The Bhawal Sanyasi case

Many years ago, when I was growing up in Calcutta, my cousin Malini and I saw the Hema Malini-Girish Karnad starrer Ratnadeep. Hema Malini’s mother, the formidable Jaya Chakravarthy, who, in the 1970s and 1980s was a fixture in Devyani Chaubal’s Frankly Speaking column in Star & Style, produced the film. Thanks to Devyani, she was known to the whole North Indian world as Amma Malini, it being assumed that Malini was the surname (or to give it its Calcutta equivalent – tital).

But I digress. We were unimpressed. The story held promise – a stationmaster is confronted with the dead body of a sanyasi in an out of the way railway station. He, and others around, are struck by the extraordinary facial resemblance he, the stationmaster, has to the dead man. Left alone with the latter’s belongings, the hero goes through them and realises that this was a rich zamindar who several years earlier had left his home and young wife, to seek a life of spiritual fulfilment. Now, he had tired of that and was one his way back, only to have death cut his other fulfilments short. The stationmaster decides to take his place, sick as he is of his life of holding up red and green lights. And so off he goes.

Back at the estate, everyone is overjoyed, except for a couple of suspicious relatives. The stationmaster settles in but is overcome with pangs of guilt (if pangs is the word I am looking for) when it comes to sleeping with the wife. And that cannot be put off, for the woman, after wearing white for years is now all ready to jump into bed. But before that is a ceremony which involves her waving the family heirloom, a multi-tiered oil lamp (Ratnadeep), in front of him. That is the moment of reckoning…

A couple of months later, my cousin and I saw over Doordarshan the original Bengali film that was the inspiration for this Hindi movie. Made in 1951 by Debaki Bose, it was I am given to understand also dubbed in Hindi and Tamil. This film was a revelation. The acting was underplayed and as for the sets they were so authentically Bengali. I have still not forgotten the scenes shot in the Thakur Dalan (the courtyard with the puja room) of the Zamindari household. On both sides of the idol were life-sized figurines bearing flywhisks and their arms operated through an electromechanical device. This was a direct lift from a real-life aristocratic household of Calcutta and the automated statuettes were once featured in an article by Rathin Mitra in the Sunday edition of the Telegraph. The 1951 version incidentally, had a different and wholly realistic end. I later came to know that the film (and the Amma Malini version) were based on a Bengali novel of the same name, written by Prabhatkumar Mukhopadyay and published in 1915. The Bengali film remained faithful to the original novel while Amma Malini took liberties with the plot to make it saleable (it did not sell for the movie bombed). For your listening pleasure I provide here a link to one song from the Bengali film.

This rather long reminiscence is mainly to establish a background to the sensational Bhawal Sanyasi case that held Bengal in its grip between 1921 and 1946. In that sense, the novel predates the real-life happening by six years. But fact often imitates fiction.

Bhawal was a rich Zamindari estate located near Dhaka. When Raja Rajendra Narayan died, he left behind three sons and three daughters. Of the former, the second son, Kumar Ramendra Narayan is the central character of the case. Dissolute like his brothers, he was more or less illiterate and neglected his child-wife Bhibhabati who came from an impoverished wing of the Uttarpara Zamindari. In 1909, the Kumar was diagnosed with syphilis and at the encouragement of his wife’s brother, Satyen Banerjee who was a law student, moved to Darjeeling for treatment. There he died on May 8 owing to what the local doctor diagnosed as biliary colic. He was cremated and three days later, his wife, with brother in tow, moved back to Bhawal. The two other brothers of the Kumar died within a couple of years and the estate came under the management of the Court of Wards. Bhibhabati moved to Calcutta with her brother. The estate’s income was now enjoyed by the three widowed women and thanks to its management by the Court of Wards, Bhibhabati’s share was substantial. Her brother’s station in life improved and they lived comfortably and well in a big house on Lansdowne Road.

In 1921, a sanyasi arrived in Bhawal and everyone was struck by his resemblance to the second Kumar. The sisters and grandmother said he was the long lost heir and crowds began to gather. The man had a strange story to tell – he had not really died but was unconscious when they took him for cremation. There a thunderstorm disrupted the rites and everyone ran away to take shelter leaving the body at the cremation ground. The man came to his senses and lay groaning until a group of Naga sadhus realised his predicament and rescued him. He however had no recollection of his past life and so joined their group. Now, so many years later, his memory had returned and he had come back.

People questioned him about incidents in the Kumar’s life and were stunned that he was able to answer satisfactorily. From there to writing formally to the Court of Wards for due recognition as the heir was but a step. But there were two stumbling blocks – the wife would not recognise him as her husband and the administration was most suspicious. If he had not really died, whose body had been cremated that night? The matter became sub-judice, with Pannalal Basu (who post-independence became a minister in the West Bengal government) sitting in judgement. What followed, with the case dragging on to the High Court and the Privy Council in London, coming to an end in 1946, forms the rest of Partha Chatterjee’s gripping account – A Princely Impostor, The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism.

The author is one of Calcutta’s best-known scholars and the book is consequently exhaustively researched, replete with the most wonderful footnotes and references. The second part of the sub-title – The Secret History of Indian Nationalism is however not something that readily comes through. The author argues at length about it in a few pages at the end but it is essentially a forced fit. The book could have also done without a large chapter on the philosophical question of what really makes for an individual’s identity. I ploughed through it but came away none the wiser. May be I need to read it again at the India Coffee House on College Street for enlightenment.

I was gifted this book several years ago by KS Padmanabhan of East West Books, one of the many people to whom I owe much for my present status as a writer. I was asked to present this story at a Book Club meeting which I did. Since then, I keep going back to it frequently. It is one of my favourites.

One more aspect before I let you go – the story has a sudden twist at the end, happening at the Thanthania Kali Temple on Cornwallis Street. The shrine has since become a must stop during my heritage tours in Kolkata.

The Bhawal Sanyasi case is incidentally ranked among India’s top ten legal mysteries for all time. The case also inspired many chap books, songs and eventually a film – Sanyasi Raja, starring Uttam Kumar.

The book is published by Permanent Black, New Delhi and made its appearance in 2002.

This review is part of a series to which I add on some Sundays when I feel like it. They feature some favourite books from my library. You can read the others here