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This is an excerpt from the book The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family by John Zubrzycki.


 

Today nothing remains of one of Calcutta’s most glamorous residences. Built-in classical East India Company style, with Ionic columns and encircled by deep verandas, Woodlands was used as a prison for the descendants of the great warrior king Tipu Sultan before it was taken over by the British in the early nineteenth century. When Nripendra Narayan, Ayesha’s paternal grandfather, purchased it as his Calcutta estate in the 1880s, it was eclipsed in grandeur only by Belvedere, the Governor General’s residence located across the road . . .

In the winter of 1931–32, the guests who came to party and stay included Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, Prince Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, and the Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, who arrived minus the buttons on his suit. They had been torn off by souvenir hunters who mobbed him as he tried to cross Howrah Bridge. The most anticipated guest, however, was the nineteen-year-old newly invested Maharaja of Jaipur. A few days later, Jai drove through the gates in an open-topped green Rolls-Royce. Ayesha would later recall her excitement at the sight of sixty polo ponies, each with its own uniformed groom with a flowing orange turban, that preceded his arrival. Though she was seven years younger she was clearly enamoured of the handsome prince. ‘Calcutta found him charming and relaxed, and yet he generated an air of graceful confidence that was most compelling. He laughed and joked with everyone in his low drawling voice, and was very flirtatious, which made him all the more attractive. It was his humour and the sympathy he added to it that drew me so forcefully to him,’ she would later write.1

Jai played tennis with Ayesha and her older sister Menaka, inviting his ADC or another member of his staff to make a foursome and then deliberately letting the girls win. Later, when he challenged Ayesha to a bicycle race, she lost decisively, despite considering herself a swift and reckless rider. ‘He took to the family and they to him. It was as if they became the family he’d never had after his removal from Isarda,’ writes Quentin Crewe.2 Ayesha couldn’t bring herself to address Jai as anything other than Your Highness. He was, in her own words, ‘quite outside my orbit’.3

Gayatri Devi in Rambagh Palace

After the polo season ended, Jai was back in Jaipur where arrangements were in full swing for his second marriage, this time to fifteen-year-old Kishore Kumari, a decade after they had been betrothed. The marriage made headlines around the world, with the Washington Post describing the wedding procession as a ‘pageant of Oriental splendour. The maharaja’s strings of pearls, priceless diamonds and rubies glistened in the light of the full moon as he passed under arches of multicoloured lamps festooned across the streets.’4 The Times of India piled on the superlatives calling it ‘a brilliant and most distinguished gathering, the best of Rajputana and therefore the cream of India’.5

Though she was still in her mid-teens, Kishore was no pushover. Plans to make their devotions at various shrines and temples a day after the wedding were delayed by several hours because of her insistence that either her uncle, the Maharaja of Jodhpur, or her brother accompany them. She also broke protocol by demanding a gun salute when she left the palace and again when she arrived at Amber Fort. For his part Jai was disappointed by the twenty-eight ‘rather shoddy’ horses that came as part of her dowry.6

Relations between Kishore – who was now officially Second Her Highness and nicknamed ‘Jo Didi’ (a reference to Jodhpur) – and First Her Highness, her aunt Marudhar, were bound to be difficult. At first, Jo never touched food brought from outside the zenana and ate only those dishes that were prepared by her own servants for fear of poisoning. Rumours that First Her Highness disliked Second Her Highness because she was much younger and prettier found plenty of takers in the febrile atmosphere of rivalry and intrigue that permeated the women’s quarters. When news of Jai’s second marriage reached Cooch Behar, Indira described Jo as being ‘pretty and petite’ as well as ‘bright and lively’. Ayesha recalls listening to the news ‘with intense interest’.7

Man_Singh_II_and_Gayatri_Devi

Jai was back in Calcutta in December 1932 for another season of polo. Fresh from winning the India Polo Championship, he asked Indira if Ayesha could join him for a celebration dinner at Firpo’s on Chowringhee Road, famous for its turtle soup and lobster thermidor, and the favourite meeting place for the city’s tea planters, jute-wallahs and aspiring gentry. When Indira agreed, Ayesha and her maid went shopping for a special dress and shoes. During the dinner, Ayesha chose to sit next to one of Jai’s young ADCs. The group dined on partridges which Jai helped cut for her and after dinner she was driven home by his chauffeur, the experience leaving her ‘dizzy and unbelieving’.8

Indira’s readiness to acquiesce to Jai’s request reflected her unconventionality which extended to the upbringing of her children. Even at thirteen Ayesha was better at conversing with Jai than most other Indian girls. Indira was also impressed with Jai’s kindness and loyalty. ‘He had become a member of the family and would never have betrayed that trust,’ Crewe asserts.9

By now Ayesha’s infatuation had turned into a full-blown teenage crush. Shortly after the dinner at Firpo’s, Jai invited her and Menaka to his house for supper. When their governess arrived to take them home at nine, Jai lied, telling her that Indira had given them permission to stay up late. He then offered Ayesha and her sister champagne. ‘After that I began having more ambitious daydreams – that the floor of his room which was immediately above the one that Menaka and I shared would fall through in the middle of the night, land him (miraculously uninjured) in our room to spend the rest of the night with us. I even began wishing for something that seemed to me even more unlikely – that I would be beautiful and that Jai would actually kiss me.’10


 

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