"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 24, 2020

Ramendra Narayan Roy: India's Tichborne

Ramendra Narayan Roy, in the days when no one questioned that he was alive.

One of the most famous court cases of the 19th century revolved around Arthur Orton’s years-long campaign to prove that he was, in fact, Sir Roger Tichborne, a wealthy young man who had disappeared in a presumed shipwreck many years before. As strange (and protracted) as the whole Tichborne matter was, it was eclipsed in both length and weirdness by a lesser-known case which played out in India not many years later.

In the early 20th century, some areas of India were ruled directly by the British, others by Indian princes (kumars) operating under British control. One of the bigger and wealthier examples of the latter was the Bhawal Estate, in what is now Bangladesh. It was ruled jointly by three princes. The middle prince, Ramendra Narayan Roy, was a bit of a lad, with the unfortunate result that he was diagnosed with syphilis in 1906. While undergoing treatment in Darjeeling, he suddenly fell seriously ill and died on May 8, 1909, at the age of 25. He was cremated the following day.

The end of his story? Hardly. Ramendra hadn’t even begun causing trouble.

In 1910, the oldest of the Bhawal princes died, and shortly afterward, the remaining prince was ruled to be unfit to manage the estate on his own. (He died in 1913.) The estate was put under the control of the Court of Wards, a legal body created by the East India Company to protect estates when the heir, for whatever reason, was incapable of acting independently.

Not long after this, odd rumors began to circulate in Bhawal. It was said that Ramendra Narayan Roy was not, as everyone assumed, a heap of ashes, but alive and well and acting as a holy man in the city of Dhaka. Ramendra’s nephew went to Dhaka to see this mysterious figure for himself. He decided that the holy man did indeed resemble his presumably late uncle, but he could not positively say it was him. The pseudo-Ramendra was brought to Bhawal to meet other relatives. After speaking with him, some were convinced that it was the prince. They were particularly impressed that he remembered the name of “his” wet-nurse, something which was not public knowledge. Others, most notably Ramendra’s widow Bibhabati Devi, were equally convinced the man was an impostor.

At this point, British officials interjected themselves into the controversy. After interviewing all interested parties, they ruled that Ramendra Narayan Roy, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, was still dead.

The end of his story? Ha!

There were still a great many supporters for the Claimant, and they and his detractors essentially went to war. The issue of his identity became so heated that at one of the pro-Claimant demonstrations, at least one man was fatally shot. In 1930, the Man Who Would Be Ramendra went to court to establish that he was the second Bhawal prince, although the trial did not actually begin until 1933.

The first question to be addressed was the one that probably first occurred to you: How in the hell did this guy survive cremation? The Claimant’s story, in brief, is this: his wife and brother-in-law had plotted to kill him. The diagnosis of syphilis had been merely a hoax, designed as an excuse to bring him to Darjeeling. There, he was poisoned and pronounced dead. His brother-in-law arranged for him to be taken to a funeral ground to be cremated. However, a sudden hailstorm which broke out before the pyre could be lit forced everyone to flee for safety, leaving him on the funeral grounds. There, some holy men happened to come across his inert form and carried him away to safety. They nursed him back to health, but the traumatic experience caused memory loss, which for several years made him forget who he was.

Top: Photo of the prince.  Bottom: The Claimant

The case almost totally revolved around “expert witnesses” for both sides. This worked about as well as you might think. The Claimant’s handwriting witnesses swore that the plaintiff’s writing was identical to that of the prince. The handwriting witnesses for the defense swore that there was no resemblance at all. A photographic expert for the Claimant swore that photos of the plaintiff and the prince were definitely of the same person. Photographic experts for the defense told him to pound sand. Doctors who had tended Ramendra in his “final illness” were brought in. The ones who testified for the Claimant said he was really not all that sick, and could easily have survived. The ones who appeared for the plaintiff said recovery had been impossible. And so on. And so on. For more than a year, literally a thousand witnesses offered equally contradictory testimony. Then, the defense presented their case. For yet another year, they brought forth four hundred witnesses, including Ramendra’s widow, who all denounced the Claimant as a shamelessly brazen fraud. The widow of the eldest prince also believed the plaintiff was a fake. On the other hand, the widow of the third prince was of the opinion that yes, the Claimant was actually the real deal.  For every bit of evidence which proved the Claimant was the prince, another was brought forward which proved he wasn't.

In short, the trial was a confusing mess on a truly epic scale.

The legal marathon finally adjourned on May 20, 1936. The long-suffering judge took three months to study the voluminous evidence and write his report. He judged in favor of the plaintiff, and ordered that he be given his rightful one-third share of the Bhawal Estate.

The end of his story? Oh, surely you jest.

Despite this verdict, the British remained convinced the Claimant was a hoaxer, and filed an appeal, which was heard before the High Court in Calcutta in late 1938. While the case was being heard, one of the three appellate judges made what was meant to be a brief trip to England. Then--as if things weren’t complicated enough already--World War Two broke out, leaving the judge unable to return. After a year or so of hoping the world would calm down enough for him to get back to India, the stranded judge finally sent over his written judgement. It turned out that there was a split decision: one of the judges supported the appellants, while the other two (including the one stuck in England) ruled against them. For a second time, the legal system had decided that the Claimant was indeed Ramendra Narayan Roy.

The end of his story? I think that by now, you know the answer to that.

Ramendra’s widow (or, in the view of the High Court, his wife) was determined to fight on. She brought her appeal to London’s Privy Council. The ruling on her case had to be delayed until the end of the war. Finally, July 30, 1946 saw the end of this other long, messy conflict. The Privy Council dismissed her appeal, leaving the Claimant again triumphant.

For a while, at least. Before the Privy Council delivered its verdict, an astrologer told Bibhabati that she would lose her case, but that the Claimant would gain no benefit from his win. As it happened, he was quite correct. Just hours after he learned of his victory, the Claimant suffered a massive stroke which killed him two days later.

Whether or not this man was truly Ramendra Narayan Roy--something which is still debated by historians--his story was, at long last, indisputably over.

1 comment:

  1. Good Heavens. I chuckled over the dramatic events that allegedly spared the dead man his cremation: the holy men, the hail storm, followed by the amnesia. I suspect the British officials involved were hoping the case would drag out until Indian independence, when they could leave it to their hapless successors.


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