‘Six!’ Rose the roar. All eyes followed the cricket ball arching through the sky to vanish into the khud below.
In the nearly two hundred years of Mussoorie’s existence, the grand St George’s Flat (dating to 1853) has been, more or less, the same. It’s the only place where generations of schoolboys have polished their sporting skills, noses firmly stuck to the grindstone. This is where the son of the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ learnt to play cricket from the boys of our first school, the Mussoorie Seminary.
Back at home, just the other day, the phone rang.
‘This is Bance – as in Peter Bance!’ said the caller with a heavy Irish accent. ‘I want to come see you!’
‘A couple of books later, I’m still looking for fresh material on Maharaja Duleep Singh.’
Soon after, a handsome young Sikh knocks on the door. It is Peter Bance, born and brought up in the United Kingdom. At least that explains the accent as he gushes: ‘Ah! We social historians fish with a troublesome sieve. For instance, I’ve just found from Mrs. Login’s diaries that the young prince of the Punjab lived in Barlowganj’s Whytbank Castle.’
Peter takes me through the paces. In 1839, with H.H. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s passing away, the Land of the Five Rivers plunged into turmoil. With his mother Rani Jindan as Regent, a five-year old prince ascended the throne. In March 1849, the East India Company annexed the kingdom, deposed the 10-year-old and sent him off into exile from Lahore to Farrukhabad.
‘Fine! But what’s this got to do with Mussoorie?’ you may say.
In the summer of 1852 and 1853, the Maharaja wanted to get away from the heat and dust. With alacrity John Company, moved him to Whytbank Castle (today’s Jaypee Hotel), refurbishing it at considerable cost.
Attempts to turn the impressionable child into a western oriented gentleman spun tragedy. It cut him off from his roots, his family and his old associations. Dalhousie was taking no chances. Fearing the prince might become a rallying point for the rebels in the Punjab, he was taught the ways of the sahibs: cricket, shooting and hawking.
Under his tutor Login’s eagle eye, he went on picnics, played cricket, and learnt archery. They kept him away from races, theatricals and balls, though to each he donated generously all over Mussoorie.
In the fall of 1853, he bid farewell to the station and was bundled off to England from where he was never allowed to return. Known as the Queen’s ‘blue-eyed boy’, much too late, he saw through their machinations: they had diddled him of his rightful kingdom; they had stolen the Kohinoor and cheated him every step of the way.
What recompense can there be for a life lost?
Twice married, he had eight children, all of whom passed away leaving no heirs.
Who said the playing fields of life are not exactly cricket?