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The Exile: A maharaja's tragic journey

October 15, 2008
What do you do when you have to chronicle the tragic life and death of the last Sikh maharaja? You write a fiction novel to capture the emotional churn that a human being, of the stature of a maharaja whose kingdom is systematically annexed by the British, goes through without distorting historical facts.

That's what author Navtej Sarna, Ambassador-designate to Israel has done in his second work of fiction, aptly titled The Exile. His first book, We Weren't Lovers Like That was published by the same publisher Penguin in 2003.

Sarna, during his interaction with readers at the book reading session at Crossroad in Mumbai was at his animated best as he read selected passages from The Exile and answered queries from those gathered for the event.

Incidentally, the author spent almost nine years to research his subject -- Maharaja Duleep Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's youngest acknowledged sons. It was under Ranjit Singh -- also popularly known as the Lion Of Punjab -- the kingdom of Punjab spread from the Sutlej to Khyber Pass. His death in 1839 led to a slow and painful downfall of the Sikh kingdom which was sytematically annexed by the British.

The Exile is the heartrending story of Maharaja Duleep Singh who was separated from his mother Queen Jindan after his father's death in 1839 and converted to Christianity. Later he was disillusioned by the treatment the British meted out to him and became a Sikh again. However, this rebellion came in a tad too late as the British botched every attempt Duleep Singh made to return to his motherland. As fate would have it, Duleep Singh met his tragic end in a cheap hotel room in Paris.

The story is narrated by six voices including that of Duleep Singh. Each one was chosen because the author was looking for a person who'd have an authoritative voice; somebody who'd have easy access to the maharaja throughout the 55 years of his life.

To gather as many facts as accurately as possible the author traced Maharaja Duleep Singh's footsteps across several continents and countries. His love of labour took Sarna to England, Moscow, Paris, Lahore (capital of the Sikh kingdom) and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Actually, being a diplomat helped -- he was posted in Moscow, Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Teheran and Washington, DC -- as most of his travel to these places was work-related. Sarna, though, had to spend time beyond work for his research.

Text: Prasanna D Zore
Photographs and videos: Rajesh Karkera

Image: Author Navtej Sarna interacting with readers during the book reading session.

Also read: The Exile is a novel based on history

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