Once Upon A Time In India is a work of imagination; the fantasy of a forgotten story-teller. All the main characters — the dashing French sailor Captain Corcoran, his ever-hungry pet tiger Louison, and the beautiful Princess Sita with her lotus eyes — were inventions of Alfred Assollant, a French writer who had never travelled to India.
Yet, the imagined India of Assollant is not too far from reality. The adventures of Captain Corcoran are set during the Great Uprising of 1857, in a central Indian kingdom whose rulers wanted to see the British expelled from India. Assollant and his hero, Captain Corcoran, are on the side of those Indians who are fighting the British.
There are references to many real characters from the 1857 Uprising. These include Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope, both leaders of the Uprising, as well as the British commander Sir Henry Lawrence, who died during the siege of Lucknow, and after whom two well-known Indian schools are named. There are mocking references to Queen Victoria and to the British Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston (about whom, we are told, Louison cares as much as for ‘an empty walnut’). Assollant did not like the English and they are the villains of his story.
Assollant chose as his main location for the novel a fortified city on the banks of the Narmada River, which he called Bhagavpur. It bears a striking resemblance to the town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh, whose spectacular fort-palace (pictured above) can still be seen towering over the north bank of the Narmada. And the old prince in the story is called Holkar, the family name of the Maharajahs of Indore – whose first capital was, yes, Maheshwar – and the fort-palace is now a hotel owned by a member of the Holkar family.
The book is, more generally, set against the backdrop of Anglo-French rivalry in India and elsewhere. Captain Corcoran describes himself as a relative of Robert Surcouf, still remembered in France today as a privateer, famous for capturing English ships during the Napoleonic wars. But the wider Anglo-French context in the novel relates to France’s failed ambitions in India.
In the eighteenth century, the British and the French had fought out an intense rivalry in India, until the defeat of Tipu Sultan and his French allies at the Battle of Srirangapatnam in 1799. After that the French retreated back to Pondicherry and a few smaller enclaves, while the English took control of most of the rest of the subcontinent. This is part of the reason for Assollant’s dislike of the English.
But Assollant also disliked monarchs and empires – in his own country, and particularly in Britain. He was a republican who believed in adult male suffrage, and that kings should be elected. And Captain Corcoran introduces these radical changes to Bhagavpur after the death of Prince Holkar.
Towards the end of the book, there are a few remarkable passages in which Corcoran and his Brahmin advisor Sugriva discuss caste, democracy and kingship in India. They consider the example of Aurangzeb, the last of the Great Mughals, who, according to Sugriva, tricked his way to power by pretending to be pious, virtuous and wise. And he goes on to argue that when he became emperor, Aurangzeb’s ‘piety melted like lead in a furnace, his virtue rusted like iron in water, and his wisdom ran away like a gazelle pursued by hunters’. They agree that Aurangzeb is not a good example of a ruler. The discussion of Aurangzeb is not entirely accurate, but does reflect the depth of Assollant’s interest in Indian history.
Then, finally, Corcoran challenges Sugriva over his obsession with purity and caste. He mocks Sugriva when the latter says he would have to take a ritual bath in the Narmada if he was touched by a low-caste person. ‘So what, have a bath then. You can never have too many baths.’ And Corcoran declares that it is the job of a ruler to provide justice to all castes, to all Indians, to peasants as well as zamindars. Sugriva reluctantly accepts this argument.
Assollant’s knowledge of India is far from perfect. He stereotypes Indians as lacking courage and strength. He makes a series of errors that relate to terrain, climate, customs and names – ones that anyone who had been in India would easily spot. But overall, his attitude towards India, and towards India’s independence, is unusual among Westerners of his generation. Assollant is worth reading not only for the exquisite humour and excitement of the adventures of Corcoran and Louison, but also for his depiction of distant India – so much more generous and thoughtful than most of his contemporaries.