The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 1, 2003

Vapid memoirs
Review by Aradhika Sekhon

Maharani: Memoirs of a Rebellious Princess
by Elaine Williams. Rupa. Pages 247. Rs 195.

The name of the book Maharani: Memoirs of a Rebellious Princess certainly promises a good story. The princess’ rebelliousness, unfortunately, does not quite impress since the rebellion is more in her heart and mind than in anything she did. Born to a royal Rajput family of Jubbal, she did pretty much what her parents decreed for her. She was betrothed and subsequently married to the Maharaja of Kapurthala’s eldest son and heir, Paramjit Singh Tika Raja after a long engagement, during which her future father-in-law, the Maharaja, decided what she would study. She conformed to tradition when the occasion so demanded and repudiated the advances of the man whom she met in France and whocame to love her. She went through dangerous and painful fertility treatments to provide a male heir to her husband and even suffered the ignominy of her husband’s second marriage. So how does she qualify for being called rebellious?

Brinda, who was the Maharani of Kapurthala, lived through many events that transformed the world. Brinda, however, was rarely able to accord the importance due to these events, so busy was she in her own life of pleasure seeking, travelling, and meeting the great and the famous. Perhaps the fault here lies not in Brinda but in the presentation of her persona by the writer, Elaine Williams. For, if Brinda was really what she has been projected as, then she was nothing more than a woman who had a wonderful time in her life. The troubles that she went through really don’t touch a chord in the reader’s heart. The only rough patches in her life were a weak husband, a dominating father-in-law, who nonetheless allowed her to travel to Europe and America, and her husband’s second marriage. And since she herself admits that this was a done thing and that their relationship was not close, one wonders what the hue and cry is all about.


Anyhow, if one simply wants to know how affluent princesses lived in the early 1920s then this book is highly recommended. If, however, one is looking for depth or even a level of emotional or intellectual interest in the subject then this book is bound to disappoint. Elaine Williams’ claim that the book is an "elderly monarch’s poignant story of a princess manipulated and betrayed"’ and "hers was a fascinating tale of contrasts and conflicts set against the colorful background of India at the height of royal excess as it emerged from the 19th century", doesn’t hold water.

True, the princess was a ravishing beauty who, "with her princely husband destined to be Maharaja, was the toast of Paris, the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the French society, mingling with deposed European crowned heads, including King Alphonso of Spain and Queen Marie of Rumania". True also that she mingled with the "artists and writers of jazz-age Paris. Cole Porter wrote Let’s Misbehave for Princess Brinda`85on her visit to New York she dazzled Vanity Fair magazine and the New York society." But for all her travels and friends, Princess Brinda does not come across as the sparkling, beautiful creature that she perhaps was. One cannot feel the excitement of the times she must have lived through, nor is there any poignancy in the account of betrayal she must have felt when her husband took on a second wife as she was unable to give him a son.

But whatever the flaws in the book, Brinda seems to be totally honest about her life and feelings vis-`E0-vis her relationship with her parents, husband, sisters, father-in-law and daughters. Although not dealt with with depth of feeling, the descriptions are there for all to read and judge. So is it with accounts of the balls and voyages that she took and the friends that she made in Europe. It is, in fact, little more than an account of her life. Brinda neither endears herself to the reader nor is the reader able to empathise with her for she hardly reveals any foibles. Her willfulness or flashes of temper that she likes to grandiloquently term as ‘rebelliousness’ are mere flashes in the pan and appear frivolous.

Brinda lived through revolutions and world wars. She does mention friends that she lost to these terrible times but they remain just names, perhaps more alive in the princess’s memory than in the pages of the book. For example, she dedicates a few lines to a gentleman called Count Boni de Castellane, "Count Boni did nothing; by today’s standards he was a disgrace and a wastrel. Yet in those times and in that society, there was a place for a man with charm and elegance, a gentleman of wit and manners. What did he do? He was an asset to any dinner party, a gracious host, and a delightful guest." That is all one hears of the Count. He doesn’t significantly figure anywhere in the book. The whole narrative is full of such examples.

One cannot but rue the fact that such rich experiences as the Maharani must have had in a changing world were not better catalogued.