The King And I, etcetera

With past and present apparitions around Amritsar 

By Uddalak Mukherjee
  • Published 14.01.18
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I am not a time-traveller. But I believe I met Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a museum named after him in Amritsar. I did not have to go back in time to greet the founder of the Sikh empire. It was he who, evidently, had travelled into the future 175 years after his death. It so happened that while viewing the wax dolls inside the Ranjit Singh Museum - the figurines depict the various epochs of the Maharaja's reign - I met someone who resembled Ranjit Singh in height and build, and, like the Maharaja, seemed to possess one dead eye. (A bout of small pox had apparently led a young Ranjit Singh to lose vision in one of his eyes.) Even if the man I saw were a doppelganger, he was a near-perfect copy. He stood staring intently at a painting depicting his own coronation. The man inside the painting was, expectedly, attired regally. The only regal thing about the teleported king outside the frame was a grand, flowing pugree. Perhaps a pick-pocket had flinched the famed Kohinoor as the emperor was travelling through time, I thought to myself. I crept away from the king before he could ask for a selfie with the coronation painting.

I made my way outside the building, only to be struck by an epiphany by the time I had reached the statue of Ranjit on horseback inside the premises. The mystery of the Maharaja's wistful reverie had been solved. Modern Punjab, after all, has given its king much to think about.

Bhindranwale's ghost still rears its head occasionally, its murmurs immortalised by, of all things, modern technology. While roaming the bustling streets near the Harmandir Sahib, amidst the shops selling kadas, swords, turbans, juttis and devotional music CDs, I was told that I would spot kiosks that have Bhindranwale stickers as well as his taped speeches on sale. The Martyrs' Museum, also within the Golden Temple complex, is an inspiring example of a democracy's attempt to accommodate men who have made serious, and brutally violent, attempts to breach the republic's sovereignty. Sevadars are likely to point out to visitors paintings of not just Bhindranwale but also of Beant and Satwant, Indira Gandhi's assassins.

Institutions such as the Martyrs' Museum do not just commemorate India's spirit of accommodation but are also important registers of the errors committed by an indifferent State. I had returned from the memorial burdened with the crippling weight of a choice - to embrace a faulty, but contrite, State, or reject it, as Bhindranwale had done.

What feeds the now much diminished cult of Bhindranwale - Ranjit Singh must have been thinking about this too - are Punjab's deepening faultlines. A visit to the countryside would confirm that the imagery of a land of abundance, immor-talised by Bollywood's extras doing the Bhangra in a wheat field behind the lead gyrating pair, is just a dream perfected and disseminated by India's premiere Dream Factory.

Inside dhabas on the road to Jalandhar, the talk, after the exchange of pleasantries and sweet milky tea, invariably turned towards agrarian distress. On the way back, the headlights illuminated yet another consequence of the diminishing returns from Punjab's once pristine fields: advertisements, in glittering neon, of drug rehabilitation centres in towns. In Amritsar, the chilling message is made clear by daylight: traffic signals are dotted with entreaties to citizens to shun drugs while newspapers faithfully report cocaine hauls.

The Maharaja must have been troubled by another emerging conflict. Punjab has witnessed several marches by marauders, apart from that great bloody march du-ring Independence - Partition. But a newer kind of conflict is being brewed: its shrillness perforates the air near Wagah, the Great Divide that separates India from its Other.

As one makes way amidst towering horses - not unlike the kind the bust of Ranjit Singh is astride on in Amritsar - jostled, elbowed, rushed by a crowd punch-drunk on a mint new drink called nationalism, one hears a whirring, unmelodic symphony that rises and falls from the raised stands near the border gates. It calls out for the head of the neighbour as a mark of deshbhakti.

Had Ranjit Singh, who stood solitary and sullen in the museum, been broken by Wagah?