In May 1909, a twenty-five year old man named Ramendranarayan Roy died in Darjeeling, where he had gone at his doctor’s advice for a change of air. With him were his wife Bibhabavati and her brother Satyendranath, along with a young doctor and a large retinue of servants. Ramendranarayan Roy, after all, was no ordinary commoner: he was a prince, the second of the three ruling princes of the large and wealthy Bhawal estate, in what is now Bangladesh. Syphilis had led to the ill health of the ‘mejo kumar’, the ‘middle prince’, as he was referred to, though, when he died in Darjeeling, the immediate cause of his death lay elsewhere: possibly gallstones.

News of his death and subsequent cremation was sent to the estate in Bhawal, and Ramendranarayan Roy was duly mourned. Soon, however, rumours began drifting about, pointing to some uncertainty about the mejo kumar’s death and cremation. These were eventually brushed aside, and the royal family of Bhawal went back to life as usual, though now fraught with strain: Ramendranarayan’s brothers, the elder prince and the younger, died without heirs, and their widows moved out of the palace. Meanwhile, Bibhavati too left to live in the home of her brother Satyendranath.

Fictionalisation of a legendary legal battle

In 1921, twelve years after the death of Ramendranarayan Roy, a fair-skinned, dreadlocked mendicant named Sundardas turned up in Bhawal. His resemblance to Ramendranarayan Roy was remarked upon, and eventually several members of his family, including his sisters, identified the sanyasi as the mejo kumar. This led, over the years, to a case being filed (by none other than Bibhavati), contesting the sanyasi’s claim: a case which grew to mammoth proportions, stretching on for sixteen years, all the way from 1930 to 1946. It was heard at the District Court in Dhaka; the High Court in Calcutta; and finally, the Privy Council in London.

The Bhawal Sanyasi Case is the stuff of legend, written and discussed repeatedly in the decades since it ended. The arguments of both sides have been dissected, the judgements scrutinised. Even a quick search online, and you can find the verdicts, detailed analyses of the case, and modern forensic insights that might have thrown a different light on the case if they had been available back then.

Aruna Chakravarti’s version of it, The Mendicant Prince, however, takes a somewhat unorthodox route: she fictionalises the story, presenting it as a combination of known fact and conjecture.

The novel is structured as a series of first-person narratives from the point of view of some of the key characters in the case: Bibhavati; Ramendranarayan’s sisters Jyotirmayi, Indumayi and Tarinmayi; his sisters-in law; Pannalal Basu (the judge of the Dhaka District Court), Roy’s mistress Elokeshi, and so on. Woven into these are excerpts from letters, reports, and other official documents, as well as the occasional third person narrative. Beginning from when Ramendranarayan Roy, feeling ill in February 1909, went to his doctor, and right up to the final verdict in 1946, Chakravarti tells the story her own way.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Chakravarti thanks Partha Chatterjee, whose book A Princely Impostor? is generally regarded as the definitive work on the Bhawal Sanyasi Case. Chatterjee’s book is a purely factual one, presenting the facts as they were put forward, occasionally conjecturing on motivations, as it should be.

Chakravarti uses those same facts, without distortion, but building a story around them. Where Chatterjee’s book focused on the facts and the testimonies from the court proceedings, Chakravarti’s book uses those facts as a basis to guess at people’s motivations. Through her words, one begins to understand something of what might have made Bibhavati refuse to recognise as her husband the man who claimed to be Ramendranarayan Roy. Or why Bibhavati might have let her brother dominate her so; or why one of the mejo kumar’s sisters may have switched sides in the legal battle over his identity. Chakravarti is careful not to get too fanciful; she uses what is obviously a good knowledge of human nature, and of the ethos of Bengal in the early 20th century, to weave her story.

A fascinating and absorbing story

What emerges is a fascinating, absorbing story. There’s mystery here, and the suspense of a court case where the opposing parties had two radically different stances (and often, it appeared, equally iron-clad evidence in support of their stance). By imagining the intricacies of the relationships and the emotions involved, Chakravarti also works into it heartbreak, betrayal, familial loyalty, and more.

Especially praiseworthy is the restraint Chakravarti shows when it comes to getting into the minds of her characters. This, for a less accomplished writer, might have been a chance to take a stand of their own and decide on a truth for themselves. Chakravarti does not do this; she indicates what happened according in line with what emerged during the case, and follows that line. She does not try to solve the mystery, she does not put her own spin what might have happened. It is telling that she does not write a single chapter from the point of view of the man himself: that would be tantamount to making assumptions, and Chakravarti steers clear.

Just a century after the Bhawal sanyasi made his appearance, it is still not quite certain if he really was the mejo kumar, or a carefully tutored imposter. And, even if he was the prince, what was the truth behind his ‘death’? Chakravarti’s novel examines, with feeling and compassion, what that period might have been like for those involved.

The Mendicant Prince: A Novel, Aruna Chakravarti, Pan Macmillan.