Pride & Prejudice

Review by Sheila Kumar

Once upon a time in God’s Own Country, there lived two cousins. Plucked from their peaceful childhood home in their preteens, they were adopted by a royal house and soon enough became the senior and the junior maharanis. Eventually, they married, and the race to produce the next ruler of the house began, bringing with it enough plotting, planning and conspiracies to fill a few potboilers.

Except, this was real-life dynasty politics in the House of Travancore. The elder of the cousins suffered miscarriages, the younger produced the next heir to the Ivory Throne, walls of suspicion and fear sprang up, and the battle deepened in shade and tone. It did not help matters that the senior rani ruled the state of Travancore in the name of the junior rani’s son till the latter came of age.

That was a period of seven years and arguably, the golden period of Travancore. An exemplary administrator, Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had laws such as the Village Panchayat Act of Travancore passed, and helped boost education, law and employment. She did away with animal sacrifice in the state, banished devadasis from the temples, and controversially, helped usher in the end of the matrilineal system, and imposed the Newspaper Regulation law. The lady wielded the sceptre with sagacity and compassion, and made a mark with both the ruling British overlords — so much so that they invested her with the Order of the Crown of India — and with Mahatma Gandhi, who was much struck by her ‘severe simplicity and exactness of manners’. On her watch, Travancore become one of the most prosperous and leading principalities in India.

However, apart from the running feud with her cousin, the rani’s reforms had garnered for her quite a large contingent of foes who gathered in the shadows, awaiting their chance; as soon as she stepped down for Chithira Tirunal to take over as king, the slights and affronts began. In her early 60s, the rani decided to leave the state and the five million subjects she formerly ruled over, to start life anew in Bengaluru. And thus, Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi C I went on to become just Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

While the pivot is la revanche, the story gives an overview of how the Travancore state came into being, eclipsing the Zamorin of Calicut as well as the Cochin royals; how this family’s unifying king, the 18th-century warrior, Marthanda Varma, established their primacy, their sovereignty and soon, their perceived supremacy over their subjects, even as he consecrated himself as Regent Caretaker of the powerful Lord Padmanabhaswamy.

Pillai touches on political, social, cultural and economic points. The state, its people, its deep-rooted caste biases, the body politic, all of it is taken apart and laid bare for the reader. We read of the Portuguese coming to Kerala; the arrival of the early Christians; the syncretism that prevailed in those times; the polyandrous tradition of the Nair women of that time; the education and freedom levels enjoyed by the Kerala women that were a precursor to the later Travancore queens ruling the land so adroitly; how this freedom was curtailed the moment Victorian moral codes made their advent into the state; the move to throw open temples to all castes; the rise and decline of the Nairs.

The book is 694 pages long, which is a lot of painstaking research, six years to be specific, underpinned by documents from the India Office Archives at the British Library in London. Delicious,  old-fashioned terms like ‘dragooned’ and ‘stooge’ find their way in here. As for the language used in the British dispatches, it’s a right royal treat! One British Resident writes on the running battle between the two ranis thus: ‘Her antipathy to the Maharani Regent has become an article of faith with her and she is afraid that the Maharajah, if disinterestedly advised, may recognise the futility of the feud between the two Palaces and end by sending his mother to Coventry.’

Pillai tries to stick to a factual narrative tone all through and succeeds, up to a point. My only problem, if you can call it that, with this distinguished piece of work, is how the author’s bias towards one rani tends to overpower his objectivity toward the other. But then, every story has to have its heroine. And Sethu Lakshmi Bayi is clearly this book’s heroine.

The last time I so relished such a voluminous book was while reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Drastically different tale, but The Ivory Throne is every bit as compelling.

Source: Deccan Herald

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