This book concerns a celebrated scandal of the first half of the 20th century. The rich son of a zamindar from eastern Bengal, who was in Darjeeling for rest and recreation (and above all to recover from an attack of syphilis), apparently died there in May 1909. His funeral rites were conducted, but rumours floated about in the following years, casting doubt on how he died, or even whether he died at all. Then, after a gap of almost 12 years, a sanyasi appeared in Dhaka, who was identified by some members of the zamindar family (the so-called Kumars of Bhawal) as the dead man, Ramendra Narayan Roy. Opinion was divided though, for if the dead man’s sisters and some others were firm in their identification, others rejected the claim as totally preposterous, and tried to show that the sanyasi was really a pudgy Punjabi pahalwan, who could barely speak any language intelligibly. Eventually, the affair was taken to court, and went through a very elaborate series of trials and judgements, ending only in July 1946. The extensive materials that the court cases produced are the basis of this clever work of narrative history, written by one of the leading historians of the ‘Subaltern Studies’ school, Partha Chatterjee.
A Princely Impostor? The Kumar Of Bhawal And The Secret History Of Indian Nationalism
By By Partha Chatterjee
Permanent Black Rs 595; Page: 429
A whole host of characters appear in the witness-box, from British doctors and westernised Bengali aristocrats to chowkidars and courtesans. Using the case as a sort of laboratory, Chatterjee reflects on a number of different questions. What are the criteria that were used to decide whether the sanyasi was a crude impostor or the genuine article? How did these criteria differ depending on social location, but also as time went by? This leads Chatterjee to address the subject which appears in the subtitle of the book, namely how the case of the ‘Bhawal sanyasi’ reflects the changing circumstances of the nationalist movement. It turns out that justice in British India was highly reflective of political circumstances, rather than anything like an objective quest for the ‘truth’. Still, to give the plot away, the British judicial system in this case (rather like the British umpires in Lagaan, and unlike in earlier similar cases) eventually ruled in favour of the sanyasi. But Chatterjee argues convincingly that this had little to do with such simple notions as ‘fairness’, and was instead a very complicated negotiation between competing notions of truth. In this respect, the comparison between history and law that is suggested is important; both have procedures for proof that may not be objective, but which are not arbitrary either.
There is far more to the book than the plot summarised above, which by itself seems to resemble a whole host of stories of ‘doubles’, from that of the Mughal prince Dawar Bakhsh in the 17th century to Martin Guerre in 16th-century France or the so-called ‘Tichborne claimant’ in 19th-century Britain. Again, a number of other cases of claimants to zamindaris who were denounced as impostors in British India are cited in the book. However, Chatterjee insists rightly that his book is not just a book of narrative history, but also a reflection about the use of narrative in history. This is appropriate, because many radical historians in the 1980s refused to use crafted narrative, associating it with ‘conservative’ historians like Ashin Das Gupta. The first major change one notes in this respect among ‘Subalternist’ historians is probably in Shahid Amin’s work on Chauri Chaura and Chatterjee continues this trend. By so doing, he achieves two objectives. The first is to render his book accessible to a larger readership, which is important in a situation where fewer and fewer educated Indians seem to care for history at all. Even if the book could have been tightened somewhat and divested of some unnecessary detail, there is no doubt that it is one of those rare recent books of Indian history which holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. The other objective may be less conscious. For, until this book, readers have known Chatterjee largely as a political theorist who drew upon colonial and post-colonial history somewhat schematically to illustrate his arguments. Here at last we find the other Partha Chatterjee, the connoisseur and bon vivant who knows the world of singers like Malika Jan, who has an insider’s feel for Bengali literature and theatre and who can artfully and effortlessly evoke both the world of the Bengal zamindar and its image in popular consciousness. In short, precisely because it uses narrative, the book manages to reconcile Partha Chatterjee with his own double.