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Genetic strains

June 20, 2013

IT was there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. After centuries of infusion of blood obtained from the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Spanish, the Danes, the Greeks and even the Dutch, the British royal family has been revealed to possess also a minute strain of Indian blood.

Some assiduous British scientists, after taking saliva samples from maternal relations of Prince William (Duke of Cambridge and heir presumptive to the British throne) have discovered a direct DNA connection between the prince and an Indian woman of Armenian origin. Her name was Eliza Kewark. She served as housekeeper to Prince William’s maternal great-grandfather, a Scottish merchant called Theodore Forbes (1788-1820), who worked during the early 19th century for the East India Company in Surat.

This discovery will no doubt release a rush of adrenalin through the veins of Indian genealogists. Their enthusiasm may be short-lived. There is little political capital to be squeezed out of such desiccated linkages with an Imperial Great Britain. The shorter a country’s history, the more anxious its leaders sometimes are to advertise the connection between them and the countries of their origin. US president John Kennedy, proud of his Irish ancestry, took time off during a visit to the United Kingdom in 1963 to visit the Kennedy family's Irish homestead in Dunganstown, County Wexford.

There, after receiving the Freedom of the City of Galway, he spoke sentimentally to an Irish crowd whose ancestors (unlike his) had remained in Ireland: “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts.” In his eyes, what mattered were Irish votes in domestic US constituencies.

All eight of Kennedy’s great-grandparents came from Ireland. In President Barack Obama’s case, however, although his great-great-great grandfather had migrated also from Ireland, the linkage with Kenya was more direct. His late father was born there. Nothing would have made the Kenyans prouder than to welcome their own ‘son of the soil’ who has made good. While Obama as president has visited Africa once already in 2009 and is due to make a second visit this month, Kenya is not presently on his hit-list. His lack of interest is understandable. Kenyans did not vote him into the US presidency.

There was a time in a world of monarchies when gender and genes mattered. Queens could become monarchs only if there was no male claimant, whatever his age. The colour of genes had to be blue, blood preferably as blue-blooded as possible.

Today, the first-born is the first preference. Queen Elizabeth II has broken with British tradition and, following the Scandinavian pattern, has ensured that constitutionally her first great-grandchild — the eldest child of William and Catherine (Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) — will be the British monarch after his or her father.

Genes have been relegated to the Petri dish of scientific research. When, for example, the Russians sought to verify the remains of the last Romanov czar Nicholas II and his family who had been murdered in July 1918, DNA samples were obtained from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The last czarina Alexandra who perished with her husband had been his great-aunt.

The potential offered by DNA linkages is limited statistically speaking only by the number of humans and pre-humans who have ever lived on this planet. Technically, one could go back to the first humanoid, and beyond. Whatever may be the genetic pattern that emerges, it confirms a truth that every prophet, every sage, every philosopher has asserted: that man is simply an infinitesimal part of mankind — nothing more, nothing less, and that the human rind is merely a container for a softer, inner core of commonality.

Or as Jalaluddin Rumi put it so succinctly in his Divan-e-Shams:

“Did I not tell you, ‘I am the Sea and you are but a single fish’? “Do not be tempted ashore, for I am your Crystal Sea!”

Only scientists can tell us how long it will take them to trace the origins of each human, to find out whether they originated from Africa, Eurasia, China, or India.

Some wags have suggested that the current royalty of India — the King of Bollywood Shahrukh Khan and his wife Gauri — are planning to have a third child, this time using a surrogate mother. It would be ironical if it was discovered that this rent-a-womb mother had some traces of British DNA in her. It would in a sense be reciprocating a compliment paid to India over a century ago by the late Queen Mary (grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth).

As the Princess of Wales, Mary accompanied her husband George (later King-Emperor George V) to India over the winter of 1905-6. According to her biographer James Pope-Hennessy, she fell in love with India. “Even afterwards, a certain dreamy note would enter her voice when she spoke of India: ‘lovely India, beautiful India,’ she used to murmur like some incantation […] ‘When I die,’ she remarked at that time, in whimsical reminiscence of Queen Mary Tudor, ‘INDIA will be found written on my heart’.”

Modern DNA evidence has fulfilled her wish — albeit belatedly — through her great-great-grandson Prince William. India may not have been found engraved on her heart. A microscopic part of India, however, courses through his veins to his royal heart.

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.