Friday, August 21, 2009

Maharanis: Not a Book Review

A few weeks ago I happened to learn that Rajmata Gayatri Devi, the dowager Maharani of the erstwhile princely state of Jaipur, passed on at a ripe old age of 90. She was acclaimed for her beauty and her charity work. I, of course, came to know of her existence by serendipity. I was 12 years old then and was down with measles. I had had to miss a fortnight of school and was confined to my bed, which was quite an annoyance for my hyper energetic personality. One afternoon, my mother, handed me a copy of "A Princess Remembers," which are the memoirs of Maharani Gayatri Devi. I remember being struck by her beauty and completely enraptured by her life. Therefore in my mind, I associate the personality with the book that had fascinated the imagination of a young girl on the threshold of puberty. Years later, a month before leaving to come to the United States, I fell ill. I was married then but still wanted to convalesce at my parent's home. Therefore for three weeks I was staying with my parents. One afternoon, I stumbled across this forgotten book and picked it up to read it. As an adult I read the book and could discern that it was a sugar coated, one sided account of her life as she saw it. Clearly it wasn't a very objective account as she had tried to present the darker side in the best possible light. Of course one would attribute it to her grace and dignity rather than viewing life through rose-tinted glasses.

I have been wanting to read "Maharanis" by Lucy Moore since a very long time. Finally I got around to reading it. To me this was a third person account of their lives therefore would be objective. This book traces the life of Maharani Gayatri Devi, her mother and her two grandmothers. It is a fascinating story of four extraordinary women who lived their lives during the waning years of the British Empire and the Indian Princely States. It is a wellknown fact that Gayatri Devi's grandfather the Maharajah of Baroda was a great man who worked for betterment of his subjects and reforming his state. He was a fierce critic of the British and has always been hailed as a nationalist. He was one of the few, if not the only, ruler of a princely state to openly support the Indian National Congress. Unlike his contemporaries he was not given to leading a licentious life full of excesses. His daughter, Gayatri Devi's mother, became a widow at thirty. However, contrary to Indian societal norms, she did not resign to living an austere life of a widow but instead ruled on behalf of her minor son. She was in fact a merry widow nicknamed by her friends as Maharani of couche partout a parodized version of her title Maharani of Cooch Behar. It also speaks about her two grandmothers, Chimnabai of Baroda and Sunity Devi of Cooch Behar who are potrayed as strong women. They strived for women's education and emancipation. They were married to men different in character, the former was married to Sayaji a nationalist and faithful man (a rarity in that class), while Nripendra an overt Anglophile with a roving eye. The Baroda and Cooch Behar prince and princesses were educated abroad, the sons apparently did not possess strength of character and were given to alcoholism while the daughters were strong and wilful. Gayatri Devi became the third wife of the Maharajah of Jaipur, a handsome polo player whose first two wives were political alliances. She marries him for love and grows from a young girl in awe of her husband's larger than life personna to becoming a politican and celebrity in her own right.

It is full of anecdotes as well as historic accounts of the current events occuring simultaneously in India's struggle for freedom. It highlights the fact that how British used the princely states for their machinations to spread and continue their imperial power over the subcontinent, and completely disregarded the princely states during the process of transferring power to India.
It is an interesting account of these four extraordinary women who broke the tradition of purdah (being veiled and not seen in public) and used their position to better the lives of the less privileged. Their lives were extraordinary with immense luxury juxtaposed with harsh reality and tragedies that really made them human. They experienced extreme joy along with such tragic events. One would think that such a position of priviledge made the male members ill-equipped to deal with the sea of change that was occuring within the Indian subcontinent. Those who follow Indian history must be well aware of the horrors of Emergency and the dark period of Indira Gandhi's rule in which democratic values were held to ransom. This book reveals that aspect as experienced by Gayatri Devi who was then into active politics and in opposition to Mrs. Gandhi. These two women, born into priviledged backgrounds, two years apart and studied together in Shantiniketan, had a strong dislike for each other. However they were bound by the tragic events that occured in their lives. When Mrs. Gandhi lost her son to an airplane accident, Gayatri Devi with all her grace and dignity called her to offer her condolences, which were not accepted by Mrs. Gandhi. It speaks volumes about their individual personalities; grace of one and the petty-minded behavior of the other.

This book traverses across three centuries; the nineteenth, twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first,and chronologically traces the lives of these four extraordinary women and their families. This book is an interesting read, however it is not a testament to feminism. These women were in privileged positions and were therefore an exception than the norm. The majority of women in the country did not afford the luxury of freedom of choice.