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Exile and the kingdom

Duleep Singh, autumn 1893, Paris

I had treated Ada as my wife, my Maharani, even before going to Russia, having married her according to Sikh rites. But that had not been enough to make little Pauline a legitimate child in the eyes of the French or the English. And even when Bamba was no more, it had not been possible for me to formally marry Ada, for by that time I had cut my ties with the British government and they would not have given me the certificates that I needed.

But ha, they did! Right there, in Paris, they delivered in my hand the certificate that my first wife was dead and I was a legitimate widower and a British subject, and my parents were dead, and I was free to marry whomsoever I liked.

I had a great laugh that day.

‘Fooled them again!’ I told Carrol-Tevis, waving the certificates triumphantly at him. ‘First they gave me a passport in the name of Pat Casey and now they have given certificates to their sworn enemy! Some heads will roll and that’s all to the good.’

But the Russians hauled me up. The minute the civil marriage was announced, they called me.

‘Your documents were given to you on the basis of the declaration that the English lady with you was your wife,’ the minister at the embassy told me. ‘But clearly that was not a true declaration.’

‘It was quite true. She is already my wife according to Sikh rites.’

But that did not cut much ice.

‘We are changing the terms of your visa. You would no longer have the right to travel freely in Russia, should you return. You may stay in Finland or northern Russia, never in the Caucasus. And your baggage can only be allowed into Russia if you pay duty.’

I was angry and I was sad, but there was little I could do. The wedding had been announced, it would be gone through with. I wore my Star of India in my lapel, no one could stop me from doing that. And my Ada, my 20-year-old bride, wore an unforgettable lavender wedding dress. All our close friends in Paris were there — E.C., Carrol-Tevis, and so many others. And when I had to sign the register, I did so with pride and flourish as ‘Sovereign of the Sikh nation.’ The mayor told the guests about my destiny and my deprivation, of my grand birth and the devilishness of the English.

That was four years ago, the summer of 1889 and Ada was already carrying Irene…

I had thought that marriage may change Ada’s wonder for grand and glamorous things, her spending habits. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the expenses increased as her mother and sister joined us in our apartment at Rue Marbeuf. All I had left was Rs 5,000. If the Russians had known that, they would have thought me a beggar and dropped me altogether. I began to sell my jewels. Hoping to get at least 400,000 francs for them but that too was not to be. They sold for trifling amounts, the brooches and the necklaces. That necklace of perfect pearls, the one I wore when Victoria had me painted in Buckingham Palace, brought in only 7,000 francs.

There was no other source of money. Empty promises were all that I had from India, nice letters from Pondicherry, grand visions, but no money. And I could not move an inch without money. My Grand Army would remain a chimera.

General Carrol-Tevis, autumn 1893, Paris

I witnessed the marriage of this intense fool. I was the first to sign the register.

By then he was almost at the end of his rope. Nothing would have pleased him so much as a clear refusal of financial help from India, as that would have freed him from what he called his obligations to the sacred cause of his country’s emancipation and allowed him to treat with England.

And he was running short of coin. His concubine was extravagant as only a chambermaid-turned Maharani could have been. Her marriage to him lost him whatever support he had gathered in Russia. She was believed by them to be a paid English agent, so if he had married her, how could he be sincere to Russia? We had him truly encircled.

Duleep Singh, autumn 1893, Paris

I cannot think clearly now. Darkness all around and a silence that I try to shatter with all my strength. I try to shriek but I am unable to. Why is everything so dark? Where is everybody? I know that there is nobody here. Ada went away somewhere, somewhere in England. I think Freddie went with her. Something about a smaller house, they said. For whom? Maybe for me. But why? I don’t want to live in England any more. I have told them that so many times but they don’t listen to me. Nobody listens to me any more. Maybe because I am old. But I am not old. I have seen men so much older than me. Maybe because I am poor and sick and dying. Finally dying. Victor too is not here. He too has gone somewhere. The little girls are with me. They come to see me. Their nanny brings them to see me. They came this morning. Is it not morning any more? The hands of that clock do not move. I cannot make out which is the hour hand. And I cannot make out anything beyond the window.

Extracted from The Exile by Navtej Sarna;
Publisher Penguin/ Viking;
Price Rs 450

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