Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of a Maharani

As part of my regular reading of biographies of the famous and (mostly) dead, I stumbled upon a wonderful book in the library - A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur by Maharani Gayatri Devi.

The book is essentially a rejoinder of how the princes of India, who pledged their loyalty to the British Crown, lived in the greatest luxury imaginable. Ruling several kingdoms across the Indian subcontinent, some small (such as the one Gayatri Devi was born into, Cooch Behar, in what is today's northern West Bengal) and some very large, like Hyderabad.

Gayatri Devi's story tells us of the other side of British India - the princely states, which were very different from the British Provinces. These were places that had varied levels of governance but were always absolute monarchies. From the tiny Kingdom of Cooch Behar, Gayatri Devi became the third queen of Jaipur state, one of the most powerful in Rajputana.

The book mostly dwells on royal life in India and England, but the real fun comes towards the end, after Independence. The Princes were made rajpramukhs for life and allowed privy purses, but the former was abolished by Nehru himself while the latter and much more were abolished by Indira Gandhi. The way the princes fought for their rights (and particularly Jai Singh's diplomatic stance) tells us a lot about how much our country was changing back then.

The best part of the book was the critique of the Rajasthan Governor - another Congress stooge - when the Swantantra Party-led alliance was in position to form a Government there. Then, there is also a quote from a former Prince, "Twenty two years ago, on this very floor [the Lok Sabha], we were described as co-architects of Indian Independence. Today, we are an anachronism..."

The ending was rather apt, with a beaten down Gayatri Devi longing to return to her husband's arm. The tale of the Princess is indeed the stuff of dreams: from a sprightly young maiden to an MP to a philosophical woman: a story that generations ahead must know of.

No comments: