re-read of this story for how it seems to reconcile the bigger and the personal agenda at so many levels.
To recap, Puran Dass is a quiet, intelligent, hardworking and diplomatic young man who becomes the Prime Minister of an Indian princely state in the late 19th century. He has a realistic view of things and tactfully introduces many useful social and industrial updates from the West in his state while taking care that his ruler should get all the credit.
The British uphold him as a model of eastwestism and the embodiment of all that is excellent about enlightened modern rule by a western power over the dark, untidy superstitions of the East.
And then, Puran Dass does his own unthinkable thing: he officially dies. The priests know and the people guess, but the East keeps its secrets “and the fact that His Excellency Sir Puran Dass, KCIE, had resigned position, palace, and power, and taken up the begging-bowl and ochre-coloured dress of a Sannyasi was considered nothing extraordinary… He had used his wealth and his power for what he knew both to be worth; he had seen men and cities far and near, and men and cities had stood up and honoured him. Now he let these things go, as a man drops the cloak he no longer needs.”
What Puran ‘Bhagat’ does after that is still the very stuff of Indian life. I won’t spoil the story for you if you’ve forgotten how it went. But please tell, if you do re-read it, don’t you think it has the most curious resonances for our 65th anniversary of Independence, on what it’s all about?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.