The British historian examines the remarkable transition of India’s female royalty from fairy-tale queens to activist powerbrokers as colonial fiefdoms merged into Asia’s largest democracy.
Moore (The Thieves’ Opera, 1998, etc.) focuses on three ancient families, the Gaekwads, Narayans and Jaipurs, who ruled over separate Indian states endowed under British colonial rule as the 19th century closed with foreboding. Moore sets the stage meticulously, stressing the advantage British overlords sought by fostering traditional administration and all its observances, so as long trade revenues flowed unfettered to London. Actual policies, of course, were strictly dictated in a kind of offstage whisper, and Indian royal families had no choice but to carry on with the pageant. For the queens, including Chimnabai II of Baroda (born ca. 1872 as Garabai Ghatge), traditional burdens of their role included the concept of purdah: no maharani should be seen by anyone other than her husband or necessary body servants. They lived literally screened off from the world, even at public functions. Devotion to lord and master also included the implied obligation not to outlive him; failing that, widows were expected to climb aboard his funeral pyre in sati—an act, Moore relates, often undertaken as culmination of the union and not under duress. From this setting, the author moves on to Chimnabai’s impulsive daughter, Indira, who defied her parents by actually marrying for love, and thence to Indira’s daughter, Ayesha, who escaped purdah with finality by hobnobbing with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, running successfully for Parliament in 1962, and becoming a lifelong opponent of the populist Indira Gandhi. Through it all, a gathering curse seemed to envelop the once-beloved maharajahs, who regularly fell from polo ponies or succumbed to generic alcoholism, leaving their magnificent ancient palaces empty and crumbling, with a little help from Mrs. Gandhi’s rapacious tax collectors,.
A stirring story of women strong enough to both embrace and defy tradition.