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In The 'Name' Of Redemption

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The Prince And The Sannyasi by Partha Chatterjee combines the best of several genres. As a historical mystery, this novel is a captivating portrait of Bengal in the first half of the 20th century and an engrossing plot plunged in suspense. It is also a political thriller, which has elements of family saga. The book traces the account of a an unusual trial  of great importance in the Indian history that dragged on for a quarter century, covered huge number of witnesses and ran into 26 printed volumes. Though the novel has all the inherent complexities that one can ask for in a historical novel from Chatterjee, he manages to refrain from making it a heavy, burdensome read.

Though, Chatterjee, one of the world's major historians, presents a detailed view on a wide range of themes, the significant emphasis on the issue of identity crisis. In presenting such a serious theme, he never fails to fulfil the requirements of fine readability. He writes: My story also addresses the philosophical problem of identity, but not in the hypothetical mode preferred by analytical philosophers. Rather, it confronts the abstract universalism of philosophical analysis with the narrative density of a true story.
The Prince And The Sannyasi is a reformatted version of a book first published ten years ago, The Princely Impostor: The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism.  The book recapitulates the story of a man who fought the legal system to reclaim his identity. The backdrop is essentially the growing nationalist struggle against foreign rule and over the course of the book one gets a detailed view about late colonial India: the economic and political underpinnings of princely estates like Bhawal; the interactions amongst the Indian aristocracy, the emerging middle Bengali classes and the British. The book is a long read with almost 600 pages, but the story flows effortlessly that pulls at one's emotions.

In 1909, Ramendra Narayan, the second Kumar of Bhawal, a small principality near Dhaka (then spelled as Dacca), was believed to have died suddenly while recovering from syphilis in Darjeeling. His family was not present at his death and he was cremated before any of them could reach Darjeeling. There were several eyewitnesses, including both Indian and English doctors, who signed off on the death certificate. But The Bhawal prince's untimely death was never fully accepted and doubts circulated for years, and they reached a breaking point in 1921, when a dreadlocked, Hindi-speaking  sannyasi(ascetic) showed up in Dhaka who bore a striking resemblance to the supposedly deceased Kumar. Two weeks later, he made the surprising statement that he was Ramendra Narayan. The colonial rulers were highly cynical of the claim. All his family members except Ramendra Narayan's wife welcomed him back.

What followed in detail are the epic court battles over the question of the sannyasi's identity. Finally Kumar Ramendra Narayan was able to prove his own identity, who after a few days died of a stroke. Chatterjee narrates a clear-cut story, providing  the necessary context and character sketches of the principal actors to endow the story with meaning. He breaks the narrative at two points. One is a long rambling part, placed strategically on the philosophical problems of establishing anyone's identity. The other break comes in a sub-section in which Chatterjee links his story with the history of nationalism. This section does not take away from the story but enriches the readers' understanding of what was going on in the Bhawal case. The book is structured in such a way that it is indeed possible to read it skipping philosophical sections. It is a good tale well told, which leaves the reader at the end just a little wiser.