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.
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.