Maharanis, by Lucy Moore

Dying for a turn in front of the camera
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The Independent Culture

This book has a huge cast list. The four Maharanis or "great queens" of Lucy Moore's title are Chimnabai, second wife of Sayajirao III, Maharaja of Baroda from1875 to 1938; Sunity, wife of Nripendra, Maharaja of Cooch Behar from 1863 to 1911; Indira, wife of Jitendra, Maharaja of Cooch Behar from 1913 to 1922 (daughter of Chimnabai, and daughter-in-law of Sunity); and Ayesha, Indira's daughter and third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur from 1923 to 1970. These women were redoubtable in their own right, but as their lives were so closely bound up with their overlapping families, Moore has had to include all their sons, daughters, husbands, in-laws, as well as the chief figures in the history of India from the last years of British rule to the present day.

This book has a huge cast list. The four Maharanis or "great queens" of Lucy Moore's title are Chimnabai, second wife of Sayajirao III, Maharaja of Baroda from1875 to 1938; Sunity, wife of Nripendra, Maharaja of Cooch Behar from 1863 to 1911; Indira, wife of Jitendra, Maharaja of Cooch Behar from 1913 to 1922 (daughter of Chimnabai, and daughter-in-law of Sunity); and Ayesha, Indira's daughter and third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur from 1923 to 1970. These women were redoubtable in their own right, but as their lives were so closely bound up with their overlapping families, Moore has had to include all their sons, daughters, husbands, in-laws, as well as the chief figures in the history of India from the last years of British rule to the present day.

It is no easy task. The book inevitably feels as though the reader is being led through a maze. What is clear is the staggering percentage of the male relatives of the Maharanis who died relatively young of alcohol abuse. An incomplete list includes Raji, Jitendra's predecessor as Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who died at 31 in 1913; Shivaji, second son of Sayajirao and Chimnabai, who died of pneumonia in 1918 (or 1919, depending on which page you read); Jitendra, who died in 1922 on his 36th birthday; his son Indrajit, who died at 33 after setting fire to his bed in 1951; and in the most recent generation, Jagat, Ayesha's son, who died in 1997 aged 46.

Whatever is going on here? To try to answer this question seriously could have made for a fascinating study. But, apart from a couple of pages of analysis, Moore doesn't seem any closer to understanding the problem than was Sayajirao, who "never drank because of the 'misery and suffering' it caused". To skate over this question is typical of the glossy approach Moore brings to her subject. Bewitched by richly caparisoned elephants, shimmering silk saris, thick strings of pearls, the spicy smell of incense, piles of silken cushions, delicately embroidered curtains and jewels tumbling out of gold boxes, she presents a picture of Indian princely life which could have come straight out of the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair.

She seems to operate from a number of unquestioned assumptions, along the lines of: British rule was entirely and always wrong; Mahatma Gandhi was entirely and always right (unlike Mrs Indira Gandhi, who wasn't); Lord Curzon was unspeakable; polygamy can be acceptable whereas male "infidelity" is heinous - and so on, but with an underlying sense that what really matters is to be glamorous. Ambiguity doesn't get much of a look-in although, despite the author's best didactic efforts, the book is full of it. Perhaps there are just too many people crowding its pages, all desperate for their turn in front of the camera. Pity so many of them drank themselves to death.

The reviewer's book 'Grandes Horizontales' is published by Bloomsbury

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