Maharaja in Denims – Khushwant Singh
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The racy historical fiction by author Khushwant Singh struck me as fresh, contemporary and intriguing all at the same time. Maharaja in Denims, with its unique style and narrative, comes across as a whiff of fresh air in the telling of an eventful but otherwise well-known history.
It talks about the turbulent times in Punjab’s history of the past two centuries, even as the story moves in the present as well as the future. Hari is an 18 year old rich, lusty, high-spirited teenager in Chandigarh who suddenly finds himself getting flashes of his past life, the life of Punjab’s Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Hari believes himself to be a reincarnation of the Maharaja as he recalls details of his harem, his conquests and valor and confesses them to his girlfriend Suzzanne, a student of psychlogy.
Suzzanne convinces Hari to undergo past life regression and is shocked to discover that Hari had more than one tumultous past lives. Hari recalls the horror of Delhi’s Sikh riots of 1984, post the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the barbaric and tragic killings during partition. Politics and religious extremism reigned supreme as Punjab bled and its heart cried. ‘Is this the price you paid for being a Maharaja in one of your previous births – being lynched by a mob?’, asked a horrified Suzzanne.
The narrative juggles swiftly between Ranjit Singh’s life of two centuries ago and Hari’s present life. There is dating, sex, and an ample dose of Punjabi lingo. The present appears extremely pleasant in the wake of a seething past, as both Hari and Suzzanne struggle to come to terms with it.
All through the story, Punjab holds centerstage, and what is revealed through a deftly written fiction are well-researched historical facts, presented to the user straight, yet subtle. The story moves quickly to England and then to Mumbai, following shocking revelations of the future towards the end.
The book is a brilliant example of the interlinking of the past, present and the future, of history and fiction, and lays down the bottomline that some events in history can never be forgotten. The story is bold, intense and modern.