17 June 2014

The Prince and the Sannyasi by Partha Chatterjee

Real-life thriller

This is the fascinating story of a man who died and later reappeared. Well, maybe it wasn’t him. But somebody appeared claiming to be him. Discussions, rumours, sworn statements, legal battles and nearly a century later, we are no closer to the truth.
In 1909, the Second Kumar of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy, died. In 1921, a naked sannyasi who bore a striking resemblance to the Second Kumar, and gave accurate answers to questions about the Second Kumar’s childhood, appeared. The Second Kumar had never been cremated. Was he still alive? Could the naked sannyasi be him?
This beautifully-written, beautifully-produced book is actually much more than just this thrilling mystery. It has maps, evocative descriptions of landscapes and communities, the thought processes of people, the workings of the courts, and detailed historical information that transport us to another place and time with great skill. There are layers around the central story – and, surprisingly, other similar stories are included too. In fact, the high-quality research and production values of this book somewhat subdue its sensational aspect.
This book could have been a 'bestseller' if it was one-third its present size, with a lot of its details carefully pruned out. It was in fact a bit long and detailed for my liking. But if you're looking for something compelling, which gives you a ringside view of life in a princely home in British India and delves what it calls ‘the Secret History of Indian Nationalism’, if you find pleasure in reading slowly and with concentration, this one is for you.