The Manipuri writer Binodini’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning historical novel The Princess and the Political Agent tells the love story of her aunt Princess Sanatombi and Lt. Col. Henry P. Maxwell, the British representative in the subjugated Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Manipur.
A poignant story of love and fealty, treachery and valour, it is set in the midst of the imperialist intrigues of the British Raj, the glory of kings, warring princes, clever queens and loyal retainers. Reviving front-page global headlines of the day, Binodini’s perspective is from the vanquished by love and war, and the humbling of a proud kingdom. Its sorrows and empathy sparkle with wit and beauty, as it deftly dissects the build-up and aftermath of the perfidy of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891.
Here is an excerpt from the book!
Sanatombi saw Manipur’s last war first-hand. She witnessed as a young child the bitter rivalries of the princes, their quarrels, the entanglements of politics. She had seen it all: the fears, the sorrows, the consultations, the talks.
And there were many internal matters of the palace. She saw the splendid throne her grandfather his lordship Chandrakirti sat on for thirty-six years. But she did not get to live in the palace for very long. She was given in marriage at a young age to a man called Manikchand from the Nongmaithem family. There was a reason for this.
One day the Grand Queen Mother summoned Jasumati, consort of her royal grandson Crown Prince Surchandra and said, ‘My dear, keep a close eye on your daughter. She is wilful and is going to be a handful. It is not enough to be kind-hearted. It will not do to be an accommodating and accepting worm of a person. You do not have any male offspring. The astrologers also say your daughter is of strong birth. I want to find a good match for her and get her married. What do you think?’
‘The Grand Queen Mother needs only to instruct us. What can your humble servant say? After you inform your royal grandson, I defer to whatever the Divine Majesty and the Grand Queen Mother decide,’ replied the meek Lady of Satpam.
Jasumati was a gentle woman. No one in the palace talked about her much. She may have had her disappointments and sorrows but she expressed them to no one. Most people in the palace did not even know of her existence. Her senior sister-wife Premamayi, Lady of Ngangbam, dominated all. Even though Premamayi was not the first wife of Surchandra, she overshadowed all—and so it must be. It was only to be
expected that the clever rises above the many. It might be said that Jasumati merely gave birth to her daughter, for Sanatombi spent most of her time with her co-mother the Lady of Ngangbam, and the Grand Queen Mother. She only came home to sleep and her mother barely got to see her at all. She spent her days going from one household in the palace to another. Jasumati worried about her too. She knew her daughter was unruly, strong-willed and driven to win. It would have been better if she had been a boy, she thought to herself. Time and again Sanatombi would cause an uproar and stir up trouble. Even when as a mother she could not bear it any longer she could not beat Sanatombi or discipline her, for the Grand Queen Mother stood as her bulwark. The Grand Queen Mother, Lady of Meisnam, doted excessively on her great-grandchild. And then she says—Watch your daughter closely, when it is she who allows her to run wild . . . —but who could she have said this to? There was no one who could dare to talk back to the Grand Queen Mother, the Lady of Meisnam. So, even though she followed all palace protocol with great care, she suffered defeat at the hands of Sanatombi; she weakened when it came to her. Her great-grandmother favoured the unruly Sanatombi.
One day when Sanatombi had grown up a bit, she said, ‘I will play kang, Grand Queen Mother.’ ‘Of course, my grandchild shall play. And who will be the kang teams?’ The Grand Queen Mother arranged it all. The court shuffleboard teams were Hijam Leikai and the palace. They gathered only the prettiest girls among them, both the palace and Hijam Leikai. They established many rules—no borrowing of pucks, no throwing of pucks in the air, and suchlike. The shuffleboard court was polished with fresh milk. There was a lot of noisy activity. Sanatombi was going to play her first game of court shuffleboard at the palace. But as the sorry tale unspooled, Sanatombi came to her royal great-grandmother, her face red with fury, and demanded, ‘Grand Queen Mother, beat Lukhoi. He has stopped us from playing kang, he says we cannot play.’
A little while later, there was a great hue and cry. ‘Sanatombi has bitten Prince Lukhoi! Oh no, what is to be done!’
The matter was this. Prince Lukhoi had barred Sanatombi when she arrived to play at the shuffleboard court. Lukhoi was born to the Lady of Ngangbam, wife of Surchandra. The Lady of Ngangbam was not only clever but she had even produced a male offspring, and one day, sooner or later, Lukhoi could ascend the throne at Kangla. Even though he was a child, Lukhoi was well aware of this. His unthinking caregivers and attendants never failed to remind the child of it, and so he was very headstrong. He and Sanatombi were not that far apart in age.
He had come in while Sanatombi and her friends were noisily busy in the shuffleboard court and said, ‘Is it true you all are going to play kang, Royal Elder Sister? You may not play.’
‘Because I am telling you. You cannot.’
‘And who are you? Should I stop just because you do not
allow it? It is none of your business. I am doing it. What are you going to do about it?’
‘You cannot do as you like.’ ‘And why not?’
‘I am Prince Lukhoi.’
‘And I am Sanatombi.’
‘I am the male offspring—you are female.’
‘What attitude, Mr Male Offspring!’
Sanatombi flared up in anger. It was true she was a daughter. A daughter had no claim upon the throne at Kangla. But she did not accept this; she did not accept being told she could not do as she wanted. She did not know that her mother who only had daughters was not considered a blessed woman. It was especially true in the palace. How was she any different from a barren woman? Her birth mother lived choked in secret, her throat constricted, dry. It was not as if Sanatombi had not sometimes heard her mother heave a deep sigh. But she never found out why. The Grand Queen Mother had never once said to her face, ‘You are a female; you are of inferior destiny.’ She had said, ‘Now, there’s my great-granddaughter, now that’s my great-granddaughter.’ But sometimes late at night, her mother Jasumati said to her quietly, ‘Sanatombi, you are a daughter, so conduct yourself with that knowledge … … … .’ What was it she said? Sanatombi, her thoughts wandering somewhere else, paid her scant heed. Lukhoi not allowing her to play court shuffleboard enraged Sanatombi no end.
Sanatombi said, ‘So what if you are a male?’
‘I am stopping you from playing kang, that’s what,’
Lukhoi answered with attitude. He was also just a boy at the time. It was around that age just before youth when boys are at their most obnoxious.
Sanatombi said, ‘What is it that you want?’ ‘Let Hijam Ibemhal play on the palace team.’ ‘Oh really? The one from Hijam Leikai?’ ‘Even so.’
‘Oh, is that why you are coming and sticking your nose in?’
‘Why did you go to Grand Queen Mother without telling me first you were playing kang?’
‘You have to inform me first—I was going to rehearse my dance here. If you want to play kang here, you have to inform me first.’
‘Your dancing goes on in the women dancers’ court. Has this male offspring no shame, being in the women dancers’ court?’
‘Men should be part of the women dancers’ court. You cannot play kang, and that is that.’ Saying this, he plunked himself down cross-legged in the middle of the shuffleboard court. Smoothened and polished for many days beforehand, the shuffleboard court shone like a mirror. It was not to be stepped upon. Sanatombi could not bear it any longer. She leapt at him and grabbed his hair. The two fought, they could not be pulled apart.
Suddenly Lukhoi yelled, ‘She bit me! The witch, the witch!’
Sanatombi went off to tell the Grand Queen Mother. Lukhoi was left crying, yelling ‘She-Demon, She-Demon’ at her. ‘She-Demon’ was Sanatombi’s hated nickname.
All hurried towards the quarters of the Grand Queen Mother. Sanatombi’s mother, the Lady of Satpam, heard and came running. She lashed out at her child and hit her. She struck out at her wildly. Sanatombi did not cry. She stood rock- still. The others separated them. Hearing of this, Sanatombi’s nurse came running and put her arms around her child.
Sanatombi said, ‘Of course, I beat him up. Can he do as he pleases just because he’s a male offspring? I will beat him, I will keep on beating him.’
‘Look at the mouth on her.’ Her mother tried to hit her again. The Grand Queen Mother tried to separate them. Then Sanatombi went and stood by the Grand Queen Mother, watching. She was very pleased with herself.
Lukhoi’s mother, the Lady of Ngangbam, arrived.
Laughing, she said, ‘Do not beat her, sister-wife. Why make a big thing of a matter between children?’ Saying this, she examined her child’s wounds. She did not mean what she said, for she was upset.
‘Please do as you see fit, elder sister-wife. I am not going to be able to handle this girl. Look how she has bitten the child on his arm … Here, let Mother take a look.’
The Lady of Ngangbam laughed and said, ‘Of course you should beat him, my child. How can he be disrespectful to
his older royal sister? Lukhoi, say you are sorry to your older sister. Why did you try to destroy my daughter’s kang court? What right does a boy have to do that.’ She pretended to blame her son.
‘Why should I kowtow when I did no wrong?’ ‘How he lies and says he did no wrong!’
They went at each other again. The Lady of Ngangbam stopped them, laughing. They made light of the matter but both the Lady of Ngangbam and the Lady of Satpam each knew what the other was thinking.
There were countless incidents and uproars like this because of Sanatombi. The girl-bearing Jasumati conducted herself with great discretion. But male offspring or female did not matter to Sanatombi. She did as she pleased.