Indian diplomat brings last king of Punjab to England

September 19th, 2008 - 5:34 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Sep 19 (IANS) A suave diplomat is hitting the novelists’ trail in Britain with his book on Maharaja Duleep Singh, after ending an acclaimed tenure as India’s longest-serving foreign ministry spokesperson.Navtej Sarna, who has just been posted as India’s ambassador to Israel after serving as spokesperson for a record six years, is in London with his fictional account of the life of Duleep Singh, the last maharaja of Punjab.

Sarna, whose visit comes amid mounting interest in the life of Duleep Singh in Britain, reads out from his just-published book, “The Exile”, at an event hosted at the National Army Museum Friday by the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail, a cultural organisation.

Sarna, who travelled to Paris, Moscow and Lahore to research his historical novel, said he was drawn by the story of man who was taken to England as a child after the defeat of his father Maharaja Ranjit Singh by the British and who gradually became disillusioned with what he saw as colonial duplicity.

“I was aware that not much had been written about him, particularly by Indians. There are British historical accounts which are very good efforts,” Sarna told IANS.

“But I didn’t think the emotional trauma of the man was coming across. Doing it as a novel gives you that freedom to fill in the gaps without distorting history.”

“In England, Duleep Singh had considerable problems with the Foreign Office in terms of what was due to him. And then, slowly, as he grew up, he also discovered what he had lost - there was a realisation of his legacy and a considerable disillusionment with the British government.”

In spite of efforts to mobilise the Russians and French in his attempts to return to Punjab in the late 1880s, Sarna said he did not think Duleep Singh was destined to become a nationalist figure.

“Perhaps his hope was that within Punjab people would rally around him, that other princes in Hindustan would join him. Perhaps it was just a vain hope.”

The Indian diplomat’s book comes at a time of mounting interest in the last king of Punjab, said Harbinder Singh, director of the Duleep Singh Centenary Trust.

“The fact that 115 years after his death he is still attracting so much attention says a lot about Duleep Singh - the new book has been keenly awaited because it is the first novel on the man, and it also carries on this trend of interest in and infatuation with him,” said Harbinder Singh.

A Duleep Singh bust sold for 1.7 million pounds last year and further interest was sparked by the discovery of his mother Rani Jind’s gravestone in London.

And as recently as a few weeks ago, a researcher stumbled on a sketch of Duleep Singh - drawn only a few years before his death in October 1893 - at the British Museum in London, said Harbinder Singh.

(Dipankar De Sarkar can be contacted dd.sarkar@ians.in)

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