The man who would be king

PARTHA CHATTERJEE'S account of the Bhawal case, one of the most celebrated in British India, makes a marvellous book. Richly documented, absorbingly developed, and beautifully written, this is narrative of the highest order, likely to become a classic of its kind. It is the book, one might say, that the history itself has been awaiting. The history is remarkable by any account. Ramendra Narayan Ray, the second Kumar of Bhawal, a substantial zamindari estate in the Dhaka district of East Bengal, was declared to have died of an illness in Darjeeling in 1909. Twelve years later, in 1921, a sadhu resembling the dead Kumar arrived in the town of Dhaka. Brought to the family seat at Jaidebpur, he was identified as the Kumar by his sister, amidst popular rejoicing. His claim, however, was denied by the imperial administrators of the Bhawal estate, the Court of Wards.

Subsequently, the widow of the dead man, now living in her brother's house in Calcutta, also refused to acknowledge the sannyasi as her husband. In 1930 the sadhu, supported by the sisters and elder sister-in-law of the Kumar, filed a declaratory suit in Dhaka claiming the name and property of Ramendra Narayan Ray. Judgement was delivered in favour of the plaintiff in 1936. The widow appealed to the Calcutta High Court, and later to the Privy Council in London, but lost there as well. After the news of the Privy Council judgment in 1946, the successful claimant went to the Thanthania Kali temple to offer a puja, but died of a stroke on the way home. Had the goddess vindicated the widow's stand? The case caught the popular imagination in a quite extraordinary fashion.

Large numbers of common people, including most tenants of the Bhawal estate, supported the sannyasi's claim. The tale became the subject of songs, pamphlets, verses sold in trains and on the streets, and popular fiction. I heard the story as a child from my mother who had grown up in Dhaka while the case was being fought. As late as 1975, Uttam Kumar starred in a Bengali film as the Sannyasi Raja. Partha Chatterjee's scrupulous historical reworking of these events focuses on many of the most fascinating questions they raised; questions of evidence and proof, of motive and interest, of recognition and identity. On this last problem he supplies a long philosophical excursus, summarising contemporary Western arguments as well as notions in Nyaya philosophy. Yet the metaphysical question of identity is finally less relevant to the construction of truth than the mode by which the Bhawal case was absorbed into public understanding. This point is crucial to the historian's, as to the judge's, reading of evidence. As Chatterjee notes, the case itself reproduced features of the classic "return of the missing heir" tale: tied inextricably to the materiality of proof, it fitted the form of a fiction.

The most famous immediate parallel was the jaal Pratapchand story involving the Burdwan rajbari, but there were others too.

British judges cited the case of the Tichborne claimant. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis investigated, as part of the research for a film, a case from 16th-century France. One question raised by these parallels and deeply related to the whole problem of truth in narrative history, is that of the narrative compulsions that produce the phenomenon of persuasion, whether in the public mind or in a courtroom. A majority of the judges in the Bhawal case decided in favour of the claimant, yet in every other parallel instance the claimant was judged to be an impostor. As Chatterjee shows in his reading of the judgements of the Dhaka district judge, Pannalal Basu, and those who decided on the appeal, Biswas, Lodge and Costello, their verdicts depended on how far each was persuaded by a particular narrative plausibility: a sister's honesty, a brother's villainy.

Each brought to his judgment an assumption of local knowledge. If, as Chatterjee argues, the Indian judges felt surer of their ground, they were also more open to the persuasions of public sentiment. The most puzzling feature of the Bhawal case is then the verdict of three courts in the sannyasi's favour.

To explain this, Partha Chatterjee has recourse to his more contentious sub-text: the secret history of Indian nationalism.

Briefly, the argument is that the Indian judges used the Bhawal case to assert, in a period when India was moving towards self-government, their own ability to understand and weigh evidence, to assess local factors, and to decide on truth in a way that reflected their nationalist convictions. The Privy Council's verdict confirmed this capacity of Indian courts to decide their own affairs. I must say at once that I am not persuaded by this argument, in fact the least part of his brilliant book. No contemporary witness I have spoken to thought that the Bhawal judgment reflected nationalist concerns, though popular and official responses to the case were naturally decided by various interests and motives. On the whole, Chatterjee's effort to drag the case into the history, secret or otherwise, of nationalism in Bengal seems unnecessary.

His history, richly sourced, philosophically nuanced, thoughtfully written, can stand on its own. It does not need to become the sub-text of another grand narrative.

A Princely Impostor? The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism, Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, 2002, p.429, Rs. 595.

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