Few historians have put a spotlight on Sophia Duleep Singh, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjeet Sindh. She is only remembered as an Indian princess while her contributions to the Indian Independence movement and the fight for women’s suffrage have been glossed over.
It is difficult to probe deeper into history and unravel hidden details about Sophia. Although her name appears in the Royal Archives, anyone who wishes to piece together the fragments of her life will need to know exactly what they are looking for.
Anita Anand — the author of Sophia — is not a historian. Nevertheless, she has managed to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the princess. At first, Anand’s interest in Sophia appears to be surprising. As a print and radio journalist, Anand could have easily opted for a more topical issue to write a book about. And yet, she chose to narrate the untold story of a woman who lost everything to an imperialist agenda but rose from the ashes to give a voice to the marginalised sections of society.
The choice is admirable but it cannot be the only yardstick to assess the merits of the book.
As expected of any history book, the focus remains on recreating the times rather than focusing on the subject. The initial chapters deal with the struggle faced by Sophia’s ancestors — her grandfather’s removal from the seat of power in Punjab, the early years of British colonialism in India and the impact it has on the Maharaja’s family. We meet Duleep Singh, the dispossessed heir, who falls prey to colonial intrigue and eventually finds the courage to rebel. However, by the time the attention turns to his daughter, Sophia, readers may find themselves overwhelmed by a plethora of political events and personal tragedies.
These minute details suggest that the author has meticulously researched Sophia’s background. They set the tone for the narrative and help create a connection with the protagonist. The discerning reader is advised to remain patient and persevere until a more holistic picture of the princess begins to surface.
The best thing about Anand’s account is that it unlocks the doors and windows of the past in a subtle and effective manner. More often than not, we tend to forget the sheer magnitude of human suffering triggered by colonialism. Little is known about the struggle of Indian soldiers and the mistreatment of the ‘lascars’ in Britain. Sophia Duleep Singh’s deep affiliation with these concerns has been presented in vivid detail. A majority of these facts have been completely ignored in history lessons at schools. As a result, readers may find the book to be a good opportunity to discover unknown traces of the past.
In a little over 350 pages she convinces readers that Sophia was pushed out of view because of her “prickly relationship with the establishment” and never gives them a reason to dispute this claim.
In fact, Anand’s narrative is based on accurate details that can be verified through the stories of others who bore the brunt of colonial rage. Queen Victoria’s munshi, Abdul Karim, comes to mind. The outcome is, without doubt, strong and compelling.
But above all, Sophia does not only salvage an Indian princess from the shackles of obscurity. It gives the subcontinent a charismatic female figure to look up to — the region’s equivalent to Susan B Anthony.
Taha Kehar is a subeditor at The Express Tribune’s Peshawar desk. He tweets @TahaKehar
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 20th, 2015.