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THE LOST MAHARAJAH

Let there be light Sunshine doc

Khushwant Singh   |   Published 19.08.08, 12:00 AM

It is said that when Maharajah Ranjit Singh was shown a map of the world with British colonies, including all of India except his kingdom painted red, he scanned the map of India with his one good eye and remarked “Ek roz sab laal ho jayega (one day all this will become red)”. His prophecy turned out to be true. He died in 1839. In 1849, after defeating the Maharajah’s armies in several fiercely-fought battles in two wars, the British annexed the Sikh kingdom. Ranjit Singh’s last remaining son, Dalip Singh, was ordered to sign away his possessions, including the Koh-i-noor diamond. He was kept in confinement in India under the tutelage of John Login and converted to Christianity. Later, he was shipped to England. He became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and was given an estate, Elveden, in county Suffolk and granted a handsome pension. His mother, Rani Jindan, escaped from prison and fled to Nepal. Later, she joined her son in England.

Dalip Singh inherited his good looks from his mother, who was the daughter of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s kennel-keeper. Bazaar gossip had it that by the time Ranjit Singh married Jindan, the Lion of Punjab was impotent and Dalip’s real father was a bhishti — a water carrier, who watered the royal garden. In his infancy, Dalip Singh had been exposed to the murder and beheading of his uncle, as well as other assassinations.

It was not surprising he developed a streak of cruelty. At Elveden, he arranged shooting parties in which at times over 600 partridges, grouse, pheasants, snipe, wild duck and rabbits were massacred. He took to heavy drinking: once, on his way from India, he stopped at Cairo and married a girl from a Christian orphanage named Bamba Muller, who was the illegitimate daughter of a German by an Abyssinian woman. She bore him many sons and daughters in quick succession. This did not stop Dalip from having affairs with other women, amongst whom was a chambermaid who bore him two daughters.

He lived well beyond his means and was always in debt. But he could never get it out of his mind that he was the son of a king and had been deprived of his kingdom. To reinforce his claim, he went through a ceremony of conversion to Sikhism and had this announced far and wide. He went to Russia to persuade the czar to invade India and get him back his throne. The czar refused to see him. Dalip settled down in Paris, disillusioned and disheartened. He was so heavily in debt that he had to live in cheap hotels. He had a stroke that paralysed his left side. He was a broken man. He was persuaded to beg Queen Victoria’s pardon and permission to return to Elveden. She pardoned him, cleared his debt and restored his pension. He died in 1893. He was given a Christian burial and rests among other members of his family in Elveden’s church cemetery.

Dalip Singh was not cast in the heroic mould. He was vain, unstable, dissolute and dishonest. Nevertheless, today’s Sikhs honour his memory because they look upon him as their last maharajah. Navtej Sarna of the Indian foreign services, who was the chief spokesman of the foreign office and has been appointed ambassador to Israel, has done a commendable job in reconstructing Dalip Singh’s life through his letters, making up versions ascribed to his Sikh valet and maidservant, notes by Login, his wife and others concerned to tell the tragic tale of this non-hero. His novel, The Exile, is a masterly mix of fact and fiction and makes a spine-chilling story of sordid intrigues, murders, betrayals and delusions of grandeur. It is gripping.

Let there be light

A phenomenon which intrigues me is that in the plains we see fireflies (jugnoos) during the monsoons but never glow-worms, while in the hills one sees glow-worms in plenty but fireflies very rarely. I wondered if the two are related. I first consulted a small book on insects in America. It says: “Fireflies are not flies at all, but soft-bodied beetles. About 50 species are known in this country, and many more, even more marvellous, are widely distributed in the tropics. The light-giving property or luminosity is not confined to adults. In some species the eggs and larvae glow also. The females of some species are wingless: they are known as glow-worms.” From this I concluded that glow-worms were female fireflies.

I don’t think that is the complete picture. So I put the issue to members of my mehfil in Kasauli. All claimed to have seen both glow-worms and fireflies around their homes. Preeti Duggar, who teaches at the local convent, got more information from the internet. It seemed to confirm that glow-worms are females and the greenish yellow light in their tails is meant to attract males. Ashima Eknam, who teaches English at Sanawar Public School and owns orchards in the neighbourhood, also consulted the internet. It said much the same: the glow-worm is the luminous larvae or wingless grub-like female of a firefly. Firefly is just the lightning bug.

If that be so, why doesn’t one see glow-worms in the plains? Why aren’t the two seen in closer proximity? And why is there no word for glow-worms in any of our language? Readers, please throw light on the subject.

Sunshine doc

The name plate of a doctor practising in Amritsar reads as follows: Dr S. Suraj, MD.Visiting hours: sunrise to sunset.

(Contributed by K.J.S. Ahluwalia, Amritsar)



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