Kids Corner


Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter I

A Serialized Hiistorical Novel






As I put pen on paper and begin to write this tale, I am tempted to tell you my own story for I too have been buffeted back and forth by strong winds between village and town, city and country, over the mountains and across the seas.

But my story is of no consequence.

I began life in a quiet village in the land of the five rivers, and grew up to serve many in my native land and on distant continents over the course of the century that saw both the rise and fall of the great Sikh Empire. I have come back home to die an old man, but still a mere servant.

A servant’s story is best left untold.

I remember when I was first summoned from the seminary where I was apprenticing to learn the scriptures, a mere 17 years old then, and sent off by my father to serve my benefactor, the first Englishman I ever knew, as his orderly.

“It is an opportunity for you to learn and to go far in life,” I was told before I left home and rode into the city where all roads converge … Lahore. Unaware was I then that never again would I enjoy the luxury of a simple life or the pure pleasure of immersion in study and contemplation.

I had heard of the strange foreigners and their odd ways, and had seen them only from a distance. This one was my first one up close. But it wasn’t his attire that grabbed me when I was led into his presence in the courtyard of his haveli. Nor was it his pallor.

It was his clipped Punjabi. I wondered if he had a frog in his mouth as he gave me instructions which, I should add, have held me in good stead ever since.

“Amir Singh, I have something to say to you,” he began, as I went about the first task he assigned me, as a test, I suppose: help him tie a turban. He had an audience with the Emperor.

Your Emperor!” he had emphasized then. I knew who he was referring to when he called him Sarkar:  Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, the King, the baadshah, the Maharaja!

“I want you to remember this and follow it carefully if you want to go far,” he said, as he admired himself in the mirror I held before him.

Yes, I wanted to go far. I’m a quick learner, I am. So, I perked up my ears and froze; I didn’t want to miss a word.

“Amir Singh, remember always, when you work for me, as long as you work for me, you see nothing, you hear nothing, you know nothing. And you do nothing.”

“Ji, Kaptan Sahib,” I said, but he could see, I’m sure, that it made no sense to me.

“You do only what I tell you to do, no more, no less. You work for me. You report to me and only to me.” He came close to me, his eyes glaring at me. “Look at me,” he said. “You live for me, you die for me. I expect your full loyalty.”

I nodded, again and again.

He glared at me, straight in the face. His voice softened: “You understand?“

I nodded again.

“Good,“ he said. “And since you’re a Sikh, I accept your word.“

I have never forgotten those words.

It is for that reason and that reason alone that I have waited all these years to tell what I have to tell. I betray no secrets because all have died since.

I have remained a loyal servant no matter who I have been asked to serve.

True, I have loved my Emperor. Yes, my Emperor … the Sarkar. But I have shown no disloyalty to the Empress my benefactor served … the Malika Victoria he often alluded to with much love and reverence.

I have been an orderly, cook, courier, attendant, emissary, translator, confidant, and spy. I have seen things, I have heard things, I have known things. Some as a witness, as they unfurled around me. Others, that I have learnt since, sometimes long after. 

But never, even once, have I betrayed anyone.

Not my people, not my faith, not my employer.

Not my Emperor. Not the Englishman’s Empress.

I remember when the Captain had first mulled over the idea that he send me across the Sutlej to learn English. I could be more useful to him, he thought.

“But you cannot be allowed to learn angrezi,” he had said, “unless you become Christian.” And had looked at me.

I didn’t have to think twice about it. “Then, Sahib,” I had replied immediately, “I’ll have to be content with knowing just Punjabi.”

He looked unhappy and walked away. Had I thrown my job away?

He returned that evening and as I served him his supper, he had said, ”I respect that you are honourable and will not give up your faith. I wish it was otherwise. But I value your loyalty more than anything else. I’ll make an exception. So be it. You shall go. And come back talking like a brown Englishman!“

And so it was. I was the only one in the court who, though not a firanghi, could speak his language. The Sarkar wanted me in his employ … it became a bone of contention, but the Captain refused to let me go.

“Take my men, anyone you wish,” and the Sarkar would wave his arm over the crowd that would be gathered around him, fawning before him, “and teach them how to speak your tongue.”

“I will, my Sarkar, as you wish” the Captain would reply, in his broken but polite Punjabi, “but only those can learn who will first become Christian.“

The courtiers expected the Emperor to explode at the offensive words. But the Emperor would dismiss the subject with good humour, muttering, “Why would any soul want to peddle his religion thus?”
And thus I remained, for a long time, the only Sikh this side of the Sutlej who could speak the firanghi’s gitmit.

As you will see in the pages that follow, it was this, more than anything else, that brought me into the fold of each and everyone who I subsequently served. And the reason why I know what I know.

I will hereon write what I know, exactly what I remember I saw and heard and was told, and learnt through the decades by keeping my eyes open and my ears perked, and you be the judge if it was good or bad. As a servant, it is not my place to judge.

*   *   *   *   *
My story begins not at the beginning.

I take you to Firozepur, to a day a few years after I first walked into the Captain’s haveli.

I have already, to honour the words of both my father and the Captain, come far. Today, the day when my story begins, I am in the employ of the Latt Sahib. The wadda Latt … the mulki Latt.

Lord Auckland is what the firanghis call him. Governor General of India. 

You are the baadshah of India, like the Sarkar is of Punjab, I had once said to him last winter, when we were camped here last, at this very spot on the east bank of the Sutlej.

I had been “loaned” to him by the Captain then.

The Latt Sahib was busy in his preparations for a meeting with the Sarkar. He was tense then, I remember, and anxious. Wanted things to go just right. I was there to help explain and to translate, so that he could understand why certain things were done, or not done, in the Sikh court.

We were alone in his billet in the Firozepur Fort, and as he sat at his desk while I readied his garments, he had looked up and asked me if I’d ever seen the Emperor.

“Yes, I have, Sahib,” I said, “several times, with Kaptan Sahib.”

He had a lot of questions. What made him happy, what made him angry? … what did he eat? … did he like to joke? … what did he wear? … what did he talk about? …  what did he do to relax? …

"What is the protocol?" he asked.

"The Sarkar himself is the protocol. He is the total protocol. He is the sun and all revolve around him. If he's there, things happen. If he isn't, nothing happens. It is his will and his whim that rule the court."

I had told him the little I knew. He asked me more and more. Until I blurted out:

“But Sahib, he is just like you. A King over vast lands. With a lot to worry about. I fret and worry about my chores every day. He and you have to worry about thousands and thousands like me, that we are fed and have a place to sleep and clothes to wear. I don’t understand what you kings do and how you do them …”

“I am no king, Amir Singh,” he had said. “No potentate. Like your Runjeet Singh.”

“You’re being humble, Sahib, That’s your greatness. But you are the baadshah too. Of Delhi. Of Bengal. Of lands east and west, north and south. Your word holds sway. Just like the Sarkar’s in his kingdom.”

“True,” he answered, and then, with a long-drawn sigh, sat down in a chair. “I rule, but I’m no ruler, like Runjeet Singh. He is the Emperor and has been for four decades now. I was sent here three years ago to do a job. I’ll do what I can, and then head home in a year or two, for someone else to carry on.“

“Who sends you, Sahib,” I asked puzzled by his admission. Was it true or was it mere humility? How come people didn’t see it this way?    

“Does the Malika send you then, your Empress?“ I asked again. I shudder now to think of how much liberty I had taken in asking silly questions.

“No, Her Majesty Queen Victoria is not the one who appoints me. I owe my loyalty to her, the way you Punjabis do to your Emperor.”

“Then you are sent by the Elders of your country … The rajas? The Ministers? Those who rule England.”

“No. No. I’m English, but I do not work for England.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” I said excitedly. “Sahib, you are chosen by God, just like our Maharaja!”

He laughed. “No, that’s not what I meant, though I do go hither and thither, always in the hands of that greater power. No, Amir, I am but a trader. I am here to do trade. Sure, my people benefit. So does my country. It pleases my Sovereign. But I do it for a handful of businessmen. For profit. And yes, people here benefit too. We build their schools, their roads. We bring law and order …”

It didn’t make any sense to me, not then.

“But the armies you command? They are English armies, aren’t day? You go to war and you collect taxes, and you exalt and you punish, all in the name of your Queen?”

“No, I don’t, Amir Singh. It’s difficult to explain. It‘s a bit complicated. I am no general. I am a businessman. These armies are not English. They march in the name of the Company?”

“The Company? What‘s that?”

“It’s a business, like a very, very big store back in England. We go to other lands to do trade. So that those I work for make profits from the money they’ve invested in the company. I obey the laws of England, but I answer to these men who are owners of this company. It is they who send me here, and it is they who tell me what I do. If I don’t do their will, or do it well, or when I’m done doing what I’ve come to do, I will go home and another Latt Sahib will follow.”

“Company?” I asked, “is it like a country? Another name for your kingdom?”

“No, it is the name of the trading company that I work for. The East India Company. The armies you see are the Company’s armies. I am no general. And I am no governor. I am a manager. All I do here is to make sure the company makes profits. And hopefully, the English people will be more prosperous as a result. And, the Good Lord willing, the people of this land will be happier.”

I was more confused than ever before.

But it was not my place to be dabbling in these things.

I think I switched off my mind then in resignation. It must have shown on my face, because I could see that his Lordship too had realized that the conversation had gone too far.

“Find out if there’s any word from the river. And Wade?"

"He's arrived, Sahib, and is waiting in his tent."

"Ask him to come."

That’s my Kaptan Sahib. I should tell you, though, that I no longer serve him.

After his Lordship's visit to the Lahore Durbar ended last December -- during which I had assisted him, having been "loaned" to him -- he had asked the Captain if I could stay on as part of his Lorship's retinue.   

And there's more. Wade Sahib is no longer a Captain. His exploits, especially up in Peshawar and Afghanistan, have been rewarded. He is now a Karnail ... Colonel Wade!

Colonel Sahib -- it has taken me some time to roll his new name on my tongue! -- beams at me as I enter his tent to fetch him. "You've done me proud, Amir Singh," he says, grabbing me by my shoulders. "I'm told you've fared well. Shabaash! Well done."

I am happy in my new employ, but I have missed him: his kindnesses and his military discipline. I think of the endless things -- little, inane, seemingly unimportant -- he had taught me, and I know they have helped make me what I am today. He had stepped into my father's shoes so effortlessly, and had fulfilled the role until I was ready to step into the world.

*   *   *   *   *

Our tents are perched atop a hillock looking down on the River Sutlej. You can’t, for the dark, moonless night, see the water from where we are. Or the lines of tents arrayed around the camp behind me. There are more soldiers bivouacking further down, past the periphery. You can hear them, but the sounds are subdued. They’ve expressly been told to lie low.

It is a secret meeting hurriedly arranged, after word had been brought to the hills in Simla, where Lord Auckland had arrived only a few days before from the heat-stricken plains. There were important developments in Lahore.

Couriers were dispatched immediately, and we were told to strike camp and head post-haste to Firozepur. There’s no way you move fast over 200 miles of rough terrain, especially with a mini-army in tow.

But we did.

We traveled from sundown to daybreak each night, rumbling down the mountains to Pinjore, cutting across like an arrow to the ancient road to Ludhiana, and on to Firozepur. We hid from the day's heat in the dak bungalows on the way, but if truth be told, there was little rest to be had.

Not even when we got to the fort in Firozepur. We left the troop escort in the fort and a smaller contingent hastily escorted us here downriver, to the edge of the water, near the crossing.

We have camped on this site before - on the last occasion, it is here that we had waited for the ferry to take us across en route to Lahore. It was different then, with an entire army accompanying us. This time, we have arrived in the dark, and can hear the rush of the swollen river down below. April had been unusual this year: surprise rains, heavy for this time of the year, had brought a spate of floods to the region and now, weeks later, though the level has subsided, the water remains rougher than usual.

It’s not going to be easy for our visitor to cross the river tonight. But cross he must, because he is the reason why we are here.

For the Latt Sahib, it is a mercy that we are meeting in the thick of the night, though it's for reasons of secrecy. He doesn't take easily to the summer sun. Who does? Certainly not in this season of white heat and the dreaded looh winds. We need to be done before the first glimmer of the morning rays and flee to the fort and its cool innards. 

Wade Sahib had arrived earlier, also under cover of darkness, having crossed the river at the bend north of here, and has been waiting in another tent a few yards away.

*   *   *   *   *

Claude Martin Wade is a younger man than Lord Auckland. He is not as refined in his ways, being a life-long soldier. He’s also been around these parts for longer … close to a decade now. Shuttling back and forth across the northern swath of the subcontinent, he's had little time to cultivate niceties. 

He serves as the Political Agent -- read, the Governor General’s Agent -- in the Emperor’s court. Given the Sarkar's reach, the Colonel has had to cover Afghanistan as well. He’s become particularly valuable to the Latt Sahib, having earned the trust of the Sarkar, who consults with the Colonel on matters English and all that preoccupies the two kingdoms’ interests. Which really means … everything.

Neatly separated by the Sutlej, the Sikh interest and that of the English don't converge too often. But both sides have tried hard to work together. It's been in their mutual interest to keep the peace by keeping each other at bay.

The Colonel has been particularly busy lately, especially vis-a-vis Afghanistan, where things have been heating up lately. I’ve never been sure if the Colonel is a facilitator, or negotiator, or instigator. And then, every now and then, he dons the soldier's hat and leads the Company's troops -- yes, the Company's, not 'English', I have learnt now -- in a show of force in distant lands.

I have seen the Sarkar question him endlessly at times. He hears him, though, but not necessarily follows his advice.

The Sarkar, everyone knows, everyone fears, has his own mind. He is his own person.

Therein lies the Colonel’s mission. He is the eyes and ears of the Company, and, at times, its sword arm too ... I have already introduced you to the Company, haven’t I? Well, it is in that role that an urgent missive was received from him in Simla.

It appeared that things had been thrown topsy turvy by the goings-on in Lahore. The Colonel, busy in the North-west, was rushing back to Lahore. And the Latt Sahib too had to make a bee-line in that direction.

*   *   *   *   *

I steal a glance at him as I follow him to the Latt Sahib's marquee, wondering if he, the Colonel, ever regretted having released me from his employ when his Lorship had asked if he could keep me on permanently.   

I announce the Colonel and let him into Lord Auckland’s presence. At the same time, I inform his Lordship that there’s word that the boat had left the opposite shore on schedule.

“So, tell me, man, what’s the urgency?” The Lord sounds curt. No greetings, no gossip, small talk.

I know why. He misses the comforts he’s left behind. He would’ve been long under the quilt covers in bed, after the ball that was being held in his honour back in the cool and crisp mountain-top air of Simla tonight, but for the note from the Colonel.

“The Maharaja is dying,” said the Colonel as he stood across from the table.

“For heaven‘s sake, man, that’s it? He‘s been dying for years. That’s why I’m here? Or is there more?”

“There’s more. I’m told he doesn’t have long. Authoritatively. Things are moving fast, very, very fast, and I need further instructions.”

“And how do you know this?”

“We’ll get the details from this fellow as soon as the boat arrives, Sir. He was, I understand, in the palace as late as this morning.“

Continued on Wednesday...


November 26, 2012


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Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter I"

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