Monday, January 27, 2003

history stranger than fiction

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in January 2003).

A Princely Imposter? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, by Partha Chatterjee

In the early 1920s, an ash-smeared sanyasi, or holy man, clad only in a loincloth, appeared in the Bengal town of Bhawal, in India. Despite his protests, he was declared to be Ramendra Narayan Roy, the heir to the estate of the Bhawal zamindars - a man thought to have died 12 years earlier. The prince's sister accepted the man as her brother, and the tenants who lived on the estate also supported him, believing that a holy man would not be as rapacious a landlord as his predecessors.

But the former prince's wife and the British government contended that the man was an impostor. Both the "widow" and the government had an interest in denying the legitimacy of the sanyasi. After the apparent death of the second kumar, or prince, in 1909, the Bhawal estate was taken over by agents of the British.

The arrival of the mysterious man, who came to be called "the Bhawal sanyasi," gave the former owners a renewed claim to the land, threatening both the British stake and the generous stipend received by the prince's widow, who had been forced out of the family after his supposed death.

A protracted legal battle ensued, featuring an array of the country's eminent lawyers and more than 1,500 witnesses. Stories circulated that the prince was profligate and a sexual philanderer, that his wife was having an incestuous affair with her brother, and that the family squandered its wealth. Both the Dacca District Court and the Calcutta High Court declared the sanyasi the real prince. But the case was not resolved until, on appeal by the princes wife, it reached the London Privy Council, which upheld his legitimacy in 1946. Two days after the verdict, the man who'd appeared from the jungle to become the talk of two continents suffered a fatal stroke. His wife was a widow once again.

Visiting professor of anthropology at Columbia University Partha Chatterjee's book about the case, A Princely Imposter?, proves that history can be more compelling than fiction. In essence, this is a mystery that - as the question mark in the book's title of the book indicates - even Chatterjee cannot solve. Like a good mystery novel, the book is a gripping read, racy and full of suspense.

Chatterjee recreates the Bengal of the mid 20th century with Dickensian flair. But this is also a serious work of history. Without ever losing his grip on the taut narrative, Chatterjee uses the case to discuss the issues of nationalism, gender, caste and colonial oppression.

He argues that the Bhawal sanyasi became a "focus of anti-colonial sentiments" and claims that the case reveals the "secret history of Indian nationalism". Anti-colonial sentiment gained strength during the protracted legal battle, Chatterjee writes, so that by 1946 India wasn't the acquiescing colony it was in 1921. Educated, middle-class Indians now held important positions in the judiciary.

According to the author, "... there is no mistaking the nationalist location of the legal-political thinking" of the two Indian judges who were instrumental in declaring the sanyasi as the bona fide prince. "[The judges] represented the generation of Indians who had discursively, ideologically, often institutionally prepared themselves for a transfer of power."

And, since the British government claimed the sanyasi was an imposter, the Indian judges' verdict was an act of nationalist self-assertion. What better way to cock a snook at their colonizers? The local British received another slap in the face when on appeal the London Privy Council, the final arbiter for the case, upheld the Indian judgment.

The decision sent a signal that Britain had begun to believe that Indian affairs were now best left to the judgment of Indians, Chatterjee argues. Though the possibility of a tacit conspiracy of "secret" nationalism in the Indian courts is intriguing, Chatterjee leaves too many questions unanswered. Why would men whom Chatterjee describes as "stalwarts among nationalist lawyers" defend a debauched feudal lord who represented an exploitive system the nationalist movement abhorred?

The prince had not been an exemplary human being. As an affluent zamindar (landowner), he had taken a child bride and devoted his life to hunting and womanizing, rather than the improvement of his estate - much less the lot of its tenants. Far from being ignorant of his decadent life, these stalwart nationalists called the prince's old mistresses to the stand to prove that he suffered from syphilis.

In the final analysis, Chatterjee doesn't supply enough convincing reasons to explain why the choice of a domestic oppressor over a foreign one amounts to a secret history of India's nationalist movement.

A princely imposter? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, by Partha Chatterjee, April 2002, Princeton University Press, ISBN: 0-691-09031-9, Price US$19.95, pp 429.