Raj: A Novel
Maharaja: The Spectacular Heritage of Princely India
Gita Mehta sets the scene well: India, the Roaring Twenties, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Jaya, wife of Prince Pratap of Sirpur, is watching the races, dressed in red and indigo, the Sirpur colors. She is joined by her brother-in-law, Maharajah Victor, a gentle man in love with a Hollywood star:
“The Sirpur colors seem to belong on you, Princess. I often think you are the only one of us who knows who you are.”
“But you are the Maharajah, hukam. You are Sirpur.”
He looked at her and Jaya was shocked at the unhappiness in his eyes. “Only by birth and the tolerance of the British Crown, not because I believe I am a king. I am acting and actors should be allowed to marry actresses.”
That is of course precisely what they were, the rajahs, maharajahs, nawabs, and Nizams of India, actors on a stage set by the British. Effectively emasculated by the Raj, they were useful as vassals to the British Crown, ruling chunks of India, red blotches on the map in a sea of pink, virtually as proxies with British residents watching their every move. Tradition and the mystique of divine kingship lent historical weight to British ideas of “good government.” As long as they acted their parts, the Indian princes could spend their lives at play. And some chose very odd plays indeed.
Mehta uses to wonderful effect a celebrated occasion when the Nawab of Junagadh staged a dog wedding, inviting the crème de la crème of Indian aristocracy for the occasion: “The marriage of the two dogs, Roshanara, veiled and covered in gems, to Bobby, shivering in his wet silk pajamas, was conducted with all the ceremony that would have accompanied the marriage of a royal princess.”
Andrew Robinson, in the latest glossy book for the Indian nostalgia trade, describes the funeral of the Maharajah of Alwar: his impeccably dressed corpse seated stiffly upright in his favorite golden Hispano-Suiza, the rear of which was a copy of the British coronation coach, complete with carriage lamps and gold crowns. Alas, there are no pictures of this occasion. We have to make do instead with Sumio Uchiyama’s colorful photos, mostly of the charming Maharajah of Jodhpur (Eton and Oxford) striking traditional poses.
Another noteworthy player, cited by Robinson, was Sayaji Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda, who trained his parrots to ride silver bicycles and perform dainty dramatic scenes. His granddaughter, Gayatri Devi, remembered one in particular “in which a parrot was run over by a car, examined by a parrot doctor, and finally carried off on a stretcher by parrot bearers. The grand climax of their performance was always a salute fired on a silver cannon.”1
All this is fun to read of course. The excesses of bored men with unlimited means always are. But Mehta’s novel, greatly to her credit, is more than a catalog of bizarre fancies. The story of Jaya is a story of liberation: the liberation of a woman, whose story begins in the opulent seclusion of a palace harem and ends in a court of law, where she registers her name as a political candidate in a newly independent India. But, again to her credit, it is not simply a story of brave, freedom-loving Indians versus arrogant oppressive Brits. It is much more ambivalent than that, for the agents of change, and ultimately of freedom, are often the very same things that oppress and destroy.
Two symbols recur frequently throughout the book: the machine and the bracelet. Glass bangles or glittering gauntlets are forever clinking on Jaya’s wrists like manacles, symbols of her young servitude to tradition. Dressed by servants for her marriage to a man she has never even met, she felt “suffocated as the women scratched her body with jeweled gauntlets and heavy anklets.” But when the young Englishman she had loved dances with her at a ball, her bangles break in his white glove. And when her maidservants haul bags of contraband salt into a train in defiance of the British monopoly their glass bangles break against the window bars.
The machine is introduced as a destructive force, often in conjunction with money. Thus we learn early on how drought turns Jaya’s ancestral country into a wasteland “to be exploited by the machines of a new age without customs or humanity.” Thus it is that the palace guru believes that by adopting the machines and institutions of the British, “we would adopt their ways, and in the process lose our souls.” Jaya’s father is shocked by the idea of investing money in stocks, for moneylending is undignified; it is against the dharma of a Rajput warrior. “Dungra’s thick lips, stained red with betel juice, opened in laughter. ‘Dignity? Dharma? You live in the past, Jai. Such words have lost their currency. Now the world runs on money.’ ”
The old world of customs and warriors against the new world of machines and moneylenders; no wonder at least one maharajah is said to have had portraits of Hitler in his study. He was not to know that Hitler, despite his love for Aryan nobility, was hardly interested in saving the Indian soul.
Jaya’s attitude toward the machine age is one of sad resignation:
She thought of her father’s mustache falling like a broken wing onto his white tunic as he told the Balmer Raj Guru that machines had ended the dharma of the warrior, and with it the dharma of the king.
For much of her life, inevitably for an Indian woman in the first half of this century, her destiny is controlled by men. They all represent something: her father, the old world Rajput; her husband, the confused, self-hating Anglicized playboy; her Indian lover, the Bengali babu nationalist; her English friend, the liberal who loves India. These are well-known types, but, as with Jaya, it is their ambivalence that saves them from being cardboard cutouts. For her father may be an old world Rajput, but he also tries to be modern, forcing his wife to break purdah and help the starving villagers during a famine. Osborne, the English friend, may be a liberal who loves India, but he remains loyal to his viceroy, to the point of spying on Jaya’s activities when he decides they are against British interests. And the Bengali babu, Arun Roy, is strongly drawn toward the very woman whose power he must destroy.
Sex is of course one of the most fascinating aspects of colonial society, the way sex became mixed up with politics. The early British settlers in India, soldiers and traders, employed by the East India Company, had no qualms about taking Indian mistresses; this was one of the “perks” of living in the tropics. But after the British began to rule India, not as traders but as a kind of superior caste, sex with the natives became a taboo, something upper-caste Hindus understood very well. The taboo was no doubt broken on some occasions, but this degraded the white sahib in Indian as well as British eyes. So even though every encounter between Jaya and Osborne is charged with erotic attraction, nothing happens, nothing can be allowed to happen. Even sex between the sahibs and memsahibs had to be discreet to maintain face in the eyes of the more fastidious natives. Nirad Chaudhuri, for one, was shocked by the sight of white couples carousing on Indian beaches, thereby “bringing disgrace upon the great European tradition of adultery established by all the historic adulteresses from Cleopatra to Madame de Stael.”2
The penchant among Indian aristocrats for seducing as many white women as they could was degrading in a different way. It was part of their playacting—collecting Hollywood starlets was not so different from collecting Hispano-Suizas. But it was also a kind of racial revenge, though the revenge was not as sweet as it should have been, for it was infused with self-hatred. Mehta catches this well in her description of Jaya as a new bride, still very much the traditional Rajput princess, pining for her absent husband. She asks her older friend and mentor, Lady Modi, otherwise known as Bapsy, why she appears to fill her husband with disgust:
“Is it the color of our skin? Our hair? Are white women so much more beautiful than we are?”
“Of course not, darling. It’s just that you represent everything the British Empire has taught Pratap and Victor to despise….”
So what should she do about it?
“If you want to attract your husband, Princess, you must make the British envy Pratap, not patronize him. You must make yourself into a woman who is desirable to white men.”
This still rings true today, from Bombay to Tokyo, where some women continue to have their eyes fixed to look more Western. Of course this is not for the benefit of Western males, who, in any case, tend to prefer exotic Asian beauty, but to suit their own notion that physically the West is best.
Jaya tries her best to dress like a European flapper, but never becomes the caricature that her cocktail-swilling friend Bapsy is. Nor does she become quite like Bapsy’s opposite, Jaya’s teacher, Mrs. Roy, a nationalist from Calcutta, dressed in white cotton saris; earnest where Bapsy is frivolous, loyal where Bapsy is fickle, intellectual where Bapsy is shallow. Jaya never becomes like Mrs. Roy, because she remains an aristocrat to the end, even when registering her name as a candidate in India’s first independent elections.
Jaya’s rebellion is not an intellectual one as Mrs. Roy’s is. She wanted to be a dutiful wife, but, rejected by her husband, she ends up hating him and everything he stands for. Refused his love, she gains his power. When she agrees to extricate him from a disastrous affair with an Anglo-Indian demimondaine formerly employed in a Calcutta brothel, she demands that she become regent of his state in the case of his death, which, as so often happens with shiftless playboys in novels, comes rather soon.
Gita Mehta’s novel is important because, for once, it deals with the Raj without nostalgia or bitterness. She is at her best when describing the twisted human relations in a colonial society. The first part of the story, Jaya’s childhood, interested me less than Jaya’s adult life. As a child she is only among Rajputs, with the occasional intrusion of a white man or a Bengali teacher. But it is in the milieu of nationalist radicals, Anglo-Indian mistresses, cynical politicians, decadent maharajahs, and Indian flappers that the novel really comes alive. It is, one feels, a milieu Mehta knows very well: that small, still-existing society in India, where East meets West, a sometimes fruitful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disastrous encounter. The novel ends with Indira Gandhi’s parliamentary bill of 1970, discontinuing privy purses and abolishing the concept of rulership. It was the formal end of princely rule in India. But in few countries is the legacy of history, in spirit and form, so apparent as in India.
Quoted from Gayatri Devi's memoir: A Princess Remembers (1976).↩
Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (Addison-Wesley, 1988), p. 167.↩