This is the ultimate familiar 'who dunnit it' crime thriller in all of Bengal's history. A real-time drama, it carries all critical ingredients for any best-selling literary product. A dramatic scenario consists of many facts - some verified and some linger in the gray area open to interpretation. Many innuendoes, some credible and as many rumours circulating in the palace raj bari as in the bazaars. Elements and incidents of affairs, alcoholism, amnesia, arsenic, bankruptcy, Himalaya hill station location, incest, infertility, inclement weather, murder, poisoning, revenge, syphilis; created a cocktail that was and remains to this day - an historical hysteria devoured by generations. A century plus old mysterious narrative still invokes curiosity. Only Agatha Christie could have concocted an equally brilliant fictional account of a masterful mystery.
In 2005, I had reviewed 'A prince, poison and two funerals' written by Murad Fyzee (2003). The cover blurb read: 'True story of the incredible court room drama which made legal history during the last days of the Raj.' The sensational account is marked by numerous indicators 'of the royal high ground' pursued by the Rajas of Bhawal, at their sprawling estate in Jaidevpur in East Bengal; in Dacca, its principal city and Calcutta, the cosmopolitan capital city of Bengal. Growing up abroad, childhood memories were rekindled with my mother's narration of this 'local' tale of 'The Bhawal Sanyasi.' I recall the incredibly fascinating stage imaged by my mother. To this day - I like countless others remain beguiled by the social setting of a bygone era, the human frailties of greed and guile, a volatile British India institutional changes, socio-political environment and the historical legal drama that entailed a number of court cases in India; with the Privy Council's final ruling in London in 1946.
The second son of the second largest landlord in East Bengal suffers from syphilis. Seeking a changed scenario, Prince Ramendranarayan Roy and his entourage in 1909 seek the cooler climes of Darjeeling in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya mountain range. Generally in poor health, the prince expires. Was the prince misdiagnosed, over-medicated unknowingly or deliberately poisoned? There lies the overwhelming question. Same night in the forested area during torrential rains, a funeral takes place. Or does it? For next morning, an abandoned corpse comes alive and is nursed by wandering sanyasis. Twelve years of living a mendicant life, moving from site to site in India with a group of sanyasis while living on alms, the man turns up in Dacca. So begins the treacherous tale.
Aruna Chakravarti provides a fresh eye in decoding the immersive saga of an extended family's agony and sadness, conflicting takes on the veracity of a mendicant's sudden appearance following a decade plus absence, the slow recollection of his ancestry, his past life that included his young wife Bibhavati and his family's and community's subsequent acceptance and recognition of his claim to be the veritable inheritor - the Raja of Bhawal. She adds body to the many characters in the long narrative; interpreting information, 'filling in the gaps' and provides an insight to be gathered. Whether kith and kin - via blood or marriage; her 'Cast of Characters' - numbering 37 are fictionally fleshed out; projecting diverse layers of personality makeup. Dark corners of family links are conveyed - most realistically within the inner networks of a titled and internal dysfunctional family. Conflict, intrigue, rivalry, remain human attributes that the author endows the extended family. She recreates a beguiling backdrop in the blurring of fact and fiction resulting in a rich literary landscape.
Ramendranarayan Roy's wife Bibhavati never accepted the claim by the twelve year absentee amnesia afflicted sanyasi and his current recall of the past and now claim to be her husband and heir to the extensive royal estate. The final Privy Council ruling in London in 1946 did not alter her decision. She never met the man who returned to Dacca. Following her husband's 'demise' she left the princely premises of Jaidevpur for Calcutta with her brother Satyendranath Banerjee; never to return. She rejected any financial assets from the princely estate. In the words of Aruna Chakravarti "She maintained a studied silence." For Bibhavati, her husband had died in 1909 in Darjeeling. Inferences and innuendoes pursued the 'widow' all her life. Had she been in an incestuous relationship with her brother?
The following extract well-illustrates Bibhayati in the restrictive and fragile situation in which she finds herself following her husband's 'demise.' Sir Leonard Costello, a judge of the Calcutta High Court considers: "Bibhavati Debi's case, he said was not that of an ordinary Bengali widow's, whose life of enforced abstinence would have improved if a long-lost husband was found again. She had been the wife of a man who had shamed and dishonoured her, spent his time with low companions and loose women and suffered from a foul disease. It was psychologically quite tenable for a highborn, sensitive lady like her to prefer a life of dignity, albeit with some privations, as an esteemed member of her brother's family."
Chakraverti continues in true tradition the lingering limbo within the mystery. Even the literary construction of 'The Mendicant Prince' leaves the reader still hanging on the limb: as to 'who dunnit.' She does present the conclusion that Prince Ramendranarayan and the Mendicant was one and the same individual. For she, closes her version of the long standing mystery; with the words of the prince's second wife Dhara: "The people of Bengal had given Raja Ramendranarayan Roy, ruler of the kingdom of Bhawal, a new name. A name that would go down in history. A name he would be known for all time to come. Sannyasi Raja!" He had 'expired' for a second time at the Kali temple in Calcutta two days following London's legal declaration: "he was who he claimed to be." Other accounts have claimed 'divine justice' for 'a princely impostor.' Aruna Chakraverti has admirably recounted the not so hidden history, while simultaneously engaging in the endurance of a tale; expanding the facts with elaborate elements of fiction, in an hyper realistic approach. 'The Mendicant Prince' reads differently.
Raana Haider is a published author. Amongst other publications, 'India: Beyond the Taj and the Raj' was published by University Press Limited (UPL), Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013. She is also an active book review contributor.
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