Maharaja in Denims: Punjab’s turbulent history



For a state that is almost always intoxicated with the joy of living, Punjab’s historical narrative has seen very poignant and turbulent moments. The last two centuries have been rather action-packed, with the people bearing the brunt of partition, wars and terrorism. And intertwined with all this are stories of princely pride and royal lust.

This is the essence of the life and times of Punjab that Chandigarh-based author Khushwant Singh tries to capture in his latest book “Maharaja in Denims”. Though a fiction novel, the book traverses through facts of Punjab’s not so old history.

Hari, the young protagonist, becomes the medium through which the reader travels in history. Firmly entrenched in the present, Hari leads the life of any urbane, rich, free-spirited teenager. The canvas, however, changes colour as Hari starts getting flashes of his past lives and is able to vividly recount his past experiences – from being Punjab’s famous Maharaja Ranjit Singh to being a victim of Delhi’s infamous 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which thousands of Sikhs were killed by mobs for no fault of theirs. From that point onwards, the narrative totally captures the reader as he’s taken on a dramatic journey that provides an insight into the history of Punjab and modern India.

“He is not very tall, sports a small goatee, and is wearing a freshly starched white kurta-pyjama. I can hear the conversation. He seems to be telling my mother that Hindus are avenging the killing of Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister. But why kill innocents?” my mother is asking.

“Bhenji, since your husband has been supporting me in the elections, the only concession I can offer you is not let your daughter get killed and raped in front of your eyes. Baki to Karna padega…” The operation “Teach Sikhs a lesson” is under way.

As Hari’s life unfolds in the present times with his girlfriend Suzanne, the historical narrative also gradually spreads and describes incidents that have become an intimate part of the collective psychology of Punjab and its people. The writer interestingly interweaves Hari’s present-day story with snapshots of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s life, heroism and triumphs.

“Astride galloping horses, turbaned lancers shouting ‘Sat sri akal’ were dominating his subconscious mind when his mother made the first call for breakfast at about 10.30 a.m. The faint call is overpowered by the shriller voice of a puny little Sikh shouting ‘Chal Laili’ to his mare while urging his forces to charge full throttle. ‘Faujan agan vadho (forces move forward)!’ yelled the little sardar in his Pothwari accent, as he stood firmly on his stirrups, the horse charging at a full gallop towards a distant fort.”

Helped by Suzzane, who aspires to be a psychologist, Hari recalls and stumbles upon myriad secrets of his past lives that have a definite resonance in the present.

Even as Hari struggles to come to terms with these shocking revelations, writer Khushwant Singh deftly links the turbulent past of Punjab to its present day. The writing style is quick and racy with high doses of emotion, politics and sex. In the end the book leaves you with a definite sense of history being an indelible part of the present.

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