Navtej Sarna’s The Exile: A Novel Based on the Life of Maharaj Duleep Singh is an extraordinary book, a work of history that uses the narrative structure of fiction to recreate a tragic story of conquest and betrayal out of fragmented, scattered scraps of letters, official records, memoirs and contemporary accounts.
Published in 2008, it tells the story of the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, whose death in 1839 set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the British conquest of the Punjab.
Duleep Singh ascended the throne in 1843 at the age of five. Four years later, the British annexed Punjab, carting away its riches – including the famed Koh-i-noor diamond – to London. In 1854, Duleep, who was now 16, was exiled to the England, never to return to Punjab though he was allowed two brief and tightly regulated visits to India. He died in 1893 in Paris.
“If one had to reach for the edges of Duleep Singh’s story,” Sarna wrote in his introduction, “then the answer, to my mind, lay in pushing available facts towards the realm of fiction, but pushing them gently, so as not to distort them.”
In the following excerpt, Sarna recovers the voice of the exiled maharaja as he tells the story, just before his death, of the one encounter he was granted with the diamond that once belonged to him and which he insisted till the very end had been stolen by the British Raj.
That is what I once called Queen Victoria. The biggest pickpocket of them all. The receiver of stolen goods. Stolen kingdoms, stolen jewels.
Smuggled away to her by her loyal viceroys, men like Dalhousie, with immaculate records and long panegyrics. The thousands of pearls and emeralds and rubies and diamonds taken from my toshakhana and presented to her by the East India Company after the Great Exhibition of 1851. To be locked away in the Tower of London, stuck in her tiara, sewn on her dresses.
That’s how she received the Koh-i-noor. Dalhousie tucked it away into a chamois bag especially made by his wife, which was then sewn into his belt by Login.
Today it matters little to me whether I have it or not. If I had it who knows what I might do with it. Perhaps I would trade it for a few sunny days, a few happy conversations, some justice, a fair enquiry into my case, and certainly for a journey to Punjab. Or just throw it into the river for all that it has done for me. But as a child, I used to yearn for it. Especially when the courtiers would set up durbar in Fattehgarh and talk of the lost glory of Lahore.
I did see the near-mythical stone once in my years of exile; I even held it in my hand for a few moments. It happened on an evening in Buckingham Palace, soon after my arrival in England. The Queen was very fond of me those days and I must admit so was I, of her and her family. She was having my portrait painted by that artist Winterhalter. The man did a good job. He made me look tall and handsome, like a real prince. He was used to painting European royalty and I suppose he knew how to massage egos, even the ego of a Maharaja without a throne. He said I would ‘grow into the picture’. I never was to grow that tall but I hope people will remember me like he made me look, and not how I actually have become, bald and fat.
He would make me pose two hours at a time in the White Drawing Room of the palace. The Queen would come in just to watch me, every inch her loyal subject, with her portrait set in diamonds around my neck and her miniature picture in a ring on my finger.
Yes, she had reason to be fond of me those days. I was such a great addition to her banquets; a fine specimen to show off to the
rest of society. A young oriental king who spoke English and, to top it all, was Christian. I also said things that must have eased her conscience. I would tell her that I was glad to be in England, far away from the violent ways of my people. I even told her, on a ferry ride to the Isle of Wight, that I had become a Christian because of my own beliefs, that I had broken caste by having tea with Tommy Scott and by drinking from the same glass as Lady Login in front of Rani Dukhno. I exculpated everybody—Dalhousie, Login, Lady Login, even Bhajan Lal from having anything to do with my change of faith and took it all upon myself.
Is one still a child at sixteen, to be forgiven such complete surrender to manipulation . . .?
But I was talking of the Koh-i-noor and the days of the Winterhalter portrait.
One of those mornings, Lady Login and I were riding in Richmond Park when she turned towards me suddenly. ‘Maharaja, have you ever thought of seeing the Koh-i-noor again?’
A prickly excitement ran through me. For a moment, I thought that everything was turning out all right. The coming to England,becoming a good Christian and everything else had been worth it, that I was being rewarded for my good behaviour. Maybe not just the diamond but all else that it implied would be given back to me. But I kept the excitement out of my voice as I wheeled my horse back at the far end of the park.
‘Yes, Lady Login, I would very much like to see the Koh-i-noor again,’ was all I said.
I was still not prepared for what happened a few evenings after that conversation. I was standing very still for Winterhalter. All of a sudden the curtains parted and four tall beefeaters in full dress down to their sabres entered the room. An official stood timidly between them, holding a large box. From the corner of my eye, I saw Her Majesty walk quickly to the official and open the box. She held it and for a moment both she and the Prince Consort stared quietly at whatever it was inside the box. Then she called me. ‘Maharaja! I have something to show you.’
I stepped off the dais and walked quickly to her.
‘The Koh-i-noor, Maharaja. I understand that you had wanted to see it.’
I looked again at the magical diamond that had been mine, that had meant so much to me, my father, my beautiful, fiery mother, my people. It seemed much smaller than I remembered it.
‘I have had it cut, Maharaja, by the best cutters available. It shines better now.’
She picked it out of the box and put it in my palm. I took it between my thumb and forefinger and held it up to the light. I could not look away from the quiet dazzle. I stood staring at it near the open window and a rush of emotions began to drown me. I realized I had lost everything, I was no longer a king. I was only being made to dress up like one and amuse the Queen’s court. I was angry, angry enough to want to fling the diamond in the lawns below. I was sad. I was demeaned. What did Her Majesty want me to do? To kneel down and thank her for showing me what in fact belonged to me?
When the rush in my blood subsided I knew what I wanted to do. I would make it clear that the Koh-i-noor was mine by right. So far, it had been stolen from me. Now I would gift it to her.
I walked back from the window to Her Majesty.
Handing the box with the diamond back to her I said:‘It is to me, Ma’am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity of myself tendering to my Sovereign the Koh-i-noor.’
I do not think she understood how I had felt. I do not think she cared enough. For her it was only a passing whim, a show of preposterous royal magnanimity, or a fitting show of loyalty.
But how does it matter now, all this business of so long ago?
Extracted from Navtej Sarna, The Exile: A Novel Based on the Life of Maharaj Duleep Singh (Penguin, 2008)