Ordinary stories can hold one’s attention if told by a storyteller who knows the art of narration. But stories from a monarch’s court surrounded by mystique can be thrillingly fascinating. Originating from a centre of power they can be a good index of human wisdom and stupidity, generosity and lust, and compassion and cruelty. They can have magnetic quality when they are from your land and not from the distant past such as you find in the Sarbpreet Singh’s book titled ‘The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia’. It brings to life the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh by portraying what he calls ‘the colourful characters who populated his court’.

Sarbpreet Singh, blurb tells us, is a US-based poet, playwright and commentator. The narrative encompasses a wide range of stunning characters; adventurers from USA, Dogra soldiers from Jammu, military officers from France and Italy, princes, ranis, courtesans, warlords and generals.

The book begins with eponymous character Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Pennsylvania. This ambitious putative camel merchant joined the East India Company, went to Afghanistan to help depose Emir Dost Muhammad, failed, got employed by Ranjit Singh, and rose to be governor of Gujrat. He was eventually sacked and expelled from Punjab. “ Once again Harlan found himself in the British-controlled town of Ludhiana, penniless and powerless after having enjoyed seven years of wealth and luxury in the service of one of the greatest courts of the time…”.

The account reaffirms something already known: In the 19th century South Asia there was no concept of nation state. Coming from anywhere you would be anything if you could serve the ruler in some way.

In the next chapter “Games of Thrones: The Afghans and the Sikhs”, we find Ahmed Shah Durrani’s rise to power, his Indian invasions and rise of the Sikhs in the ensuing anarchy. “During his reign he crossed the Indus eight times to attack and plunder Punjab, his forays taking him all the way to Delhi”, writes Sarbpreet.

The great victory of Ahmed Shah over Marathas resulted in unintended consequences. “The valour of the Marathas came to naught. They were routed by the Afghans and their power shattered forever. The irony was that it was not the victorious Sadozai King, Ahmed Shah Durrani, who benefited from the defeat of Marathas”.

In another chapter we come across a religiously inspired fierce Sikh warrior Akali Phoola Singh who displayed unprecedented courage in many a battle. He did enter Rajit Singh’s service but was so independent-minded that he would find it hard to submit to anyone’s authority, even that of a king.

Quoting Fakir Waheeduddin Sarbpreet Singh writes that “Phoola Singh and his Akalis were difficult men to get along with. Their way of life seemed paradoxical because on the one hand they were humble and pious people…. while on the other hand they believed that they were entitled to extract from the community whatever they needed for their upkeep”. The uneasy relationship which existed between Phoola and Ranjit Singh indicates the nexus of interests between rulers and holy men that has been there in this part of the world for thousands of years.

Ranjit Singh got so enamoured of a Muslim dancing girl named Moran that the whole affair became scandalous. It appalled the hoity-toity at the court and the pious among the Sikhs but no one dared even to talk around the issue with him. When a notable of Lahore Mehar Mohkan- ud-din, who had helped Ranjit in capturing Lahore and was addressed by him as Baba, did dare to broach the subject ‘Ranjit Singh became furious. Mehar’s title of Baba was withdrawn, he was sentenced to hard labour in jail, and find Rs10,000 and his land were confiscated”.

That Maharaja was receptive to new ideas and wanted to modernise his army is testified by the presence of a military man who came from Waterloo to Lahore. In the words of author “of all the ‘firangees’ or foreigners in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s employ, none was more dear to him than Jean Francois Allard” who loved war as well as local women and culture.

Account of the rise and fall of Dogras of Jammu at Lahore Durbar introduces us to the inner working of the court and bloody factional politics and internecine wars. The story of the ablest and most powerful woman who ends up as powerless reduced to marginal existence reveals how ruthless could be the dictates of power. Sade Kaur, the matriarch of Kanhaya Misl and mother-in-law of Ranjit Singh was in a way what Beram Khan was to young Akbar and met almost a similar kind of end. In the wake of Shah Zaman’s invasion the grand council of the Sikhs was convened. Addressing the powerful warlords this is what this grand gutsy lady had to say:” If you are disposed to assist Ranjit Singh, advance and join him, if not, throw off that dress and take mine; give me your cloths and I will march against the enemy”. The second last chapter of the book focuses on the characters who emerged on the stage in the aftermath of Maharaja’s death. No one succeeded in stemming the avalanche of chaos that followed the monarch’s demise. It was inevitable as Maharaja failed like other rulers in the subcontinent to build state institutions that could ensure the peaceful transfer of power in an organised manner.

Lastly we meet Lal Singh and Tej Sigh, the traitors and collaborators, who in their lust to safeguards their interests, conspired with the East India Company and stabbed the Punjab’s army in the back when the colonial forces attacked the last sovereign state in the region.

History told through the depiction of characters reads like fiction. Sarbpreet Singh deserves accolades for recreating an important era of our history which can be palatable to both historians and lay public. He is a competent raconteur and has much to tell. The book is a highly rewarding read. It must be on your shelf. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2020

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