Good Night, Sweet Princes

Raj: A Novel

by Gita Mehta
Simon and Schuster, 479 pp., $19.95

Maharaja: The Spectacular Heritage of Princely India

by Andrew Robinson, photographs by Sumio Uchiyama
Vendome Press, 160 pp., $50.00

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.”

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 …

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