Jit asked Indira why she looked so sad. If she was about to be married, he said, she ‘should be over the moon’.
‘I’m miserable because I’m getting married,’ she replied.
‘Well, why don’t you marry me?’ came Jit’s reponse.
This Bollywood-type romance underpins Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses. The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of George V. Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India, whose ruling family are easy-going, westernised and very friendly with the British Royal Family. Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, who favours Indian independence and who has just insulted King George by bowing once, instead of three times – and turning his back on him – when paying homage at the durbar ceremony. Although Sayajirao ran a well-ordered and liberal state in Baroda, he and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged seventeen year old Indira’s marriage, to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be the second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.
This feels like the stuff of romance and chick lit. I can feel a lump forming in my throat already, but it was real, Dear Reader. Shenanigan followed shenanigan, with Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, a great friend of British Queen Mary and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers, egging the lovers on. Meanwhile, the Indian princely families could not resist the high life in Europe: gambling, horse racing, balls, cricket, polo, motor cars and alcohol. Particularly alcohol. Jit would die of alcoholism, together with several of his own and Indira’s brothers.
Lucy Moore’s book Maharinis recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar. Lucy describes life in purdah, in the zenana (the women’s quarters) where mothers, wives, daughters lived, unseen, only venturing out to visit their husbands for sex. When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and – more importantly, from a Hindu religious point of view – nobody saw her. Many zenana women were never acquainted with the outside of the buildings where they would spend the rest of their lives. They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves. This all changed during the course of the book, even in Chimnabai’s lifetime, and – without giving away any spoilers – Indira would never suffer purdah, although Indira’s daughter, Ayesha, chose to go into partial purdah when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.
This book, although starting in 1911, at the height of the British Raj, covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule and eventually gained independence. All the princes supported independence, but not realising how much Nehru, Gandhi and the other grandees in the Congress Party, who called themselves Socialist and, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed to the idea of Indian aristocracy. The Congress Party reduced them to nothing. Ayesha, emerging from the zenana (rapidly becoming an anachronism) becomes involves in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandi, with whom Ayesha had been at school, throws her into jail.
As as a student at Cambridge in the 1930s, my father remarked to an Indian student friend that it was ridiculous that men and women in India got married in their early teens, and, surely, now that his friend had spent some time in England and observed the British way of life, he would never do such a thing. The Indian friend replied, “‘No and yes.”
Rosemary doesn’t do non-fiction, does she? Well, she did and she thoroughly recommends ‘Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.