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Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter V

A Serialized Historical Novel




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The monsoons have fled northwards. Breezes from the Bay of Bengal have helped a bit in dissipating the fog of humidity left behind.

I’ve been here in Fort William only a few times now, though for months on each occasion, but I’m already addicted to the lush greens that cover this land.

I know Lord Auckland loves it too, because he has been itching to get back 'home', which is what Calcutta has become for him. When we left Firozepur in early July, we made our way back to the Simla hills, where we whiled away the remaining summer months. When confident that the oppressive rainy season in Calcutta would be over, we headed south. 

Once ensconced and settled, I wasn’t surprised when his Lordship sent out a call to a roster of the Company’s officers, summoning them all the way to Calcutta.

It was the local festive season when the visitors arrived. Though the Governor’s mansion is a fair distance away from the city, the din from the bazaars could be heard late into the night. The worship of the dark-skinned deity they call Kali -- the Goddess of Death -- is big with the locals.

The visitors too were intentionally billeted at the far end of the fort grounds, right next to the River Hooghly. But the festivities from the across the river in Howrah easily skimmed over the water as well; there was no way of avoiding it.

Despite all the revelry going on around us, things were sombre within the circle gathered around his Lordship on the first morning, though.

I recognized some of those who had gathered, but many I had never seen before. If my memory serves me well, Colonel Wade was there, and so was George Clerk Sahib. I remember Anderson Sahib. Maddock Sahib and Nuthall Sahib. And Torrens Sahib. I‘m not sure if Macnaghten Sahib was there this time around. But Hajji Pasha was there, and he‘d brought along a bunch of his sufi friends this time. Mercifully, they had washed and bathed … and wore shoes! 

The contingent from Lahore began with some earth-shaking news. And a sordid tale to report. It was an eye-witness account, I heard Anderson Sahib say, but  I’m not sure if he had mentioned who exactly had been present at the incident.

Kharak Singh had, exactly as his father had feared and the entire court had predicted, no interest in affairs of the state. The Dogra, Dhyan Singh, had seen that as a golden opportunity, having been designated his chief minister by the dying Sarkar, but he saw it slip away as Kharak Singh withdrew into the inner rooms of the palace, with all access to him now controlled by a new coterie of personal lackeys.

Thus, within weeks after the Sarkar’s death, Dhyan Singh felt his influence steadily dwindle. He managed to convince the new Empress that they needed to act swiftly. She too was alarmed by her husband’s withdrawal and could see that urgent matters were being neglected.

Prince Naunihal Singh, now but 18 years of age and heading a battalion in Peshawar, had already proved himself smart, sharp and able. Word was sent to him to rush to Lahore.

On the night of October 8, 1839, Dhyan Singh, accompanied by his two brothers and by Prince Naunihal Singh, led a party of 20 others in gaining forced entry into the palace. What followed was a massacre. In short shrift, they killed each of Kharak Singh’s personal retinue, and with the endorsement of the Empress herself, convinced the man who had spent but three months on the throne -- now cornered in his bedroom and locked in a stupor -- to abdicate.

Naunihal Singh was proclaimed the new Maharaja. 

He had been a favourite of Runjeet Singh, and could‘ve been, should‘ve been, his first choice. It was well known that Runjeet would have given anything to have had his grandson take the reins after him. Despite his youth, he was a proven warrior and leader, had a keen intellect, and was popular with the troops.

George Clerk Sahib explained he had been consulted by the conspirators, and had urged them to depose Kharak Singh. “But I was careful with my advice, Sir. I did not advocate the violence, of course,“ he hastened to add.

That gave rise to a volley of questions from the group. They wanted to know the parameters they were to observe in their activities. Would their actions be under scrutiny? Could they be charged of wrongdoing, if …

His Lordship stood up and paced around them a couple of times, and then spoke.

“Your job is to achieve results. By all means necessary. No ifs, no buts.”

No one said a word. It took a while for the full import of the words to sink in. Finally one spoke up.

“What if years later we are accused of criminal acts, worse, charged? Tried? What are the lines, the limits? There must be boundaries … and I‘m not clear what they are.”

His Lordship was in full form. He looked at each one of them, seated in chairs  scattered around the library, each staring back at him intently.

“What exactly do you fear? You work for a company, a corporation. All your acts and omissions are those of the company, not yours. The Company is responsible. The Company is accountable. The Company is answerable. You have nothing to fear.”

“With the utmost respect, your Lordship,” it was the same Sahib again, “there have been occasions when the Company’s representatives have been charged with serious crimes.”

His Lordship nodded and took a couple of steps forward.

“True. I know exactly which instances you mean. Lord Clive, I think, is one of those you‘re referring to. The man who first planted the Company’s flag in this land. Then, there was my predecessor, of course: Lord Hastings, the first Governor. You’re thinking of them, I suppose?”

A number of heads nodded.

“Well, we took care of them. The Company takes care of its own. We made sure that each was exonerated. And we’ve learnt from the experience. What happened to them was several decades ago. We’ve come a long way. There’s nothing for you to worry about. Nothing to deter you from the task at hand.”

He went to his chair behind the desk and sat down. He continued:

“There’s a lot at stake in what we do in the coming days. Afghanistan is our biggest headache. Russia, Persia, who knows who else, are lurking in the shadows. If we don’t secure Punjab … in this window of opportunity that we have now … we could lose it all.”

“But the Parliament, Sir …”

“That is not for you to worry about. You don’t work for England, you work for the Company. It is an independent person. Imagine it to be as real as any other person you know. John Company, if you will, is your employer. Company Sahib …” and here he pointed to me, and laughed, the rest joining him politely, “for Amir Singh. England, all of England, stands behind this John Company, because it benefits from what the Company does.

“The Company stands behind its military arm.

“We live in a complicated world where we need to struggle and strive to provide jobs for our people, to make them prosperous, to keep them the greatest nation on earth. Other nations, our enemies, would want it otherwise. They want the trade, the trade that we do with the Indies, for example. The only way we can secure our trade routes and our trading posts is through military might.

“And that means we are at war … make no bones about it. And in war, I don’t need to remind you, it’s no holds barred! There are no rules. If there are any, we make them.”

There was a long pause. I shuffled in and around them, offering them refreshments.

“In the next few days, I’ll sit down with each one of you, one to one, and discuss in great detail your missions … and answer any questions you may have.” He lifted a finger in the air, as if he had remembered something.

He called out to me. I stopped and looked at him: “Yes, Sahib!”

“Can we arrange the boat to take us across to Howrah tomorrow? And some carriages to meet us there to take us to the gardens? It’s splendid weather now, I think it’ll do us all good to get some fresh air. Food, drinks, and all that?”

I nodded.

“Good, then.” He turned to the officers. “Let’s do that. Let’s all assemble at the river dock tomorrow morning at, say, 10:00? Sharp. It’s a must-see, these gardens. You’ll enjoy the outing.”

*   *   *   *   *

It’s Lord Auckland's favourite haunt, these gardens. The villagers who live close by call it the Company Bagan - the Company Gardens. I guess because they know its owned by the occupiers of the fort across the river. They see the Sahibs come to it frequently for their suwarrees and their soirees -- evening excursions and garden parties.

I know what draws his Lordship to it: it’s the great banyan tree than stands at the far end of the forest.

It is a tree like no other, and I can see why every visitor to these parts is brought here to see this natural marvel.  

Banyans are normally huge. The trunk grows into monstrous proportions, and so does the span of it branches. Their leaves are large and thick, thus giving shade to a large swath. Our village in Punjab has one in its very centre, next to the gurdwara and the village well. It is where you’ll find the elders of the village any time of the day, lounging on cots, catching up with the gossip, or solving the problems of the world.

But the banyan in Howrah is no ordinary banyan. It’s been around for a century, at least; who knows, possibly much longer.

If you stand under it, equidistant from its circumference, you can’t see where the tree ends around you. Not just because of its umbrella which spreads out as far as you can see, but because many of its branches -- a thousand of them, at the very least -- have come straight down, separately, and taken root. And grown. And grown. To the point that many of the branches are massive, like tree trunks themselves.

They have grown so big that you can‘t tell anymore which is the main trunk, which the branches. There are so many of these trunks; each has started its own umbrella … you can spend hours tracing and tracking each growth, trying to figure out which is the main trunk. It’s a forest in itself: walking around its outer circle, you can easily cover half-a-mile. 

I know his Lordship hopes to figure out one day which is the real trunk; I think it’s the challenge that keeps on bringing him back every few months. He gets lost in the many acres it covers, and usually it is me who has to go looking for him to take him home.

So, when the carriages picked up the entourage from the riverside, his Lordship had directed that they make a bee-line for the great banyan tree.

I had gone ahead with my assistants to help set up tables and chairs in its shade  and to ensure that food and drinks were not only ready but stayed perfectly hot -- or cold -- for consumption.      

His Lordship led his flock through the banyan’s forest, telling them with great relish the story of its discovery and how one of his predecessors had, only half-a-century earlier, ordered the area to be conserved as a botanical garden.

They flitted in and out of the branch clusters, and my boys and I followed them with our trays. Predictably, the group stalled in the heart of the sprawl, where I had already set up the tables and chairs.

His Lordship announced to them with a flourish that they were now roughly in the centre of the shade of the tree. “See if you can find the main trunk of the tree!” he said. “Go. But be back in ten minutes with your findings.”  

When they wandered back and plunked onto the chairs, he stood towering in front of them, a smug look on his face.

“So, any luck?”
One pointed in one direction, another in another. And then a third in another … and so on, for a few minutes, with animated explanations from each in support of his claim.

His Lordship let their banter peter out and then told them that it was a mystery even to the expert as to which was the trunk, and which the branches.

“Here’s an enigma for you, then.”

They sat up. So, that’s what they were going to do … play some games!

“I want you to tell me, if we were given the task, how would we kill this tree? Which is the trunk that we need to cut down to destroy it? Or, if we do, will that do the job, or will one or more of the branches take over and become the tree-trunk.”

No one ventured a reply. They could see it was a trick question, and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. Or win, if it is your superior playing the game with you.

“I hope it never comes to this,” his Lordship continued, “but if we had to, we’d have to go about it limb by limb, starting with the central columns, the big pillars, and then step outwards, in concentric circles, until we have cut all the limbs. Until and unless all the limbs, certainly those that have grown their own roots, have been brought down, you can never be assured that the mission has been completed.”

He looked up, surveyed the vast umbrella above him, slowly turned in a circle, surveying, as if, the full ambit of the circle.

He came closer to the group until he was almost touching the front row.

“This tree, I want you to remember, and never forget, is Punjab. It is Runjeet Singh’s Kingdom. Our mission, yours and mine, as given to us by the Company’s Board of Directors, is to dismantle the current government of the Sikh Kingdom, to annex it to the territories already conquered by the Company on this subcontinent, to clear an unhindered route to Afghanistan, and to secure our Northern and North-western borders.

“Your job is to start by identifying each limb, and regardless of whether it is the trunk, or a major branch, or a minor one, as long as it feeds into the life of the tree, either in reality or potentially, it needs to be dismembered.

“Make all the alliances you need, exert every influence you can, use every strategy and resource at your disposal, just keep in mind, the only loyalty you owe is to the Company, the only ethos you are governed by is the establishment and security of the Company’s trade interests.

“I’ll ask all of you to raise your glasses and join me in a toast … here’s to the perennial health of this grand tree under whose shade we sit today … and to the road from here to Lahore!”

And then, with a gleam in his eye, he shouted: “And the road, as you already know, is a real road. And it has a name: The Grand Trunk Road!“ 

He then put the glass to his lips and emptied it.


To Be Continued ...

December 6, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Jaswinder Singh (Brier, Washington, U.S.A.), December 07, 2012, 12:24 PM.

Grand Trunk Road / G T Road, wow! This is how this name come into existence. I can hardly wait for upcoming chapters, keeps getting more interesting by the chapter.

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Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter V"

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