Scandal Point by Manju Jaidka

Manju Jaidka’s novel Scandal Point is set in a colonial India approaching the twentieth century. A handsome young ruler of an Indian princely state angers the British rulers by falling in love and eloping with the Viceroy’s daughter. It is not an ordinary romance, as the elopement has far-reaching consequences.

It results in a child who grows up unaware of his lineage. Till one day, like Oedipus, he discovers the truth and embarks on a journey seeking his roots. There are no records, no documents, no witnesses, no evidence. Only stray bits of information and semi-reliable clues with the help of which he pieces together the almost incredible tale of his mother’s elopement and its tragic aftermath. Named after the spot on the Ridge in Shimla where the young lovers purportedly eloped from, Scandal Point is a fictionalized account of what may have transpired in their lives as a consequence of that action.

If the premise sounds familiar to the reader, it is because most anybody who has ever visited or lived in Shimla, is acquainted with the much-mouthed, albeit uncorroborated, anecdote about Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala allegedly whisking away the Viceroy’s daughter in a similar fashion. Following a subsequent ban against his presence in the hill station, story goes, he built himself a grand vacation palace at Chail, right across from miffed colonial noses. The author refutes this detail as archival material suggests otherwise; maintaining that he would have been but a year old at the time of said incident. At the same time, it is on record that his father Rajendra Singh had an English wife who bore him a son.  What continues to mystify is the reason that led to the eventual disappearance of mother and child- for good- from the annals of history.

It is this point in time that serves as the springboard for Jaidka’s creative leap. She keeps the mother and son alive in her historical fiction, threading together a fanciful tale of political compulsions, palace intrigue, love, jealousy and murder. Much of the novel is narrated in the flashback and through the young protagonist’s perusal of his mother’s diary. A cryptic plea by his mother on her deathbed in Lahore finds the nineteen-year old Kartar Singh setting out to join the dots and learn the truth about his ancestry. Incredulous and confused, he carries out her dying instructions by arriving in Amritsar, unannounced, at the doorstep of Sardar Attar Singh. In response to his desperate questions, Attar Singh hands him some official looking papers, a notebook and a jewel, along with more astonishing details about his life. With his entire world turned on its head, he then seeks an audience, and answers, from the ruler of Kapurthala; where his life takes yet another dramatic turn.

The novel is a quick and easy read as Jaidka skillfully weaves together fact and fiction throughout the pacy narrative. She succeeds in keeping the reader guessing about the fine line, having lifted some of the characters and events in Scandal Point from official records; though some embellishments have very evidently been provided through word of mouth. However, deeper research into patrician lifestyles, and perhaps tighter editing, could have helped in the few, albeit wholly avoidable, errors. It would have revealed, for one, that Aitcheson College, contrary to what the name suggests is in fact a school. Creative license notwithstanding, the historical placing of characters in a novel disallows the usage of plebian-speak. “Kakaji, tussi great ho”, uttered by the Cambridge-educated ruler, on setting eyes on his newborn son, is a particularly jarring instance. All the same, it is an eminently readable novel, especially for those hoping to demystify colonial Shimla’s most scandalous moment.

Note: This review appeared in The Tribune.

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