Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Natural High-ness

What is it about pageantry that keeps us so preoccupied? I have already sounded off on the March 23 parade. Different grand events are streaming into my living room: the Pope's grand funeral (pity they have no subtitles for the Latin bits) and the not-so-grand wedding of Charles and Camilla on Saturday. Our friends the Americans, not to be left behind, have the Michael Jackson trial which (courtesy Fox TV) has its own peculiar rituals. Do we admit that we are still deeply fascinated by the accompanying visuals even though we profess to live in the age of liberte, egalite and fraternite? I vow never to watch this stuff and yet I do so compulsively - a slave to my baser instincts.

I was in Lahore many moons ago to chase up yet another failed relationship, but also to watch a world cup polo match. I was accompanied by A, an Amreekan friend who was horrified as I walked into the VIP enclosure with no tickets in hand. (The trick lies in keeping your nose in the air.) During the break, he pointed to an amazingly beautiful grey haired, sari-clad lady checking her lipstick in a compact. (Do compacts still exist?) It was the Maharani of Jaipur. "Gee. A real maharani?" Yeah. As real as they come.

It was in this mode that I tackled Maharanis by Lucy Moore. It's been a rough week so far and I needed something that would not fray the old nerves any further. Ms Moore has picked on the Maratha royal houses (who gave us wonderful titles like Gaekwad and Holkar) with the spotlight on Baroda, Cooch Behar and Jaipur. The tales are entertaining enough, the narrative bursting with adjectives and enough colour and spectacle to keep the most ardent royalist enthralled. But where's the substance? Sadly, there isn't any. Once the party's over (and for some it ended fairly quickly) there was a bunch or sad, well-dressed, not-very-intelligent people left over who were neither representative of the "native" peoples they ruled over, nor of their British overlords of whom they were faded dusky representations. Moore is at pains to point out how involved the Nawabs and Nawabettes were at the forefront of the independence movement, the establishment of schools and hospitals, the emancipation of women etc. I think she overstates the case. Come on. These self same people were keeling over with champagne poisoning.

There is no shortage of displaced nobility in Pakistan. One of Moore's sources lived in Islamabad till he died a few years ago. I have yet to meet anyone quite so disconnected from reality-quite so delusional. There was a true born-to-rule mentality at work- not to mention the accoutrements of the past: royal titles, seals, a sense of precedence and, above all, sheer superority. "Stupid. They are all stupid" he would intone whenever something disagreeable was encountered. The Indian branch of his family resigned themselves more readily to the decline in their fortune.

As always, what kept my interest in all of this is the intermingling of cultures. The memsahibs come off-stereotypically- as a bunch of shrieking vultures. (In a hilarious interlude, Lutyens is quoted as saying that one of Vicereines would have put bay windows into the Parthenon given half a chance.) The evolution of the sari is another case in point. The local Nawabettes took to wearing petticoats in imitation of the Colonialettes. The "modern" sari was tied to look as much like a ballgown as possible. And the first chiffon saris were scandalous - akin to wearing diaphanous underclothing. Trivia aside, there is little to recommend in Maharanis. Indeed, I felt an indescribable sadness when I put it down. Time to find something really trashy to read.


Blogger livinghigh said...

I know what u mean. Have been enthralled by ideas of European nobility - and the Russians, in particular. lol - as if there weren't enough minor blue bloods in India! ;-)

It's a thrill, I think, as much to revel in the 'old days' we never saw, as it is to gawk at 'those' things. Kinda sad, really - I mean, who's in the cage now, really?


2:07 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Do you every come across the blue bloods in India ? Apart from the filmi variety ? Incidentally, the Maharani of Jaipur's nephew married an actress!

6:27 pm  

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