Have just finished reviewing Anne Chambers’ Ranji: Maharajah of Connemara, a whimsical but interesting account of a lesser-known phase of K S Ranjitsinhji’s life - the time he spent in Ireland near the end of his life. Am putting it down here.
Sidenote: around a year and a half ago, I reviewed Mario Rodrigues’ Batting for the Empire, which analysed Ranji’s political life, complete with much bemoaning that he batted for the British Raj during India’s independence struggle. When I read Rodrigues’ book, I was unsatisfied with that argument, though I wasn’t confident enough then to articulate it in my review. It seemed to me presumptuous of the author to assume that Ranji - a prince in British India, who had been educated in England as a subject of the Raj - had some sort of natural patriot’s responsibility to the idea of a free India. It was too revisionist a view, I thought, also too grounded in the kind of patriotic sentimentality that is a way of life in India (the "Mera Bharat Mahan" bleat - which lasts until one’s religion or caste or state comes under threat!)
But, too-aware of my own unconventional take on these things, I thought it best not to mention any of this in that review. (Besides, I didn’t know enough about the political scenario in 1920s India and didn’t want to put foot in mouth.) Then, a week or so later, Ashok Malik reviewed the book for the Sunday Express and said many of the things I’d wanted to.
Anyway, have managed to incorporate some of that in the review I’ve just finished. Here it is:
Ranji: Maharajah of Connemara; by Anne Chambers
The name Ranji conjures up two images: the first, that of a lithe batsman who lit up England’s hallowed cricketing grounds in the early 20th century with a manner of play that suggested "Oriental mysticism" to many observers; the next, a somewhat portly maharajah who was firmly on the side of Empire at the height of India’s independence struggle. What the name doesn’t evoke -- unless you’re the great-grandchild of someone who lived in Ballynahinch Castle, Connemara circa 1925 -- is the picture of a supple-wristed Indian fishing for trout on the west coast of Ireland.
But that’s the side of the man Anne Chambers is interested in, and her new book is a refreshing change from the typical biography. Ranji: Maharajah of Connemara is, in the main, concerned with an unchronicled aspect of Prince Ranjitsinhji’s life: his acquisition of a castle in this Irish district, where he spent a large part of his final years.
This thread begins with Ranji’s enigmatic decision, in 1924, to acquire a home in Ireland. No entirely satisfactory explanation is given, though the prince joked that he was doing it to get away from acquaintances who "were eating him out of house and home." For her part, Chambers quotes a passage from Thackeray ("how would you rejoice but to have but an hour’s sport in Derryclare or Ballynahinch...") to help explain the attraction of the place for Ranji. She also indicates that he was enchanted by the easy familiarity of the Irish people -- they reminded him, he said (not entirely convincingly), "of the warmth of heart and generous hospitality of my own peasantry in my own country".
And there was the fishing. Ranji spent most of his time here angling for trout and salmon, relaxing in the company of close friends, touring the countryside (about which the author gets almost embarrassingly descriptive: "empty moorlands speckled with saffron gorse...the golden thatch of whitewashed cottages...the ribs of lazy potato beds") and presiding over local sports events. It was his retreat of choice when he wanted to escape the politics of his homeland.
Given the story’s focus, it must be said that the book takes a little too long to get to Connemara. For the first 70 pages or so, Chambers treads ground extensively covered elsewhere: Ranji’s early life (including the comically controversial circumstances of his adoption by Vibhaji, prince of Nawanagar), his cricket and his politics. But though this section of the book is superfluous, it isn’t completely without merit. There is, for instance, a certain charm in Chambers’ faltering attempts to describe the game -- a charm that would be missing from the writing of a more seasoned (and probably jaded) cricket writer.
I’m not sure if Dr W G Grace has ever been described with such guilelessness elsewhere: "He had a wide, flowing beard and a stern, though not unkind, face; he was light on his feet like many large men, and had the reputation of being a good dancer." And in her description of Ranji’s most famous stroke, Chambers doesn’t take the easy way out by using timeworn jargon; she actually describes the stroke, explaining in layman’s terms how it differs from textbook cricketing shots. One senses here an upfrontness in the writing that permeates to other sections of the story as well. This honesty makes up for the book’s flaws -- its uneven structure, the sometimes dull, distanced writing and the drawing of oversimplistic parallels and contrasts (between colonialism in India and in Ireland; between Ranji and M K Gandhi as young students in England).
One might, of course, ask: why care? Why is it such a big deal that K S Ranjitsinhji, the contours of whose life were defined by wristy flicks on cricket grounds and later by political intrigues in boardrooms, had a good time fishing and lazing along the Irish coast in the last years of his life? The answer: well, because the supposedly less significant aspects of a public figure’s life reveal much in their own ways. An intimate, less-heard story, unencumbered by larger socio-cultural resonances, is likely to provide glimpses of the real person behind the myth.
We already know, or think we know, the "important" things about Ranji. He was the first great cricketer of Indian origin, more relevantly one of the first players to take batting beyond the MCC coaching manuals. We know too of the supposed "irony" of his life: India’s major domestic cricket tournament is named for him despite the fact that he batted for the British Raj during India’s freedom struggle. (Mario Rodrigues’ Batting for the Empire, published last year, lamented that Ranji turned his back on his country during the independence struggle; but this is a spurious argument, built on the sentimental assumption that a man who had lived his life as a prince under colonial rule somehow had a natural patriot’s responsibility to the idea of an independent, republican India.)
Those, anyhow, are the legends, all well-documented. Chambers’ book steps outside them; she shows us a man who lived in the public glare but who found a measure of peace in a private arena, near the end of a conflicted life where he was expected to be too many different things to different people. This is an unusual, graceful book that casts a close eye over parts that most conventional biographies lightly graze. More such writing, on other famous personalities, would be welcome.