The End of an Era
July 30, 2009
The Rajmata of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, died yesterday, age 90. An immense sadness has descended over the city. It is, truly, the end of an era.
Everyone has read her memoirs A Princess Remembers. Gayatri Devi was a great beauty, a queen, a politician and a role model for millions of Indian women.
Despite her frail condition, she kept going out, distributing prizes and attending polo matches.
Although I can’t say I knew her, I had dinner with her twice. These were casual evenings, with very few of us, maybe 5 or 6. She felt, I think, at ease, and made us laugh heartily.
Walking with great difficulty, frequently admitted in hospital, she was still mischievous. Her conversation was delightful, her wit, dry.
She had a constant twinkle in her eye.
She drank whisky and smoked. Although everyone said she couldn’t walk anymore, she climbed up the stairs to my friends’ house, to have dinner with us.
The first time, she wore a sari, which wasn’t convenient, in her state, to climb up the steep staircase. The second time, she wore flannel trousers and a cashmere cardigan and looked every bit as chic. Especially with her silver cigarette case.
However, I think she didn’t like people swooning over her looks and saris – I suspect she found it all a bit naff.
She was very fond of England, where she had many happy memories. This is where her secret courtship with her husband-to-be began, and where they kept going on holidays, times she probably cherished, away from the rigid etiquette of Rajput society. She had many dear friends there, who cared for and looked after her until her very last days.
Everybody knows how she fought, and spectacularly won, the Lok Sabha elections in 1962, 1967 and 1971, thus enraging Indira Gandhi, who sent her to jail on a tax infringement accusation.
I have read somewhere about an incident which, to me, summarize her extraordinary elegance.
Months after leaving Tihar Jail, Gayatri Devi bumped into Indira Gandhi outside the British High Commission in Delhi. Gayatri Devi was leaving, when Indira Gandhi’s car pulled in. The Prime Minister rolled down her window.
And to the woman who had been her schoolmate forty years ago at Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental school near Calcutta, to the woman who had then broken her promises to her husband and peers, taken over her ancestral homes, bared her of her name and sent her to jail, Gayatri Devi, every inch a queen, bent down in namaste.
Real elegance, she showed us, was rooted beyond style, in our manners and thoughts.
I feel very grateful to have known her, even so briefly, even so little. She taught me everything I know about poise and style: that it is all very dull, without a twinkle in your eye.