In This Review

A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal
A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal
By Partha Chatterjee
Princeton University Press, 2002, 429 pp

The anthropologist Chatterjee has written a true account that reads like a mystery novel. The second kumar (prince) of a leading family in British Bengal was plagued with syphilis sores in the summer of 1909. So he was sent to the mountain resort of Darjeeling, where he appeared to have suddenly died. The prescribed rituals were performed and his body was prepared for cremation. Before the fire could be lit, however, there was a thunderstorm. When those involved returned, the body had apparently disappeared -- but the pyre was lit and the ashes saved. Twelve years later, a half-naked holy man turned up claiming to be the kumar. Bengalis from Dacca to Calcutta were soon engaged in heated debates and even published pamphlets arguing whether this man was who he claimed to be. The kumar's family, including his wife, saw the holy man as an impostor. But they also had material interests at stake: they did not want to give him a share of the estate's income. The tenants on the family's land, in contrast, were unanimous in identifying him as the second kumar, but they had deduced that, as a holy man, he would not be interested in such worldly matters as collecting rent. The case soon went to court, and Chatterjee's story then turns to the lively arguments and testimony of the nearly 1,500 witnesses at two major trials and several appeals. Finally, the kumar's wife carried the case to London and the Privy Council, where, in 1946, it was at last settled. A good reviewer should not give away the ending to a mystery, and the same applies in this case. But curious readers who want to discover the outcome will find this book -- a fascinating introduction to the culture of British India -- well worth their while.