The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia

An upscale bed and breakfast place in fashionable Saint Tropez, France, was once the estate of Jean Francois Allard and his wife, the princess Bannou Pan Dei of Chamba. Allard, once an officer in Napoleon’s army, became a close military and political adviser to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and helped train the Khalsa Army. After marrying Bannou Pan Dei, he settled her in France, where she converted to Christianity and became the godchild of the king and queen. Though Allard returned to Punjab and died there in 1839, his wife refused to accept it, and would walk down to the seaside in France every evening to wait for him.


Allard was not the only foreign adventurer in the colourful Lahore court. There were several others—Jean Baptiste Ventura, Paolo Avitabile and Alexander Gardner were some of the best known among them. And Josiah Harlan, the Quaker from Philadelphia whose story gives the book its intriguing title. He served—with scarcely any medical education—as doctor to the king and wanted to give him galvanic treatment. Harlan later assumed political responsibilities but eventually fell out of favour and returned to America, to an inglorious end.


Ranjit Singh’s court did not really need a foreign hand to give it sex appeal. He was surrounded by splendidly-dressed courtiers, neck-deep in intrigue and rivalry. There were the wily Dogras—Rajas Dhian Singh, Gulab Singh and Suchet Singh—as well as the young Hira Singh, Ranjit Singh’s favourite. Then there were the Sikh chiefs, among them the Sandhawalias and Attariwalas; the Fakir brothers Azizuddin, Imamuddin and Nurudeen; and, of course, the princes, his acknowledged sons. There were the queens, each more beautiful than the other, down to the mercurial Rani Jindan who was to play a major role during the fading years of the Sikh kingdom leading to the annexation of Punjab. And the ‘nautch girls’—the courtesans of Hira Mandi. The most bewitching among them was Moran, the young Muslim girl with whom Ranjit Singh fell head over heels in love and later married, much to everyone’s consternation. Waiting on the sidelines were the British, until Punjab—hollowed out by internecine rivalry, intrigue and deception, engineered at least in part by them—fell into their hands.


Sarbpreet Singh’s commendable effort weaves together these stories to bring out the complex and multi-faceted personality of the Lion of Punjab, who carved out and ruled one of the most powerful kingdoms in Hindustan. The author effectively mines the accounts of historians like the court diarist Sohan Lal Suri, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Hari Ram Gupta and Khushwant Singh. And those left by several wide-eyed European visitors, although these are not always the most reliable as historical sources, as they are often spiced up with mirch-masala, hearsay and bazaar gossip. They are also vulnerable to bias against the oriental way of life and have a tendency to magnify the role of the narrator. Fortunately, the author has no pretensions that he is writing a definitive history, and the accounts, at times exaggerated or contradictory, can be allowed to jostle with each other.


Tighter editing would certainly have improved the arrangement of the book by removing overlaps and extra historical padding. Closer fact checking will help the next edition. For one, the Kohinoor was never bequeathed to the Jagannath temple by the maharaja. He wanted to, but the courtiers demurred and stalled the move. Secondly, Duleep Singh went in exile to London alone and not with Shiv Dev Singh (his nephew and not his cousin, as the book says). That was the plan, but Shiv Dev’s mother, Rani Dukhno, got cold feet at the last minute.


THE CAMEL MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA

By Sarbpreet Singh

Published by Tranquebar (Westland)

Price Rs699; pages 242