A right royal epic of life and death

June 20, 2003

One of the famous cases of identity theft in English law concerns the "Tichborne claimant". In the 1870s, Arthur Orton pretended to be Roger Tichborne of Hampshire and was supported in his claim by a close female relative of Tichborne. Eventually Orton was exposed and received a sentence of 14 years in prison for perjury.

The case of the "Bhawal sanyasi", the subject of Partha Chatterjee's A Princely Impostor? , attracted similar attention in colonial Bengal in the 1920s, becoming a long-running juicy scandal. In 1921, a wandering sanyasi (holy man) claimed to be the kumar (prince) of Bhawal, a small state in the eastern district of Dhaka in what was then East Bengal (now Bangladesh).

The wealthy prince had supposedly died from syphilis and been cremated in Darjeeling in May 1909, with witnesses, but there was doubt as to the identity of the cremated body and the reliability of the death certificate issued by an English doctor, who may or may not have been present at the time of death. The claimant said he had been rescued by sanyasis who found him as an abandoned rain-soaked corpse in the cremation ground and later initiated him into their beliefs. For Bengalis, such a claim was not inherently incredible, indeed Rabindranath Tagore had written a popular short story, "Living Yet Dead", on a similar theme in 1892. More importantly, when the sanyasi appeared in Bhawal in 1921, some members of the princely family and acquaintances declared themselves convinced he was genuine. But his widow did not accept the man as her husband. To complicate matters, she had received payment after his death from the Glasgow Life Insurance Company.

The process of untangling the knot surrounding the man's identity - and thereby proving or disproving his claim to a large inheritance - continued for more than 25 years in the courts of Dhaka and Calcutta and, finally, in the Privy Council in London. Besides generating 26 volumes of legal evidence, the case became a daily staple of newspapers in both Bengali and English. It also produced, following the literary tradition of Bengal, a considerable body of popular literature in the form of pamphlets and poems that spoke for and against the claimant, as well as satirising the claims of both parties, while itinerant singers composed folk ballads.

The key questions were, of course, was the sanyasi really the prince of Bhawal, and what had happened in Darjeeling in 1909? The evidence of persons who had known the prince was clearly important in answering the first question, as was the claimant's: for example could he recall the name of the prince's wet nurse and intimate physical marks on "his" wife's body? The answer to the second question depended more on factual inquiries as to whether, for instance, there had been heavy rainfall in Darjeeling on the night of his "cremation". (There was no definitive record of rainfall on that night.) The courts explored the possibility that the sanyasi was a Punjabi impostor who spoke little Bengali and knew hardly anything about the aristocratic lifestyle of Bengal. In the end, surprisingly, the plaintiff was successful. But within days of the judgement in August 1946, he died of a heart attack, thereby fulfilling the prediction of astrologers in Benares who had told the prince's widow that the claimant would win the case but be unable to enjoy his new-found wealth. She herself, though legally entitled to the inheritance after the claimant's death, refused to accept it.

Chatterjee, besides narrating the story with all its twists and turns, delves into the metaphysical issues surrounding proof of identity and into the dynamics of western legal systems operating in an alien social and cultural framework. He analyses with insight the psyche of the witnesses, as well as the presuppositions of the judges, British and Indian. But he offers no opinion as to whether the claimant was genuine or not.

Like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon , Chatterjee's narrative refracts the complicated story through the prisms of the many participants in the trial. Despite its unnecessary length, the book is an important record of colonial legal history.

Krishna Dutta has written extensively on Bengal, especially on Rabindranath Tagore.

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