I had heard about the book Maharaja in Denims by Khushwant Singh much before I actually got down to reading it. The title is catchy, but nothing prepares you for what lies inside those innocuous looking covers. The book starts right in the middle of love-making between Hari and Gaitri, and it is obvious that things are headed downhill between them right from the time Hari ecstatically cries out “I’m coming, Lily.” A fuming Gaitri gathers her clothes and storms out, all this while hurling choicest of Punjabi abuses at Hari, who himself is as shocked by this mysterious turn of events as Gaitri and the readers.
“Lily”, one of the names that keep flashing in Hari’s mind, is his connection to his more illustrious past life – none other than that of the “Lion of Punjab” Maharaja Ranjit Singh. As the novel progresses, Hari meets Suzanne, the girl with whom he would eventually fall in love, and the flashes from his past life keep getting more frequent, clearer, and sinister. Suzanne, who is a psychology student, takes Hari through sessions of past life regression, thinking that it would cure him of his extraordinary predicament. But these sessions end up revealing much more than either of them had bargained for.
The story slowly graduates from merely enjoying the antics of a rich, spoilt punjabi brat, to a serious investigation of Punjab’s past, present, and even the future. Nothing will prepare you for the unexpected end. I will keep it to myself and leave it up to you to find out. I can only say one thing – it feels like a hard punch in the stomach.
It can only be attributed to the brilliance of Khushwant Singh’s writing that the story effortlessly moves back and forth in time, interweaving several abominable historical events with the present. The depth of the narrative and the revelations show that the author has put in considerable research, and that the story is the result of years of hard work. But despite this, the book is an easy read. So much so that you won’t realize what you have got yourself into until you are so deep in it that you cannot turn back.