Sarbpreet Singh is a Boston based poet, playwright, musician, and commentator with a career in technology. His commentary has appeared in NPR, Huffington Post, Boston Herald, Milwaukee Journal, and Providence Journal, among others. His book Kultar’s Mime, which tells the story of the 1984 Delhi massacre in verse, was published in 2016. He is the founder of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, dedicated to the preservation of Sikh music; and his podcast, The Story of the Sikhs, has listeners in more than eighty countries.
He has recently come out with the book “The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia”, which focuses on Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his times, and the wide array of colourful characters that populated his court. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, the writing process for this book, and his favourite characters from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s cosmopolitan court.
How did the idea of writing this book originate?
I left India in my early twenties and came to America, a young man who really had not connected with his identity at all. I had been raised in Sikkim where there were hardly any Sikhs and I had a very poor understanding of my culture and history.
In my mid-twenties, I happened to read the book ‘History of the Sikhs’, by J.D. Cunningham. Reading the work of Joseph Davey Cunningham was instrumental in helping me really connect with my identity and greatly informed the content of this book. Cunningham, born in 1812, came from a family of poets and scholars. In the waning years of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, he served as the assistant to Sir Claude Wade, the British resident at Ludhiana (Punjab), where he came into contact with Sikhs and developed a deep interest in their history and faith. In 1849, he published his work, ‘History of the Sikhs’, a British account of the Sikhs but written from a sympathetic viewpoint and not the usual propagandist or condescending one.
From the very first few pages, I was hooked. Of course I had a facile understanding of Sikh history, but as I learned about the lives of the Gurus and then the trials and tribulations of my forebears as they faced intense oppression in the eighteenth century, and finally the glorious story of the Sikh Empire, I felt my spirit soar like it never had before.
I went on to teach Sikh history to young Sikhs in New Jersey and Boston, and one of the areas of focus of course was the Maharaja. To motivate them I even wrote a Punjabi play about his court, which helped them learn about the period in a fun and effective manner. The response to the play prompted me to dig deeper.
And then several years ago, I watched a brilliant TV series about Henry VIII and remember thinking that the story of Ranjit Singh’s empire was no less compelling and deserved to be brought to the screen as well. This is what prompted me to research the time period extensively and write “The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia”.
The book’s title “The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia” is based on the lead story. When and how did you decide that would be the title of your book? Were there any other contenders?
The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia was really the only title I considered for the collection. I felt it would be intriguing for a reader to see a picture of Ranjit Singh on the cover, juxtaposed with ‘Camel Merchant’ and ‘Philadelphia’. And sure enough, during my book tour I got a question about the title at almost every event.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s life and his cosmopolitan court featured an eclectic, interesting and influential group of characters. Which of these characters is your favourite, or is a character whose story fascinated you?
This is a difficult question to answer as the characters were all so colourful. But I have always been drawn to Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s visionary mother-in-law who played an outsized part in his success. In a time when women were oppressed in a centuries old patriarchal system, Guru Nanak had boldly proclaimed the equality of the sexes. Through Sikh history there were many Sikh women who were inspired to lead in difficult times. None was more impressive than Mata Sada Kaur. The story of her genius and the poignancy of her tragic end is told in The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia.
And if you could meet in person any of the historical characters that you’ve written about in this book, who would it be and why?
I would love to hang out with Akali Phoola Singh. Of course he seems larger than life, but more importantly his fierce independence, his indomitable spirit and his strength of character make him a truly remarkable person.
How much time did it take to write this book? Which sources did you refer to while researching for this book?
The book was written over a two year period. On a visit to Amritsar, I acquired a translation of the Umdut Ut Twarikh, an account of the Lahore Durbar written in Persian by Sohan Lal Suri, the court’s official diarist and scribe. Embedded in the quotidian accounts of the dealings of the Durbar and the administration, I started to find little anecdotal nuggets that made the personalities that peopled Ranjit Singh’s court truly come alive.
In addition, I was able to find many first person accounts by travellers, who had visited the Lahore Durbar and had witnessed its glory and its idiosyncrasies with their own eyes. This work was informed by the writings of travellers like Victor Jacquemont, Baron Charles Hugel, Rev. Joseph Wolffe, Mohan Lal Kashmiri and several others. The accounts of Alexander Gardner, Colonel Steinbach, Dr. Honigberger and others who served the Durbar and those of British visitors such as W.L. McGregor, W.G. Osborne and George Carmichael Smyth provide much of the colour in these stories.
I also read accounts of Maharaja Ranjit Singh written in Punjabi, most notably Raj Khalsa by Gyani Gian Singh and Sher Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh by Baba Prem Singh Hoti Mardan, which provided a somewhat different perspective.
You mention in the book that the republican nature of the Sikh community had in no way been tempered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s coronation. How did the Sikh kingdom follow republican ideals, even though Ranjit Singh was king?
Republicanism is a form of representational government in which leaders are elected by the citizenry and laws are passed by these leaders for the benefit of the entire republic, rather than select members of a ruling class, or aristocracy. This was essentially how the Sikh Misls or confederacies functioned.
Ranjit Singh’s rise was antithetical to the republican ideals of the Sikhs. The emergence of a centralized power emasculated the Misls and had the indirect consequence of creating a power vacuum, which had dramatic consequences after the demise of the monarch. Guru Gobind Singh had empowered his Sikhs and made them fiercely independent. Submitting to a ‘ruler’ was foreign to their fundamental nature. After the death of Ranjit Singh and his two older sons, the republican antecedents of the community re-emerged as the grass-roots level leaders of the Sikh army gained power at the expense of nobles and courtiers.
What do you think about the diplomacy manoeuvres of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, particularly with the British and the Afghans?
Ranjit Singh was able to secure his eastern borders thorough his alliance with the British, which enabled him to focus his attention on conquering vast territories in the west. While he nominally had to cede control of the Malwa region to the British, the stability that the treaty brought was invaluable— his signing the treaty is a testament to his genius, as there were many dissenting voices in his court.
He fought many battles with the Afghans very successfully and was really the first ruler from the Indian subcontinent who dared to confront the Afghans head on; he showed his magnanimity by giving refuge to Shah Zaman and Shah Shujah, the grandsons of Ahmad Shah Abdali who had terrorized the Punjab for decades. He had a complex relationship with Amir Dost Mohamad, who ruled Afghanistan after the overthrow of Shah Shujah; he was seen as a worthy foe and was feared and respected.
What are some of the lessons that can be drawn from Ranjit Singh’s court, which might be relevant to contemporary politics?
Ranjit Singh’s court exemplifies the virtues of governing in a truly secular manner. Ranjit Singh was a devout Sikh but even a cursory glance at his court shows how little his faith or antecedents affected who he chose to empower.
His key generals, Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phoola Singh were Sikhs, but also prominent in the military ranks were Hindus such as Diwan Mohkam Chand and the Dogras, as well as the likes of Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean François Allard.
His administrators included prominent Hindus such as Diwan Dina Nath, Misr Beli Ram, Diwan Mulraj, in addition to Sikh chiefs and adventurers from foreign lands such as Josiah Harlan and Paolo Avitabile. His chief diplomat was Faqir Azizuddin, who was Muslim. Indian leaders of today have much to learn about the benefits of real secularism from the court of Ranjit Singh.
I’m a big fan of the podcast The Story of the Sikhs, of which you are the writer and narrator. Do you have any favourite episodes that you’d like to point out for readers? Or any coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
On The Story of The Sikhs, my favourite episode by far is the one that will be published shortly; episode 10 of Season 2, titled ‘Mitter Pyare Nu Haal Mureedan Da Kehnan’, which roughly translates to: ‘Go tell my beloved friend/master, his servant’s state’. The title is excerpted from a ‘Khayal’ penned by Guru Gobind Singh after he had literally lost everything. Drawing upon the marsiyae or elegiac poems of Allah Yar Khan Jogi as well as Guru Gobind Singh’s own epistle to Aurangzeb— The Zafarnama, the episode is a poignant account of courage and treachery. It documents the martyrdom of The Guru’s four sons and the perfidy of the Hill Rajas and the Mughals who set upon the Guru and his followers after offering them safe passage from their stronghold in Anandpur.
You mention in the book that it is your fond hope that these stories eventually make their way into a television series. Which actors would you like to be cast in it?
Casting is not my forte but if The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia ever makes it to the screen, I absolutely intend to audition for the role of Akali Phoola Singh.
‘The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia: Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’ by Sarbpreet Singh has been published by Tranquebar/ Westland Publications. Read more about the book and buy it here.