From colonial Manipur's lesser-known history, the tale of a princess and British political agent's unlikely romance

In her Sahitya Akademi Award-winning book The Princess and the Political Agent, author Binodini chronicles the love story of the Manipuri princess Sanatombi and British colonel Maxwell that unfolded following the events of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. It is set against the backdrop of the annexation of the Tibeto-Burmese empire by the British colonial forces, and translated from Manipuri into English by her son L Somi Roy. The novel tells the story of a forgotten albeit dramatic chapter from Manipur's history, drawing out characters who were otherwise hidden behind old, forgotten records and historical documents.

The excerpt that follows features the initial encounters between Sanatombi and Maxwell, and their flourishing relationship amid the political ups and downs in Manipur.

A list of important characters who find mention in this excerpt:

Princess Sanatombi: The consort of British Political Agent Maxwell. Married to Manikchand. Oldest child and daughter of Maharaja Surchandra. Favoured great-grandchild of the Grand Queen Mother. Cousin of Maharaja Churachand.

Lt Colonel Henry St Patrick Maxwell, CSI: Arrives as Major; British Political Agent of Manipur. Consort of Princess Sanatombi. Serves in Manipur: 1891–92; 1894–96; 1898–1905.

Mainu: Companion to Princess Sanatombi

Tembi: Princess Sanatombi's maid

Maharaja Surchandra (1886–90): Father of Princess Sanatombi. Succeeds his father Maharaja Chandrakirti and is deposed in 1890 by his half-brothers led by Prince Koireng.

Prince Koireng: Uncle of Princess Sanatombi. Half-brother of Maharaja Surchandra. Also known as Bir Tikendrajit. He is executed in 1891 by the British after the Anglo-Manipuri War.

***

One time Sanatombi washed her hair with fragrant herbs late in the day. Her hair loose about her, she came out towards the pond that was at the edge of the compound. Her mother-in-law had gone to fetch yarn as they had finished a weave on the loom. Mainu had also not come that day. Sanatombi felt empty on the days that Mainu did not come. She felt very empty. One could not talk with Tembi. The reservoir in the Nongmaithem household was obscured by the front gazebo and so it could not be seen from the house. It was a pool that was kept very neat and clean. It even had steps leading down to it. As Sanatombi walked towards it she saw Maxwell was standing looking towards the pond. She did not know what he was doing.

Sanatombi called out happily, ‘Mesin, what are you doing? You didn’t even tell me you were coming.’

Maxwell turned to her and smiled.

‘Where are you coming from?’

‘There.’

‘Who’s going to understand if you just say “there?” Where were you?’

‘Sanatombi.’

‘Yes?’

‘Do you eat the pond?’

Sanatombi laughed out loud, ‘Say, “Do you drink the pond water?”’

‘Yes, do you drink the water?’

‘Where else would we drink from if not from the pond? We don’t have a river, do we?’

‘It is bad, do not eat.’

What bothered Maxwell most was not being able to express all that he wanted to say, and not being able to understand all that Sanatombi was saying. He thought, ‘How difficult Meiteilon is!’

But Sanatombi could now understand what he was saying. She had gotten used to the way he spoke. She was getting used to him.

Not too long after this, he sent Chonjon over one day to teach Sanatombi how to boil drinking water. There was nothing in Manipur that terrified the sahebs more than cholera. Not long after they had taken possession of Manipur, their soldiers had been mowed down by cholera. One saheb was also among the casualties. Maxwell’s alarm knew no bounds when he heard that Sanatombi drank water from the pond. He said to Chonjon over and over again, ‘Tell Sanatombi, tell her not to forget to boil water.’ Hearing this her mother-in-law laughed and said, ‘He is just like our Manikchand, my son is also very fussy. How nice it would have been if he were here.’

Sometimes Maxwell would not come for five or ten days. He would go abroad. Sanatombi would say to herself, ‘Whatever has happened to Mesin? He has stopped coming.’

Mainu said, ‘I don’t know what’s happened to him. … … … Your Highness, I am thinking something.’

‘What are you thinking?’

‘This Saheb, I don’t know, there is something about him.’

‘So, what is it?’

‘I don’t know, Your Highness. He must be crazy about you … He comes around much too often.’

‘What nonsense. He is just dropping by.’

‘I am not at all comfortable with this. He’s got a strange look in his eye.’

‘You’re just being mean, that’s all.’

‘… … … Let him be crazy about you, just you don’t get involved, Your Highness. You don’t speak the same tongue nor are you friends … … … .’

As she was saying this they heard the sound of Maxwell’s horse. Sanatombi heard it first. She said, ‘Mesin is here.’

 From colonial Manipurs lesser-known history, the tale of a princess and British political agents unlikely romance

Binodini's The Princess and the Political Agent chronicles a fictional account of Manipur's Princess Sanatombi and the British representative, Colonel Maxwell.

When Maxwell saw that Mainu and Sanatombi were by the gate, he got off his horse and said happily, ‘I went to the hills. Your hills are very beautiful. I like. I bring for you.’ Saying this, he took off the tribal shawl of red cotton he was wearing and threw it over Sanatombi. He was different that day. He looked very happy. He babbled a lot of things in his language like a young man. They could not understand what he was saying. Then, saying he would come again, he galloped away.

‘What’s the matter with him? Has he gone mad or what? You will have to bathe again now.’

‘Why, did he touch me?’

‘What’s the matter with you, did he not put that cloth on you just now?’

‘Oh.’

‘Really, this Saheb is going to cross a lot of boundaries, Your Highness. It is better if we don’t let him in … … … Your husband is not here either. Who knows what he will say when he comes to hear?’

Sanatombi did not answer. She woke up to the realisation upon hearing Mainu’s words — It was true, Manikchand was not around now. But she always kept thinking that Maxwell would come, she always thought she heard him riding his horse in.

On another day, Maxwell had a long conversation with her. She had asked, ‘Mesin, do you know my Sovereign Father, my father Surchandra?’

‘No, but I have seen his picture.’

‘Let me ask you something. People say my father Surchandra was kept in jail, is it true? They say he was kept surrounded by white soldiers, is that true?’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Did you see it? Do you know?’

‘No, I do not know.’

Sanatombi asked him about other things too. Maxwell did not want to talk about these matters but she cornered him. Maxwell could not escape her questioning. Even though he could not understand all of Sanatombi’s questions, he knew Sanatombi had many frustrations. This fallen princess harboured a profound grief. Maxwell and Sanatombi had a deep conversation that day. Mainu did not approve of this. When he was about to leave, Sanatombi said, ‘Wait, one more thing. They say you killed Koireng. That you sat in judgment, is it true?’ Maxwell’s face reddened. He gave an evasive answer and left. But he left unhappily. Sanatombi, too, was left unhappy.

Maxwell did not come for quite a long time. Sanatombi wondered if he was angry. It was not right to have spoken to him so harshly.

One day around evening, after a long time, Maxwell showed up as if nothing had happened, and said, ‘Sanatombi, your road is finished. Let us go look, I will take you.’ Without giving it a thought, Sanatombi followed him out, leaving Mainu watching, disturbed. Sanatombi came back after a fairly long time after looking at the road but she said nothing to Mainu. Mainu also waited for her to tell her about it for quite some time, but there was not a word. Tears came to Mainu’s eyes. She felt hurt. When Sanatombi bathed and went in that day, she could not hide anything from Mainu. It was fairly late at night but without any fear or hesitation Mainu went home without even saying goodbye. She wept a great deal when she got home — for Sanatombi.

Sanatombi cried secretly that night too, but Mainu never knew that. What Maxwell had said as they were coming back from looking at the road was, ‘Sanatombi, I know about your father Surchandra. He did not stay in jail. I am sorry. I am sorry for you all. A woman can reign in England. If Manipur had this custom I would have recommended you. Do not take me wrong. This was plain bad luck. If you want to know who sat in judgment over Koireng I will tell you. They were Lt Colonel St John Forcourt Mitchel, Major Richard Kerly Ridgeway and CAW Davis. It was done by a tribunal of these three. It was my bad luck. It was my bad luck that the day Koireng died, I was the one who bore witness to his death. I am your enemy, but I am not a greedy enemy. … … … Believe me.’

Maxwell said all this slowly so that Sanatombi could understand. He had recited it slowly, remembering it like homework he had memorised well. He had struggled to express himself but Sanatombi could understand what he was saying. The two of them had this talk standing at the gate. Maxwell had felt happy. He had felt a relief after opening up to Sanatombi. He had felt lighter.

Sanatombi had said to Maxwell after she listened to his words, ‘Mesin, we had nobody in those days.’ And saying this she had burst into tears. ‘Don’t cry,’ and saying this Maxwell stroked Sanatombi’s head. Then he had left on his horse. He did not gallop away. He had wanted to comfort Sanatombi more. And so, he left. He left slowly upon his horse.

The above extract from L Somi Roy's The Princess and the Political Agent has been reproduced here with permission from Penguin Random House.

Updated Date: May 24, 2020 10:26:50 IST



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