Palace intrigues, coups, wily courtiers, siblings jostling to get in line for the throne, murders most foul and a tempestuous royal affair can all be found in The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia by Sarbpreet Singh.
Swashbuckling tales from the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh have been presented in this book in digestible bite-sized chunks, bringing colour to history.
“There are parts of history we never get to hear about. I often tell the story of the young Muslim courtesan the Maharaja fell in love with and eventually married, in the face of great opposition. That story always seems to engage young people and they want to know more,” says Sarbpreet, with a chuckle.
It is ironic the average Indian would know more about the wives of Henry the VIII or the abdication of Edward the VIII, when we have notable romances from the annals of our own history.
Both the girl’s family as well as the Sikh holy community were against the match and he had to submit to a ritual punishment. “It is surprising a king would jump through hoops to marry a lady of his choice. It just proves a person will do anything for love,” he says.
“There is no doubt the Maharaja was a practising Sikh whose psyche was deeply embedded in his faith. When the leader of the Akal was so incensed with the affair and decreed the king be given 100 lashes, he submitted not because it was good PR, but because he was a Sikh. The temporal authority of the Akal meant something to him even if he was king,” says the author who was in Bengaluru to launch his book.
Ranjit Singh never embarked on any endeavour without a reading from the Sikh holy book. The fact he followed this everyday practice among Sikhs is a telling example of his faith. Yet, this was used by the British to portray him as barbaric or backward.
At that time, Ranjit Singh’s territory extended from the borders of Afghanistan all the way to Punjab. While the British pride themselves on their self-projected image of fair play, they essentially defeated the Sikhs through treachery. Their private correspondence published much later provides ample evidence of this duplicity.
“Ranjit Singh was a great king and his personal peccadilloes were highlighted by the British to present him in poor light, even though they were the norm for a ruler of those times. I don’t believe in brushing personal foibles under the rug as that just makes out a person to be somebody they are not.
“Observer bias is always is bound to creep in no matter how objective you think you are, especially while capturing history. Some accounts have been contradictory and I’ve tried to present them in a balanced light,” he says.
The book presents that historic era from a different perspective and is the result of meticulous research. Sarbpreet wryly admits, “I couldn't have written this book 15 years ago. For all the research I've cited, I may have had to go to six different libraries and spend months at each. Thanks to the digitization and archiving of manuscripts, I have been able to collect various references as well as first person accounts by foreign visitors to Ranjit Singh’s court.
Sarbpreet who is wonderfully articulate and has impeccable diction, rues the fact that today’s generation are not fluent in their mother tongue. With that in mind, he began writing about Sikh history and published them as podcasts titled, ‘Story of the Sikhs’.
“Since it is an audio medium, I have the luxury of adding little clips of Indian classical music as well as Sikh sacred music, which is grounded in classical ragas,” he smiles. The podcasts came out about 15 months ago and has listeners from over 80 countries today.
Sarbpreet’s next book is a collection of short stories that examines the events of 1984 from different perspectives.
(The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia is published by Westland) and is available online and at all leading bookstores.)