Kids Corner


Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter II

A Serialized Historical Novel






“When I met the Maharaja six months ago he was fine. We had a grand time. He was spirited. In good humour. Ate well. Yes, drank well too. And we went off riding together for a bit, didn’t we?” asked Governor General Auckland. 

“Yes, your Lordship,” Colonel Wade said.

My memories of the Colonel were of a younger 'Captain' Wade ... feisty and aggressive. Seeing him here today, docile and subdued, in the presence of his leader, is jarring for me. I was there too then. But I go about my duties, quiet as the furniture. 

“True, he fell ill at one point." The Lord wasn't going to let go of his argument. "He’s dying, we were told. A pall fell over the camp. But, lo and behold, he was up first thing the next morn … and rode off to inspect his troops. He personally inspected each horse we brought him as gifts, even bending down to check their underbellies, their hooves.”

“Yes, your Lordship, I remember,” said the Colonel, laughing at the memory.

“And that’s not all. He charmed us to no end, both my sister … Lady Eden, you’ll remember … and I, and all of us. He feasted us and feted us, piling up mounds of gifts for us. And playing with those we had brought for him.

“He lorded over his court … he‘d brought everyone with him from Lahore all the way here to Firozepur, with his sons and queens around him, having first made sure each was decked up like a star.

“He didn’t let a single thing slip by. Right here in our own cantonment, we were outnumbered and outshone.”

“But, your Lordship,” the Colonel was hesitant in his interruption, “we did see him stumble and fall while inspecting the guns we had gifted him. He had suddenly, inexplicably, keeled over, flat on his face … in open sight of his courtiers and our officers, all aghast and helpless. We thought he was gone then and there …”

“He had tripped! And, pray, what did he do?” The Lord didn’t wait for an answer. “He got up, dusted his red tunic, pushed away all helping hands, and carried on. The next day he posed for Lady Eden as she sketched him, calm and serene, as he pulled off a stocking from a foot, tucked the leg under him while the other continued to rest on the stool, and coyly continued with his routine.

"Was it when he was dying from his ill spell, or from his trip and fall, that he took us to Amritsar and gave us a personal tour of the Golden Temple? As a most gracious host, proudly telling us about his faith, and asking about ours. Followed by a tour, quite unexpected, I might add, of the Toshakhana - the State Treasury - at Gobindgarh.

“I worry we underestimate this man. I’ve read the briefs. It was a dozen years ago they had declared him dying. Five years ago, you -- you! -- reported that his time had come. You had quoted our own doctors then, the very same we’ve moved heaven and earth to weasel into his court … and now, five years later, you tell me he’s dying. Again!”

He shot out of his chair and stomped out. I think he’d gone out to cool off, and then discovered that it was no cooler outside. He must have walked around the marquee a couple of times, for he was back within a minute or two.

“Sit down, young man, pull up a chair.” Both sat down, across from each other, with the map-covered desk between them.

“I want to drive home to you that this is no ordinary operation. If indeed he is dying, and Lord only knows how long we’ve been waiting for this, we need to be ready. We need to do everything right so that we do not miss this opportunity, it’ll never come again.”

The Colonel nodded. He knew full well the import of the Emperor’s impending death. Hadn’t he hauled the Governor General across the burning plains to meet at this unearthly hour?

His Lordship continued, though he too knew that the Colonel was no novice to the situation.

“We can’t make the mistake of underestimating Runjeet Singh. He’s no ordinary man. He holds sway all the way from here to the Khyber Pass, from Kashmir to Sind. And all those even beyond tremble every time he sneezes. We, even we, the multitudinous and powerful army of the English East India Company, sit this side of the river, feeling safe from him only because we pay him an annual tribute. If we need to deal with the Afghans, we need his permission, we grovel before him, so that he may, he just may, allow us to march through his territory.

“You know, we forget, Alexander the Great was a flame but for a dozen years, no more. And then, he came here, to this very land and was beaten back by these very people. He turned back and headed home, his tail between his legs, to die …

“We forget that Napoleon lasted for not much longer. He ascended to power,” and here, he let out a few guffaws of scorn, “the very same year Runjeet Singh did. We dispatched him off, decisively, twenty-five years ago! In the meantime, this Emperor continues to reign and we … we still quake in our boots, 40 years into his reign.”

The Colonel began to say something, but his Lordship raised his hand and stopped him. “Napoleon too eyed this land, like Alexander once did, and actually began to make his way in this direction. He conquered Egypt and his ships began to prepare for the journey eastwards, when to our good fortune, he had to rush back to Paris to avert a coup or something. He became Emperor. And weighed down by his crown, he never left Europe again.”

He stood up and began to rifle through the maps lying on the desk. He flipped through them, until he found one he wanted, slid it out and straightened it out with the palms of his hands. I brought him a handful of little sand bags and he placed them around, atop the map, to keep them from rolling up.

He nodded at me, and then at his desk. I unrolled all the maps, and laid them out, one by one, beneath the ones he had already opened.

“Runjeet didn’t make the same mistake. He didn’t take on the dead weight of the crown. Actually,” and here he snickered again, “he actually refused to wear a crown. You’ve got to know him well. Have you every seen him cover himself with ostentations? All he wears is a simple tunic. Not even a ring or necklace. Unless it’s the huge stone he likes to show off when he has visitors. I saw his golden throne. It was languishing in the toshakhana. You know, he refuses to sit on it. I'm told he's never sat on it. I remember now,  Emily -- Lady Eden -- did mention that when she was drawing him, Runjeet insisted he remain in a chair. A simple chair, not a throne! Knowing full well that the portrait would be pored over ad nauseum by the curious in the courts of England.

“Only days earlier, I had brought him a portrait Emily had done for him, of Queen Victoria, in full regalia, bedecked in a glittering crown and sparkling jewels, a cape and and a sash, an orb and a sceptre. I recall now his bafflement at the sight of this over-dressed queen. If you already have every material thing in the world, the look on his face said, why do you then need to impress the world? Though I must say, he was gracious: he said he would cherish it and hang it in his own tent.

“Sure, the Maharaja has his weaknesses. And vices galore. He likes beautiful things to a fault. Jewels. Satins and silks. Lavishly adorned courtiers. Women. Horses. Food. And his famous “liquid fire” which he even plied on us. But he’s not unlike our own princes. Those who hold absolute power easily succumb to the easy access to excesses it brings with it.  

“But he didn’t make the same mistake as Alexander and Napoleon. Look at this map. Runjeet’s suzerainty extends over almost as much territory as Napoleon’s did. Yet this man has kept his feet on the ground. He never ventured into greedy frolics into distant lands, like his predecessors … it is that quicksand that had caught and drained them of their strength …”

His voice tapered off, as if he had remembered something. He was pensive for a few moments. But quickly recovered.

“Runjeet never made that mistake. If he conquered, it was to secure his kingdom, only to weaken and contain the enemy. Never to plunder. There’s good reason why we sit here, with the only strategy we have been able to come up so far to conquer his kingdom … wait for him to die!”

He sat down, having drained himself, it appeared, of words. “Amir Singh,” he yelled, as if the tent walls were sound-proof. “Get us some wine. You too, Colonel?”

They continued … or, should I say, his Lordship continued? … while I hovered around, tending to their needs.                        

“We have managed to capture every territory, every kingdom, every fiefdom, every principality, every inch of land that sits across the length and breadth of this vast subcontinent, hundreds of them. By conquest and subterfuge … I’m afraid through bribery and blackmail too by some of my errant predecessors, through intrigue and treachery, by any and all means possible. Except for this Kingdom of Punjab, which we have sat gawking at enviously for 40 long years. Waiting for this man to die …”

It is like he needed an affirmation of his mission, not only as Governor General, but for being here tonight. Is the tirade for Colonel Wade’s benefit, or his own?

“Why do we need Punjab? Because without it, we are exposed. We’ll never be secure. I’m told this land has long been called “soney ki chirriya” - the Golden Bird - in myth and legend. Everyone wants it ... in his cage!”

This time it was the Colonel's turn to chuckle. “You’re right, Sir. The other day I had to use all of my machinations to convince the Sarkar not to reciprocate by sending the French a whole shipload of presents. There’s no dearth of embassies and emissaries from European capitals waiting to pounce at every opportunity.”

His Lordship nodded, knowingly. “Napoleon wasn’t the last one who had designs on this land. The Russians, the Persians. The French and the Dutch. The Portuguese and the Belgians. I remember a dispatch from you … there are even a couple of Americans nosing around the Darbar. You know, young man, as long as we don’t have Punjab, we’re always in the danger of losing it all. All that we‘ve been chipping away for centuries.”

The Colonel nodded. He wanted to add his own two bits, but he was given no opportunity.

“And now, if the man is indeed dying, we need to move fast. First, to prevent others from wedging in, and secondly, in securing our interests.”

He turned to me; I was laying out a few things to eat on a side table. “Any word yet from the river?“

“Not yet, Sir.”

“Well, then, while we wait, Colonel, give me the lay of the land. Let’s assume that the news is correct, where does that leave things in Lahore? Today.”

The Colonel stood up and moved a few steps away, still facing his Lordship. It looked like he was more comfortable that way in the Governor General’s presence.

“One thing seems to be quite clear -- unless, of course, something untoward happens. The succession. The Sarkar has confirmed that Kharak Singh, his first born, will be the next Maharaja. He did more: he asked that the formal ceremony be held. It was, a few days ago. The Bhai Sahib was brought in, the tikka ceremony done. Prince Kharak Singh sat through it, nonchalant as usual. Dhyan Singh was named his Prime Minister. It’s all locked in. The younger prince, Sher Singh, isn’t pleased about it, but there’s little to be done about it. Not for now, at least.”

“And the Court? The populace?”

“They have accepted it as inevitable. After all, he has been the tikka crown prince for some time. Word is out on the street that the Sarkar is ill again, and there is widespread despair. He remains much loved across the kingdom, almost with the fervour of a prophet, though no one dare make the analogy. They know of his vices, and yet they adore him like they have done no other for as long as they can remember.

“Militarily, the kingdom is secure. Couriers have been sent to all garrisons and outposts. Most generals and governors are staying put in their positions, and have been told not to rush to Lahore. Their appointments have been renewed … they know they needn’t jostle for positions. The ailing Sarkar made sure that it was made clear. The toshakhana - the treasury - has been alerted. The walled city is in lock-down, with all entry and egress tightly monitored. The Fort and Palace are garrisoned to the hilt. The old man is in full control even as he lies there dying!”

They’re both standing now around the desk. They’ve pulled out another map … of the precincts of the Fort.

“Each of the 13 gates is heavily guarded. Even their own generals cannot enter unless they’ve been invited in.”

His Lordship traces each gate with a finger, and then stops at a semi-circular configuration. “And this, I suppose, is where the Emperor’s apartments are.”

“Yes, Sir,” answers the Colonel, “the Sheesh Mahal - the Palace of Mirrors.”

“And this is where he is lying now, awaiting his end?”

The Colonel taps a finger right at the periphery of the double line marking the ramparts of the fort, midway on the arc they are looking at. “Right there, in a small room with no furniture but a cot, overlooking on one side the River Ravi, on the other, through the lattice on a slight angle westwards, the shrine to a Sikh Guru.“

I want to butt in and say, “Where Guru Arjan, the Fifth Master, was martyred”, but I remember my place, and say nothing.   

“Can we expect any contesting claims to the throne?”

“Unlikely, sir. The Sarkar has summoned every player and has talked to them one by one and left no doubts about his decision. It is no secret that he does not think highly of Kharak Singh, the Crown Prince, but he knows that the only way you can ensure peace during succession is if you impose the rules of primogeniture.”

“Are there any pretenders, though?”

“Well, I do know that Sher Singh, the younger son, is unhappy. Though his ambitions are often stronger than good judgement, he does share the general view that Kharak Singh is not strong enough to rule. Sher is bristling, but for the moment, he’s lying low. His detractors, however, are hoping that the reign of Kharak Singh will allow his son, Naunihal Singh, to get ready to take over the reins before long.”

“How old are they?”

“Kharak Singh is still short of 39. Naunihal not even 20 yet.”

His Lordship groaned. “That doesn’t bode well, this whole situation. What do the courtiers and nobles think about this mess?”

“Therein lies the rub. The Sarkar has been very careful in playing his cards, he always has been. That’s how he had brought the 12 disparate Sikh confederacies together at the turn of the century, and how he has kept a tight grip over them … by connecting with the people. He always quipped that his biggest gift from God was being blinded in one eye when he was stricken with small-pox as a child. ‘I can see my subjects with one eye … as equals, all … Hindu, Muslim, Sikh!’

“He kept that promise. Power in his court, and across the kingdom, has been doled out on merit and loyalty, regardless of which group or faction one belongs too. So, though it is a Sikh Kingdom -- he insists, it’s because it’s a Sikh Kingdom -- the highest positions are held, and real power wielded, by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Throw in a healthy smattering of Christians too, the adventurers who have gravitated here from every corner of the globe!”

“That won’t last long, once the Maharaja’s eagle eye is shut for ever, will it?” His Lordship lifts the flap at the entrance of the marquee. I rush to hold it up for him. He stands there, savouring the splash of fresh air on his face, before he turns around and saunters back to the desk and flops into his chair. He nods at the Colonel.

“Well, he’s taken all the precautions, keeping in mind the cards he’s been dealt with. There are three power centres in the court and he has tried to balance them against each other.

“First, there are the Fakir brothers. Muslim. Three of them. Deeply loyal … and talented. Learned and decent. Much of the good government the land has enjoyed can be attributed to them. Aziz-ud-din, the eldest, is the Prime Minister. A finessed diplomat, he also oversees foreign affairs, and keeps an eye on Revenue. Some call him Runjeet’s oracle. Even, a brother. I see him as Arthur's Merlin. They’re of the same age, though one is a scholar, the other a soldier. But Aziz understands and appreciates the Emperor, and adores him. His loyalty - backed by the brothers, both senior Ministers as well - will be unwavering, I'm sure, long after the Sarkar is gone.”

“And …”

“And then, we have the Dogra, Dhyan Singh, and his brothers. A ragtag of opportunists who caught the eye of the Maharaja, ever on the lookout for good soldiers, and were promoted from the ranks. They have clawed their way up through flattery and deceit, even taken on all the indicia of the Sikh Faith -- the turban, the unshorn hair and beard -- knowing it would please the Maharaja. And they have pulled each other up, until they have become, jointly, a power to be reckoned with. It is a paen to their success that Dhyan Singh has been named to guide the new Maharaja as his chief minister.”

The two look at each other over a long pause. Things are being said without being said.

“A nasty bunch, I’m afraid …”

“Malleable, I’m told?” asks his Lordship.

“Yes. They are ambitious, and they will stop at nothing. They have never allowed principles to obstruct their climb.”

“And the third group?”

“The Khalsa chieftains. The backbone of the empire. Strong. Brave. Unbeatable. Fiercely independent. Still learning, though, to appreciate Runjeet’s vision. They are easily distracted by clannish loyalties. Quick to temper. Prone to swagger, which, more often than not, doesn’t translate into strength. Alas, even a weakness. They are an unknown quantity. Together, as they have been under Runjeet, they are invincible. Without him, they’ll have to learn to resist centrifugal forces.”

I enter the room to ask if they need any food or drink, and I notice his Lordship has placed three of the little sand-bags around the palace marked on the map. He’s towering over it, with a fourth bag in his hand, as if ready to make a chess move.

“And the Europeans in Lahore? There are scores of them swarming around in the Maharaja’s court -- I’ve even met a number of them. Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Americans, Russians … Generals, governors, some of them … where do they fit in.”

“They’re there, ever present and drooling for opportunities. For some, it’s a personal quest. Others, I’m sure, represent secret ambitions of the nations that have sent them as emissaries. If they came together - not unlike the Sikhs, if they remain united -- they would make a formidable force. There’d be no stopping them. We could overrun the world in months. As they currently stand, they have only nuisance value.”

“I don’t agree. They’re a problem … they’re the very reason why we have to secure Punjab, because then we can grapple with the Russians and the Persians without …“

I hear a commotion outside the tent. I hasten to check it out, and find a runner, huffing breathlessly, held between two sentries.

“The boat’s here.”

“Where’s the visitor?” I’ve barely uttered the words and more sentries materialize. Behind them, lurking in the shadows, is the man they’ve been waiting for.

To Be Continued … 


November 28, 2012


Conversation about this article

1: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), November 28, 2012, 1:11 PM.

Your depiction and detail of the era is flawless. Having just watched "Lincoln", it is interesting to compare the two legends and timelines with a common adversary and great vision. One succeeded in uniting a nation in 1865, propelling it into a super power that it is today. The other, desperately tried but failed in 1839. One has to wonder what Bharat could have achieved had it not strayed, and instead stayed on the path of Sikhi, as defined by the Gurus and the governing doctrine of the Khalsa. Is it too late to turn things around? - I wonder.

2: Aryeh Leib (Israel), November 29, 2012, 4:44 AM.

Fascinating and captivating; it fairly cries out for an expression in cinematography.

3: Satpal Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 29, 2012, 6:08 PM.

Lovely, Shera.

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Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter II"

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