It’s no coincidence that the retitled release of Partha Chatterjee’s monograph summons that old chestnut The Prince and the Pauper. Life-swapping may now be a humdrum topic on reality TV but it was once the rosetta stone of the enduring identity puzzle. When a person is removed from the bindings of his life, is that an abdication of the self? This reverse rags-to-riches retold calls forth the archetypal fable and a primal question—what is “I”?
The backdrop, briefly: Twelve years after the putative death in 1909 of the second Kumar of Bhawal, a sannyasi turned up in Dhaka and was widely acknowledged as the allegedly dead prince. The successive passing of the Kumar’s two brothers had put Bhawal, a very wealthy estate in British Bengal, under the administration of the Court of Wards. The sannyasi did not legally levy a claim to the title or rent from the landholdings for almost another dozen years. By the time it came before the judiciary, the case for and against the sannyasi as prince had been dissected in newspapers and pamphlets, living rooms and public meetings in exhaustive minutiae.
Chatterjee is a historian with the Subaltern Studies Collective and more usually encountered as prescribed reading in post-grad seminars. Expectedly, he renders the undulating private-public-political landscape of the first few decades of 19th century India vividly. With an over 600-page-long, meticulously annotated tome, it is moot to commend his thorough scholarship.
The Prince and the Sannyasi: Hachette India and Black Kite, 674 pages, Rs395.
If the heft seems excessive, it is because the convolutions and the complexity of this protracted dispute are immense. To educe the impact on, and the implications for, overlapping identity constructions—the colonial and nationalist, the elitist and populist, the linguistic and religious—requires detail, and a certain dexterity. Readers are able to glean the sub- and super-texts because Chatterjee delves deep.
For this deft handling, he deserves a hand. Consider district magistrate Lindsay’s report to his superiors in Kolkata: “The people of this country, however, are all very fond of miracles and the tenants resent as blasphemy any doubt as to his identification.” Compare this with the written testimony by Satyabhama Debi, grandmother of the princely family, “I propose to have the evidence examined by six eminent lawyers...unconnected with the Bengal Court of Wards or any member of the Bhawal Raj family.”
It is a riveting tale, the better because Chatterjee heeds the exactions of novelistic rigour. In his preface, he parallels the task of the historian with the forensic detective. Chapter 1, The Facts of the Matter, could well be an introductory brief by Colonel Hastings or Dr Watson. Mise en scene, mini biographies of major players, the suspicious circumstances of a death in Darjeeling, the mysterious appearance of a loincloth-clad sannyasi, and his subsequent heralding as a prince—this is the page-turner stuff of private-eye fiction.
But Chatterjee decides to doff the showy mantle of detective for the unassuming cloak of scribe. And the pen proves mightier than the monocle. Spoiler alert! Three courts were to declare in favour of the sannyasi, but the author remains “agnostic”, choosing to privilege a perspective “in which the truth turns out to be undecidable”.
Such ambiguity would be unsatisfying in a linear plot line. For a spiralling narrative on identity, it is the necessary eye at the centre of many a swirling and entwined “I”.
Expositions on philosophical thought get equal deliberation as the inconsistency of the shape of the sannyasi’s nose.
Derek Parfit’s radical reductionist position (if “I” am replicated precisely, psychologically and physically and the original “I” is destroyed, I survive in my clone) or Paul Ricoeur’s gentle ipse (numeric) and idem (qualitative) character reconciliation are suddenly, surprisingly lucid when tethered to actual facts and incidents. The immediacy of reportage braided with scrupulous analysis creates a resilient cable from the present into the past. This is Chatterjee’s purpose and his justification.
It may not be the pioneer of armchair time travel, but The Prince and the Sannyasi proves a very able guide when the foray into another world brings home questions of self.
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