Monday, March 11, 2013

Memoirs of an Indian Princess - No, Not the Pocahontas Kind

A Princess Remembers
Gayatri Devi, the late Maharani of Jaipur, is remembered very fondly by Indians.  She lived through some of the most exciting times of Indian history - born into the privilege of Indian royalty under the Raj, grew up in the Roaring 20s and 30s and married one of the most popular and wealthy Indian kings, lived through WWII, witnessed Indian independence and then became a politician to stand for her beliefs.  She died just a few years ago, 90 years old.

Oh, and she was absolutely beautiful, too.

Gayatri was famous even before she wrote her memoirs because she was such a public figure.  But writing her memoirs didn't hurt, especially with a title such as A Princess Remembers.

I visited the Maharajah exhibit at the Field Museum last month and it really motivated me to read this book.  So much of Indian history is wrapped up in the way the British handled the Indian ruling class - point proven, the Maharajah exhibit was presented by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, not by any museum in India.  And I wanted to learn more about someone who had lived through it all.


The book is fascinating for many reasons.  But let's be honest - everyone wants to reads a royal memoir so that they can know the glamour.  And Gayatri had a lot - she traveled extensively to Europe, was taught in boarding schools in England and France, she learned to ride and hunt at a very young age, she "summered" in a hill fort castle, was regretful when she had to give up her private plane, and most of her former homes have been turned into hotels that can sleep about 500 people.  Wow.



Honestly, Gayatri had quite the life, and the way she shared it was very interesting.  She spent a lot of time justifying the role of Indian royalty, stating that they cared for and helped their people much more than Indian politicians do.  This is probably true - the Indian government is completely corrupt.  And when you are born into a particular role in society - and when your religion tells your whole purpose is to succeed in that one role - then one can see why the maharajahs were so passionate about keeping their place.  And when Gayatri became a politician, she really did work hard to represent her people and voice their needs.

But at the same time, Gayatri hid nothing about the way she and her family spent the revenue they earned - her husband was a huge gambler, they traveled abroad often, they rented vacation homes and completely redecorated them.  When one of her homes was converted into a hotel, Gayatri still went to the swimming pool there and set up guards to ensure that none of the guests could use it while she was there.  So while she was willing to help people, she certainly didn't want to share her space with them.  And while she was disappointed when she had to give up her private plane and multiple homes, she went on a huge cost-savings spree by ensuring that the palace employees, like the chefs, did not order more supplies than they needed.

Gayatri's views as a woman were also really interesting.  She grew up in a very open and casual household, went to school abroad, and lived a very cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Until marriage.  When she got engaged to the love of her life, the Maharajah of Jaipur, he did his best to ensure that she didn't meet any other eligible men (he already had two wives and was a great flirt).  When they married, she had to enter a half-purdah lifestyle, while his other wives were in full purdah.  He didn't allow her to learn Hindi, even though that is the language almost everyone in his household spoke and meant that she couldn't converse with many people.  I am pretty sure her husband gave her an STD.  But he also encouraged her to run for political office and supported her in that role (even though he still expected her to be his hostess).  And Gayatri did run, though she kept insisting that she had previously had no interest in politics and left all of that to her husband.

I was also really intrigued by the information Gayatri chose not to share.  For example, she never spoke about her husband's infidelities (and I mean infidelities with women who were not his wives), though she mentioned that she had a bout of herpes.  She said that she was very, very close to her elder brother Bhaiyya, but she only mentioned that he was married to a white woman at the very end of the book (and never mentioned that he had first married and divorced a different white woman), even though she must have spent time with both wives.

As often happens when I read books about India, the book really made me think, "What if?"  For example, the way Gayatri described Hinduism and all of the rituals and the ceremonies that the maharajahs led, riding their elephants and throwing gifts out to massive crowds - that doesn't happen any more, which made me a bit wistful.  But Hinduism also had to modernize once the maharajahs were gone - for example, people no longer "lose caste" when they travel across water (whew!).  What if the maharajahs still reigned?  Would religion be different?  Would the ruling class be as corrupt as the politicians are?

This review is getting very long, so I will stop here.  Really, if you have any interest in women's history or Indian history or the British Raj, this is an excellent read.

13 comments:

  1. Wow, how very interesting. And thanks for such a detailed recounting!

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  2. How interesting! I don't know much about women in India. I'd be interested to read this because it must be quite diffcult to be educated in the Western tradition and then go back and live with a husband who not only has other wives but cheats. Or does upbringing and tradition trump the exposure to different values? I wonder.

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    1. I think it may depend on how much you like your husband or how much you value your lifestyle or a lot of other factors.

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  3. This sounds like a fascinating read, and one that I would like to pick up. It sounds as if she speaks very personally and candidly throughout, and as though she is very well-spoken. It does make me a little mad that her husband treated her the way that he did, and as we have discussed before, I could never be a second or third wife! I also find it odd that she protects his infidelities, as it seems as though I would want the world to know that it was not the other way around!

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    1. You're right, it's very strange. I feel like it must just be one of those situations where it's considered polite to ignore what is happening and not speak about it at all.

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  4. Reading about royalty - especially the non-European kind for me as that's the most familiar - is always interesting. I read a book called Princess a long time ago that really stuck with me; it was about a woman in Saudi Arabia.

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    1. I read that, too! I remember being so horrified at the female mutilation. The princess herself was pretty great, though it was sad how narrow her life became.

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  5. They lost caste travelling across water? I never knew that

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  6. This sounds pretty fascinating! I would not have picked this book because I am your opposite - royalty doesn't seem to fascinate me. But after reading your review, I feel like checking this book out. I will definitely look for it.

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    1. It is well worth a look, and you'd probably know quite early on in the reading if you enjoyed it or not.

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  7. Sounds really interesting! How come he didn't want her to learn Hindi? And how could he stop her from learning Hindi? Couldn't she learn it on the sly?

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    1. He didn't want her to learn Hindi because he thought she would become a victim of harem politics. And I guess since he told her she couldn't, she never tried? Or maybe he made his wishes quite plain to everyone? From the way she describes her marriage, it appears that she didn't really ever try to stand up to him.

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  8. This sounds fascinating - her combination of submission and power would be quite intriguing.

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