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Manoj Barpujari
Date of Publish: 2015-07-10

Novelists are known to have tweaked history. But inconsistency with historical records, as in Alexandre Dumas’ Queen Margot, has been attributed to artistic freedom. In later works, such as Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers, writers have operated with even more freedom, mixing historical characters and settings with invented history and fantasy.

Award-winning Canadian novelist Balakrishna Naipaul's latest novel Sangam: The Jhansi Legacy (2014) can be discussed keeping similar perspective in mind. Set mostly in the second half of 19th century Trinidad, the novel takes recourse to inter-continental happenings of the time and mainly focuses on certain fallout of the unsuccessful Sepoy Mutiny in British-ruled Indian sub-continent and on servitude of indentured labourers of Indian origin in the Caribbean land. In doing so, Naipaul postulated an alternative to accepted historical presumptions regarding personalities such as Nana Saheb and Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi. History is silent about Nana Saheb's whereabouts after he fought alongside the Rani; and it serves a cue for the novel to take a flight to its West Indian ambiance.

In the prologue to this mammoth book, the writer tells about 'Mataji', his great grandmother coming to Trinidad through British Guiana and Suriname after serving her jail term in the Andaman Islands for her role in India's war of independence and closeness to Laxmibai. There she met the deported and confined Maharaja of Manipur. The penal settlement was built just after the Sepoy Mutiny. Freedom fighters taking part in various movements including Wahabi Movement and Manipuri Revolt were also deported to the Cellular Jail. However there is more than one incidental link with the northeast Indian state of Manipur in this storyline. Dipti – the younger version of Mataji – was born to the Raja of Manipur and as fate would have it, she was made a ward of the Meenakshi Mandir in Madurai where she learnt all the arts and letters catapulting herself to a Devadasi. Later she became a surrogate mother for Raja Rao, the husband of Rani Laxmibai. Then she became the legal wife of Deepak Maharajah Nyayapal, the Ayurveda doctor close to Rani Laxmibai and her husband. He treated Raja Rao for impotency. Deepak and Dipti made trips to Delhi as a secret link between the last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah, Laxmibai and others. The Rani's sons were passed off as twins belonging to Deepak and Dipti.

It was also revealed that the convicted Maharaja of Manipur who was sent to the Andamans usurped Dipti's father's throne with British help at first. She was assigned as house servant of the Maharaja who was actually her father’s cousin. During her duty time she used to chant verses from the Gita and the Ramayana taking inspiration from the stories of exiles of the Pandavas and Ramchandra. The Maharaja's solitary prison mansion reminded her of the accounts of Lord Byron's The Prisoner of Chillion. When, out of desperation, she screamed 'Hey Ram! Jai jai Ram!', the Maharaja complained about her as if she were a lunatic. After this complaint, she was allowed to work in the adjacent garden and it gave her an opportunity to befriend some Jarawa tribesmen. Eventually, she absconded and went far way trying to meet Nana Saheb secretly in British Guiana to get to her son Raju who, sent into hiding with associates, was said to be with Nana Saheb. The meeting did not take place but she found Raju and to avoid re-arrest, she stayed back in the Caribbean islands, assumed the new role of religious teacher to the indentured people (girmitiyas or coolies as they were called) and became popular as Mataji. Here too Naipaul takes the liberty of mixing facts with fiction, as rumours or myths mingle with some history and the writer's imagination. 

There are other important historical interpretations in the novel. The East Indians in Trinidad formed a part of the contract labourers in sugar plantations across the globe after the British House of Commons declared the end of African slavery. Naipaul rewrites history with Mataji finding out that French sugarcane planters were the first to bring field workers from India – the bulk from the French enclave of Pondicherry – to Trinidad, long before the island had changed hands from the French to the British. This fact is against popular discourses where first Indians' arrival date, under British auspices, was recorded as 30 May 1845. The novel also proudly conveys, as contrary to academic discourses, that the Indians did not come to Trinidad to escape poverty in India, but were deported by the colonial rulers and many of them were actually soldiers and prominent farmers who fought for Independence of India. Moreover, the novel takes a new turn when Mataji entrusts her disciples the task of reciting the Ramayana and explains that Hinduism flowed out of the subcontinent in a sangam or confluence to nourish the other major religions from their very inception.

Balakrishna Naipaul was born in Trinidad but educated in England and Canada. He is known for the differences of opinion with his much celebrated cousin, the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. He taught in a college in England before holding a high post at the United Nations. After taking voluntary retirement from the UN in 1998, he dedicated his time to fiction writing. In the meantime he published an international tabloid that existed for 10 years. His novels, nine till date, are recognised as literary beacons contributing to the Indo-Caribbean identity. In his semi-autobiographical novel The Mansion (2010), Balakrishna tells the story of a young pundit who demonstrates the power of meditation and yoga as integral to a system of education having roots in ancient India. This novel takes the reader to an inward journey where the mansion of the soul rather than the outward materialistic mansion becomes the motif. Sangam: The Jhansi Legacy (published by Global Publications, Toronto) can be reviewed in similar context but with an extended interpretation of the religious texts.

(Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist, poet and critic based in Guwahati. He was awarded a Trinidadian fellowship and visited the Caribbean country twice. He also won national award for best film critic in 2012 and Munin Borkataki award for literature in 2003.)

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