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Sunday 31 August 2014
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Mysterious trail

Prema Nandakumar

The Prince and the Sannyasi Partha Chatterjee Hachette 2011, pp 674 395

May 8, 1909. Entire Bengal, indeed the whole of India was celebrating. Just two days earlier, C P Beachcroft has delivered his judgement on the celebrated Alipore Bomb Case acquitting Sri Aurobindo from charges of sedition. Little did anyone know that just then, untouched by all the political developments in the nation, a private tragedy was taking place in Darjeeling which would lead to another famous court battle, the Bhowal Sanyasi Case. It would become the hottest topic for discussion everywhere for nearly 20 years.

My father loved to tell me, how as a young man teaching in Lingaraj College, Belgaum, he had followed the case day after day with mounting excitement. Later on, I read avidly about the case through Tara Ali Baig’s fascinating Moon in Rahu. If truth is stranger than fiction, here is a truth that still remains in the folds of fiction. On May 8, 1909, an East Bengal zamindar Ramendra Narayan Roy had died in Darjeeling. When the body of  Ramendra was taken to the cremation ground, there had been a sudden hailstorm. The party left the bier unattended for a while when they took shelter nearby. When they came back, the corpse was gone. However, a funeral party had indeed carried a body to the cremation ground on the following morning and performed the last rites. Was it Ramendra’s?

Since a retinue of 21 servants had gone with Ramendra to Darjeeling, there was bound to be some loose talk. Ramendra’s wife Bibhavati was too young and her elder brother Satyendra had taken charge of the arrangements. Back in the ancestral house at Jaidevpore, the funeral ceremonies were performed, the young widow went to Calcutta to live in her natal home and that was the end of the matter.


So it was for 12 years. In 1921, a sanyasi clad in a single dhoti turned up in Dhaka claiming to be Ramendra. He was recognised as such by most of his tenants, his sisters and their family. When he was called an imposter by the widow’s party, he went to court and won his case in the district court at Dhaka. Unswayed by public opinion for or against the sanyasi, Pannalal Basu conducted the case with clinical accuracy and delivered a judgement that can be described only as a superhuman feat for “even by the admittedly impressive standards of legal loquacity in India, the volume of evidence produced in the Bhowal case was unprecedented.” The defendents went on appeal at the High Court in Kolkata. The special bench hearing it consisted of Sir Leonard Costello, C C Biswas and R F Lodge. Eminent lawyers represented the two parties. About 164 days of hearing and when the judgement was delivered, it was 1939! The 3,00,000-word judgement of Justice Biswas paid an eloquent tribute to Pannalal Basu: “I have read and re-read his judgement several times over, and it is no small tribute to the care, thoroughness and vigilant attention he brought to the consideration of the case that I was unable to trace a single error of fact in his judgement”.  Looks as though our judiciary is still a matter of pride for us, thanks to the highly educative 2G Scam!

Perhaps, the colonial mindset of A N Chaudhuri arguing for the widow was an irritant and went against the appeal. Undeterred, Bhibhavati went to the Privy Council. She lost again (Justice Costello wrote the judgement), but the sanyasi, now proved legally as Ramendra Narayan Roy, died within a couple of days after he had gone to worship at a temple. Partha Chatterjee’s is a thorough study of the documents belonging to the case and his balanced assessment (bringing in a political and sociological approach as well) of the entire legal phenomenon tied to an intensely human situation is as fascinating as a Wilkie Collins mystery. Was Ramendra poisoned? Did it rain in Darjeeling on the night of May 8, 1909? Partha leaves yet another question for us on the last page of this sumptuous volume: Was the sanyasi a by-blow of Ramendra’s father Rajendra Narayan? Will we ever know the truth inspite of the brilliant recreation in The Prince and the Sannyasi?

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