Too many stories jostle in the spaces around us with too few takers. Yet, some stories are more gripping than others. The very mix of larger-than-life characters and situations captivates us and we set off on a path of discovery. The delicious possibility of an unlikely love story between a Hollywood actress and a swoon-worthy Indian Maharaja from the pre-Independence era is not fiction, but a forgotten or lesser known reality — especially in a country with skewed notions of heritage and history.
In 1946 (the dates may have been tweaked a little for ease of storytelling), Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Cooch Behar — Cambridge educated, decorated war hero, most eligible royal bachelor, handsome to the point of instant heartbreak and Maharani Gayatri Devi’s oldest brother — embarked on a tour of America with the colourful Russian owner of Calcutta’s Club 300, Boris Lissanevich. Their first port of call was Los Angeles, California, where the Maharaja met socially what we would call a starlet today; a debutante actress from the famed Howard Hughes galaxy of leading ladies, Nancy Valentine. So momentous was this meeting and its fall-out that the rest of the tour was aborted and Bhaiya, as the Maharaja was fondly known by all, spent his time cavorting in swimming pools and beach fronts in pursuit of Ms Valentine.
Part biography, part fiction and in great measure unseen history, this retelling speaks of exhaustive knowledge and research and is jam-packed with startling revelations about various members of the royal family in question, of Cooch Behar, as well as of other celebrated Indian royalty.
The writer’s strength lies in her honest dispassionate description whereas most historians or commentators tend towards respect and circumspection. Intricate details too blend rather masterfully to present a realistic portrayal against the backdrop of menacing and uncertain times, the state of our flammable subcontinent on the cusp of Independence from British Raj.
What the book offers rather admirably is a realistic ground-level portrayal of politics in a bygone phase of uncertainties. The unrest is palpable and there are concentric circles of secrets, intrigue and bitter betrayals. In an atmosphere of chaos and upheaval, no one may be trusted whether it be the Reds, the revolutionaries, the anti-monarchy protesters, old palace retainers, the British or the new Indian government officials.
There are elements that are at once familiar and stinging in detail — the shikar, violence and mayhem on religious lines, visits by royal siblings, the trip to Agra and Aurangabad or the subsequent plane crash. The unfolding of plots in the dark times of transition is beautifully portrayed. There is the leitmotif of the famed Mughal ruby sarpech with a terrible curse and its interesting journey, both in history and this narrative.
If the book falters, it is in the telling. The language is intermittently reminiscent of bubble- gummy film magazines; the leading lady’s inner dialogue is cloying, breathless and more suited for a coy Barbra Cartland scenario rather than true history. “The darkness was punctuated by the clack of wheels against rails, the shriek of the whistle and hum of the steam engine, the cry of jackals. My cry, our cries.” It reads in parts like a tell-all romance, but mercifully it is so much more.
The grimmer reality the innocent, confiding tone masks is that Nancy Valentine is actually a spy recruited by the Office of Strategic Services — the wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War II and a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — to report back not only on the Maharaja, but also on all the individuals and events around him.
The art of the honey-trap
After all, Americans have mastered the honey-trap. In which case, rewriting the short-lived marriage of less than three years as romance is cute, but not the whole truth. In love, the Maharaja is portrayed as a man of honour and more naive than he has any business being. In the narrative landscape, he stands out as a beleaguered king caught at the cusp of destiny, essentially heroic and magnetic in his principles and his devotion to duty.
When good friend Boris suggests he spirit away some of the royal treasure to Nepal or the Continent to ensure their safety in future, the Maharaja and he actually come to blows.
The incredibly sad flow of history leaves him stranded, the royal kingdom gone forever in independent India and the only life he knows over before he can comprehend it. His learning, resilience and honesty all make him truly the kind of Indian hero who has made the nation what it is.
For lovers of historical fiction, this is a special treat; the true story of a little blonde girl from Vermont with an unusual affinity for India who meets and woos a most extraordinary man of destiny.