Time is a strange storyteller. It writes, erases and rewrites endlessly. Things change, places and people become unrecognisable, but stories are repeated endlessly.
Navgarh, too, has changed with time. Supermarkets and cyber cafés encroach and obliterate the most influential names of the old bazaar. The wide and well-lit roads meet at the central crossing of the bazaar where the ancient banyan, now trimmed and fenced, serves as a parking place for bicycles.
Besides these changes, the small town ethos are still strong. Everyone takes a deep interest in everyone’s life. Scandal mongering and gossiping are the favourite pastimes of the town.
Like its history, the changes in Navgarh too are shaped by its proximity to Delhi. A huge canal on the south east and a highway on the west of Navgarh are the umbilical cords that tie the township to the metropolis. Large quantities of raw material and cargo move on the highway between Delhi and Navgarh. The canal on the other side once joined the Navgarh jheel to river Yamuna in Delhi. It was built to ward off the flooding of the Yamuna but a miscalculation in the depth of the canal led the water to flow the other way. Within a year, the jheel had poured itself into the river. With the jheel disappeared the forests of Navgarh. Now the south of the town hosts a large sunken stretch of land, full of cracked yellow mud. It is the empty basin of the Navgarh jheel.
Beyond these paradoxes of modernisation, the past also lives on in Navgarh. Some colonial bungalows still exist in the cantonment area, but most are now unrecognizable. Beyond the arid basin of the jheel, stands the quila on the hilltop. It was once a site for adolescent adventure for the local lads till the Historical and Archaeological Survey, or HAS, cordoned it off for research and study. Since then, the quila has kept a lonely watch over the town.
These neglected old places were hosts to the only memorable event that had happened in Navgarh – the one recorded in history textbooks as a minor aside to the events of 1857.
‘The Battle of Navgarh was a subsidiary event of the mutiny in Delhi. In 1857, confident of the support of the then-Raja of Navgarh, the sepoys planned to attack the British troops besieging Delhi from the ridge outside the city. The sepoys from Delhi intended to move along the jheel under the cover of the forest and take the enemy by surprise.
‘But when the sepoys reached the outskirts of Navgarh, the Raja procrastinated. By the time, the rebel sepoys were allowed to enter Navgarh, their morale was low. Drenched in rain, famished and disoriented in the unfamiliar territory, they advanced, only to find that the enemy had anticipated the move. The British troops stormed the camp. On the other flank, another British regiment closed in and destroyed all the villages on the way, cutting off the routes of retreat or the possibility of local support. The old Raja of Navgarh surrendered and died a few days later.’
In letting the rebels enter the kingdom, Navgarh became complicit in the rebellion. Yet by delaying them, the Raja became a dubious character in the annals of Indian history – another royal thinking only about his kingdom.
But over the last few days, the story of the Indian princess married to a British officer had taken over Shiv’s imagination. On Saturday evening, he accompanied Amma to the temple. The ancient temple stood at the end of the eastern road – one of the four roads that forked from the banyan tree in the bazaar. Over a hundred years old now, the temple had fared well through the ravages of time. Its gleaming white shikhar stood tallest in the marketplace. Steps leading to the white marble platform were cleaned twice a day. The temple came alive every evening with smell of incense and flowers. In the sanctum sanctorum, the idols smiled on the gathering as if the loud aarti, the bells and conch shell had caught their attention.
Shiv stood with his head bowed after the aarti, trying to remember the last time he had attended the ritual. He wasn’t an atheist but God was a tricky question that he seldom paid attention to.
After the aarti, one of the younger pandits offered prasad to the devotees. Amma nodded towards the frail man with white hair sitting on a cot propped against the side wall of the temple. Bade Panditji. Shiv folded his hands and bowed in his direction. The old man raised his hand. Was it to bless or to indicate that they were to wait?
After taking the prasad, Shiv sat on the floor near the cot while Chotte Panditji brought a small stool for Amma. People continued to pay quick visits to the Gods and children returned for more prasad.
‘The last Raja died without any heir,’ Bade Panditji said when Shiv asked about the rulers of Navgarh. ‘That was the end of the kingdom. The angrez took over after that.’
‘But didn’t he have a daughter?’ Shiv looked at Amma for confirmation.
‘What could a girl have done? If there was a son, he would’ve become the Raja and the British wouldn’t have got Navgarh,’ Panditji answered.
Shiv refrained from pointing that despite the Rajas and Rajkumars all over India, the British did take over the country. Heir or no heir, Navgarh did not stand a chance. But Panditji was already looking sullen.
‘Suna hai, there was a Rajkumari,’ Amma took over from Shiv. ‘She married a firangi.’ Her tone was softer than usual. It smoothed a few creases on Panditji’s wrinkled forehead.
‘A daughter like that doesn’t count. This is what happens when you thrust a man’s job on a girl… pollution in the family, the throne, the whole town.’ Panditji was visibly unhappy about the topic.
‘That means the king had a daughter,’ Shiv caught the inconsistency. ‘And she married an angrez.’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard of her. Never.’ Panditji looked the other way.
‘But you said she polluted…’
‘Then why remember her?’ Panditji snapped. Amma frowned at Shiv. ‘Even if there was a girl like that, the family would’ve become untouchable after the marriage. Even a royal family.’
‘But if the king had agreed to the marriage…’ Shiv prodded further.
‘Arre, the king and the royal family of Navgarh were God-fearing Hindus. Poojas were held day and night. They built this temple.’ Panditji looked at Shiv with irritation. ‘There was no such girl. What you’re saying never happened. Such a marriage is not possible – not even today, how can you think such a thing happened back then?’
A sharp silence followed the outburst. Panditji folded his arms and bowed in Amma’s direction, before closing his eyes and leaning back to rest against the wall. The interview was over. Amma and Shiv got up, once again bowed to the idols in the sanctum and stepped out.
‘Why was he angry?’ muttered Shiv on the way back. ‘Why protest so much? And the inconsistency when he mentioned the princess… it is obvious that he knows the truth and would deny it.’
‘Or does not want to remember.’
‘But why? Just because she was a girl and…’
‘And she married an Englishman,’ Amma shrugged. ‘Whatever her reasons, Shiv, you must realise that such things aren’t accepted in the small towns of India. Why, even an inter-caste marriage can lead to riots. And the princess married an angrez. Panditji must be a century old. Did you expect a eulogy?’
‘He said that the king thrust a man’s job on a girl and she brought disgrace…’ Shiv mused.
‘The fact that he does not remember tells much more about Rajkumari Meera. Now I’m certain there is some truth in this old piece of gossip.’
Walking through the bazaar, pondering over the existence of a princess who had been erased from Navgarh’s history, Shiv noticed the hoarding that dominated the marketplace. A 20 feet tall Mahesh Chander, the member of the State Legislative Assembly from Navgarh, greeted the people with folded hands and a kind smile.
‘Doesn’t he trace his lineage back to the royal family?’ Shiv pointed at the hoarding.
Amma frowned at the picture. ‘Yes, he does.’
The poster emphasised the humility and kindness in the face. But there was a hint of stubbornness in the eyes and the jutting nose. The hair and the moustache were painted black to make the man seem young and energetic.
Mahesh Chander and his family had held the reins of political leadership in Navgarh since India’s independence. They claimed to be the kinsmen of Raja Bhanu Pratap, descending from his nephew and heir apparent Jai Chander Pratap. The family had lived in the zenana palace of the quila before being evicted by HAS. Later, the Chanders entered into a legal dispute with HAS over the property. The case was still pending in the court.
A large part of Chander’s political influence in Navgarh came from his royal lineage. It was strengthened by Gyan Chander, Mahesh Chander’s grandfather, a local legend who had walked along with Mahatma Gandhi to the Dandi coast to break the salt laws. After Independence, Gyan Chander assumed the leadership of Navgarh as its elected representative.
This mix of royalty and patriotism sealed the ideologies of Navgarh’s political leadership. While his grandfather had fought to free India from the British yoke, Mahesh Chander saw himself as the guardian of that freedom. Mahesh and his followers wore their Indian-ness literally – from the khadi clothes to their vociferous support against any tampering with the local customs. After three generations of being in power, Chander saw Navgarh as his personal kingdom; he knew what the people wanted, what was good for them.
‘It would be interesting to talk to Chander. Don’t you think so?’ Shiv asked as he and Amma entered the haveli.
Amma did not look eager. ‘I wonder if he knows anything. He is pretty conservative, not very different from Panditji. And he is always busy.’
Amma’s Women’s Centre repeatedly invited Mahesh Chander for inaugurating their projects. Support of the local government was essential for the organisation. But Chander always sent his ‘earnest’ wishes and promised to be a part of the future projects. No, Amma did not think it would be easy to meet him.
Shiv shelved the thought for the time being. Perhaps he could meet the politician sometime in the future.
Coming soon: On September 1, 2017.
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