Manipuri princess’ story during British rule now in English


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New Delhi, May 31: Sahitya Akademi Award winning Manipuri writer Binodini’s poignant novel set in the midst of the British Raj about the love story of a princess and an English official has now been translated into English by her son.
In 1979, Binodini won the award for “Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi”, a work of historical fiction based on the life of her rebellious aunt, princess Sanatombi of Manipur.
It narrates the love story of Sanatombi and Lt Col Henry St P Maxwell, the British representative in the subjugated Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Manipur.
Binodini’s son L Somi Roy has translated the book into English as “The Princess and the Political Agent”, which has been published by Penguin Random House India.
In this novel, Binodini’s perspective is vanquished by love and war, and the humbling of a small but proud kingdom. The novel’s 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.
According to Roy, the dramatic backdrop of the love story is the loss of sovereignty as the Tibeto-Burman kingdom on the mountainous seam of South and South East Asia is annexed into the British Indian Empire.
The book uncovers a lost chapter in the history of the British Raj – a diplomatic storm that had pitted Empress Victoria against Viceroy Lansdowne, imperialists against nationalists, empire versus kingdom, and had been hotly debated in the British Parliament, he says.
“The essential framework of the novel is a flashback, or rather, a series of flashbacks, that come back time and again to the setting of her (Binodini’s) opening chapter right to the very end,” he writes in the translator’s note.
Binodini wanted to write a book about Sanatombi since 1965.
“As I was thinking about it, Arambam Samarendra, the grandson of Surchandra’s youngest daughter Princess Khomdonsana, showed me some photographs and so on of Sanatombi and Maxwell. Although this greatly inspired me, I could not take it up,” Binodini wrote about the book.
As a writer used to short essays and lyrics, she said she lacked the courage to take up the story of such a large life. She continued to do her research and tried twice but failed. But from September 23, 1975, she started to write.
Many memories came to Roy as he translated his mother’s novel.
“Reading it, I often delved into my own recollection of family lore – where and from whom Binodini has gathered and stitched together images, words and incidents to create the imaginative pastiche that brings her characters to life and propels her story,” he says. (PTI)