What This Princess And British Agent's Love Story Reveals About Manipur's History

Binodini's book, translated into English by her son L. Somi Roy, is a work of historical fiction based on the life of Princess Sanatombi of Manipur.

One day the carpenter gave him directions and Maxwell went to Sanatombi’s house. When Jasumati saw the Saheb had come, she ran in and said, ‘Sanatombi, the Saheb is here, Mesin Saheb. Don’t come out.’

Maxwell waited outside the gate for someone to come out. It could not be said that the household was very prosperous. He had seen how Sanatombi had lived at Manikchand’s, he had seen the house of the Lady of Ngangbam. And he realized—Jasumati did not live well. She led a hard life. Maxwell was pained when he saw this.

Jasumati came out as far as the gate and said, ‘Saheb, Sanatombi is not in.’

Maxwell did not know Jasumati, he had never seen her before. But from the way she looked, and some resemblance to Sanatombi, he knew she must be her mother and saluted her. He was a little taken aback when the easily panicked Jasumati said Sanatombi was not in even before he had asked for anyone. But when he looked he saw that Sanatombi was leaning against a pillar on the small porch—and that she was looking hard at him. She was even thinner, and a little paler, but he thought she looked even more beautiful.

Maxwell did not know what to say or do. After talking with Jasumati about the paddies and one or two other things, he saluted them both and left.

Maxwell could not sleep that night. He got up and wrote a letter home. ‘... ... ... Fate has brought me here again to suffer and to see suffering. I don’t know what the future holds for me. ... ... ... But I love this painfully beautiful country. Perhaps there is no way out for me ... ... ... .’

As he had thought, the matter of the paddies was where he had left it. They had asked for a report but it had remained unsent. He saw little indication that the ones who were to receive or take it had shown much interest. He saw before his eyes—Jasumati’s little house. And Sanatombi, thin, her marriage broken. He thought he would take up this matter without any further delay. But he wanted to meet Sanatombi by herself just one time. He wanted to say to her just once all that he had wanted to say as he was leaving—Sanatombi, forgive me. He wanted to say this just one time even today. This thought began to torment him incessantly.

One day he put aside his embarrassment and asked the carpenter. Who knew if this simple man would misunderstand him? The carpenter was very devoted to Maxwell. He also knew Maxwell was very unhappy that Sanatombi was living in her mother’s house. The ‘Maxwell–Sanatombi’ scandal was one that had shook the land and so he agreed to help arrange a meeting between the two of them—So, what was wrong if they wanted to clear the air, let them meet ... ... ... So what if they met?

There was a small woodworking shed near the carpenter’s gate where he stored some foodstuffs, his finished carpentry, and where he would stay overnight to guard his belongings. This kind, simple man not only took messages back and forth between Maxwell and Sanatombi but also arranged for them to meet one day at the shed. How it poured that day; there had been blinding rain since the morning. But as agreed, Maxwell came on time, walking by himself along the muddy road. It was after twilight. The royal market had closed shop early. Not many people were on the road. Looking at the rain the carpenter had been taking it easy, thinking that the Saheb would not show up after all. As he had just started stretching out on his small bed with his dinner, he heard a knock on the door. When he opened the door, he found the Saheb standing there tall at the doorway. He stooped as he entered and he took off his large raincoat and hat, and after putting them down, he sat on the loom seat that had just been finished. He did not say a word. The carpenter did not say anything. He left quietly, perhaps to tell Sanatombi.

Maxwell was left sitting, a single lantern facing him. The room was not well lit. He sat, but he was restless. He wondered if Sanatombi would not come, or if it would end badly. He got up, but it was not a place he could pace. He sat down again nervously on the little loom seat, the Big Saheb of Manipur, Maxwell. He rehearsed what he was going to say to Sanatombi, he rehearsed what he would say in Meiteilon.

Sanatombi opened the door slowly and came in. A single cloth covering her head. Her stray wet hair glistened from the rain.

Sanatombi stood by the doorway. Maxwell rose to his feet; he thought she was about to fall. She had collapsed in Kangla one day. He went to her and sat Sanatombi down on the small bed and said, ‘Come, rest awhile.’ He forgot the Meiteilon he had rehearsed to say.

Sanatombi looked hard at him and said suddenly, ‘Why have you come? Why did you come back to Manipur?’

Sanatombi had spoken harshly to him not only on one occasion but again and again, but it was not a rebuke today. It sounded different. And he forgot what he had planned to say, his string of words that he had come to recite. He held Sanatombi tight.

Excerpted with permission from The Princess and the Political Agent by Binodini, Penguin.