Written by Lucy Moore
Published by Penguin UK (2004)
Review by Rosemary Johnson
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 response.
The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the easy-going, westernised Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India. Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, 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 otherwise liberal and forward-looking, Sayajirao and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged for seventeen year old Indira to be married to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be his second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.
So far, so Bollywood. But this is history, not chicklit. Shenanigan followed shenanigan, the lovers egged on by Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, friend of the British Royal Family and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers. 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 his own and Indira’s brothers.
Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar. One of the strengths is Lucy’s full descriptions of life in purdah. When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and nobody saw her. Zenana women never saw the outside of the buildings in which they lived. They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves. However, without giving away any spoilers, Indira would never suffer purdah, although her daughter, Ayesha, chose partially to enter the zenana when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.
This book covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule. All the princes supported independence, but without appreciating the extent to which Nehru, Gandhi and the Socialist-inclined Congress Party, which, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed the existence of Indian aristocracy. With the zenana becoming a thing of the past, Ayesha, a gutsy lady, becomes involved in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi, with whom she had been at school.
The writing style is occasionally rambling and occasionally difficult to follow, perhaps because we are unaccustomed to Indian names and places, but Maharanis is a well-researched and honest account of an emotional period of history.
Rosemary Johnson has contributed to FictionAtWork, The Short Humour Site, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket. Her work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element. Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.