A Royal Story Sans Pomp and Splendour
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
THE EXILE: A NOVEL BASED ON THE LIFE OF MAHARAJA DULEEP SINGH by Navtej Sarna Penguin/Viking, 2009, 251 pp., 450
January 2009, volume 33, No 1

Navtej Sana is a skillful story-teller. His narrative cunning was seen in his debut novel, ‘We Weren’t Lovers Like That”, published five years ago. And he seems to have chosen a promising story to tell – the life of Duleep Singh, the youngest son of the only successful Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh from his youngest wife Jindan. In the confusion of succession wars that followed the death of Ranjit Singh, Duleep Singh is crowned king and Jindan becomes the regent for a very short period. The British intervene, separate Duleep from his mother, convert him to Christianity and send him off to England to raise him as a British squire in the court of Victoria. Duleep Singh’s life in England is a restless one, where he is assimilated in one sense, and forever an alien in another. He buys up a country house, enjoys the pleasures of country gentleman, including shooting game. But he is also pulled by his nagging destiny to regain his royal inheritance.

There is no doubt that Duleep is a weak man – bright, mild, agonized – who is more like Louis XVI, the French Bourbon king who had to face the storm of the French revolution. Duleep was not aggressive and energetic enough to take time by its forelocks. He is trained and tamed to be a gentleman, and his intimations of royal glory are not strong enough to transform him into a hero. Duleep Singh is an anti-hero in the textbook sense of the term. He has the desire and dream of claiming his royal inheritance, but he does not have the ability to achieve it.

Sarna’s attraction for Duleep lies in this anti-hero quality of his protagonist. It turns out to be a fateful attraction. Sarna sets out to tell a story of pathos, as that word is understood in its Greek sense of the term. But Sarna’s novel is always hovering very near the ‘pathetic’ with its English language connotations. What keeps the story from sinking to the level of the pathetic is Sarna’s clever weaving of the historical material, but what keeps it from raising it to the level of pathos is the inherent weakness of his hero.

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