Worrying about the pandemic and being housebound for almost a year, has been especially difficult for an inveterate traveler like me. This is why Lovleen Sagar’s excellent interview with John Zubrzycki, was such a welcome change. Post the interview Lovleen was kind enough to send me John’s, ‘The House of Jaipur’, an unputdownable book, which took me back to my beautiful Jaipur, and opened such a floodgate of memories, that for many days I sat wrapped up in sheer nostalgia!
As I was transformed to Jaipur of the eighties and nineties, my most memorable years in the city, I recalled how life was one big celebration, with never a dull moment. At the heart of which was always, the larger-than-life, Rajmata Gayatri Devi. My first interaction with a member of the Royal House of Cooch-Behar was in the late sixties when I met Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur in Babina, a quaint Army Cantonment near Jhansi, Madhya Pradesh. The extremely charming Maharaja, an honorary officer of the Seventh Light Cavalry, the second oldest Regiment of the Indian Army, had come to attend the Zojila-Day celebration -a celebration to commemorate the battle that was fought in 1948 to capture the Zojila pass (at an inhospitable height of 11578 feet). It epitomized all the essentials of a battle and ensured for us the province of Ladakh, or else the map of India would have looked different today. After the celebrations, the Maharaja had lunch with us and recounted amazing stories from his days in Cooch-Behar. I listened attentively, hoping to recount them someday to my grandchildren, little imagining that a decade later we would get many opportunities to meet his sister Rajmata Gayatri Devi, and add many more colorful chapters to the tales that he told us.
The first time I met the Rajmata, is still vividly etched in my memory. She walked into the room, a veritable cloud of vibrant sea-green, in her trademark French chiffon sari and striking jewelry, exuding an ethereal radiance that can barely be described. It was a small dinner party at an Army Officers home, my husband Keshav, was not in town, and the host introduced me as the wife of a Brigadier of the Seventh Cavalry. She was so happy to learn about my husband’s regiment that she spent a large part of the evening asking me about it, my life as an Army wife, and my work in Tourism. I was overwhelmed by her warmth, and mesmerized by her charm.
The army always had a special place in Rajmata’s heart. A few years later when my husband’s regiment was still in Babina for their Bicentennial in 1984, and she graced the occasion, it made the event so memorable for all those present. A photograph of Rajmata in a pink chiffon, with my husband, Keshav, in his blue patrols, taken on the occasion, has pride of place in our home.
Many years after we met her brother at a Zojila Day celebration, Rajmata decided to attend one herself. It was a great joy for my husband that she asked him to accompany her to the Regiment in Jaisalmer, for the celebrations in the early nineties. During her trip to Jaisalmer, she mentioned to my husband that I had never invited her home. It was a beautiful expression of her affection for us. I hadn’t been remiss, just worried about inviting her home, but since she had now practically invited herself in such an affectionate manner, it gave me the courage to arrange a dinner party for Rajmata. As we only served vegetarian food at home, the menu for her dinner became a bit of an issue, as my husband insisted we had to include some non-vegetarian dishes, but I did not budge, and instead told him to open the bottle of King’s Ransom whisky that he has been saving for our daughter’s wedding – after all who knows the groom may turn out to be a teetotaller (he didn’t, but I’m sure he agrees that the precious whiskey was put to good use)! We invited a few common friends and my son, daughter in law and our Swiss friend Andy Zgraggen, drove down from Delhi. It was a very pleasant, informal evening, with a lot of laughter. When Rajmata took out a cigarette from her bag, Andy took his lighter out to light it for her but told her I did not allow him to light a cigarette in the room so they should sit out on the terrace. I’ll never forget the expression on Andy’s face as he followed the Rajmata out on the terrace to enjoy a smoke! She so enjoyed the simple meal that our daughter had cooked that a few months later at her birthday party at the Rambagh, the Rajmata generously told one of the guests there that I served very nice vegetarian meals at home.
While the Army and parties were a big part of her life, few would know that she was not averse to walking through the small, crowded streets of the ‘Purana shehr’ or the old city, of her beloved Jaipur. I saw this side of her thanks to her chronic frozen shoulder and Vaid ji (a very renowned Ayurveda practitioner). The Rajmata had suffered in pain for many years and heard me praising Vaid Ji so often that she asked me to bring him to Lily Pool, her residence so he could help cure her. I had to tell her it was not possible for Vaid Ji to come to her because he ran a charitable clinic where he saw more than a hundred patients daily, some of whom waited days to be seen by him. The Rajmata then asked if I could instead take her to meet Vaid Ji. I did manage to fix an appointment with him but was a nervous wreck. I worried about taking her through the narrow lanes of the old city, with heaps of garbage lying all over and stray cows occupying most of the space, but she didn’t seem to be concerned about it at all. While Vaid Ji worked on Rajmata’s shoulder, she sat through the painful manipulation stoically. Two sessions with Vaid Ji, and she playfully announced that she was good enough to try a game of tennis right away!
While people have seen and heard a lot about her beauty, glamorous life, and the parties she threw, I was privileged to see a very different side to her personality. Her love for the Army brought us in contact with each other, but it was her interest in lives outside the palace, that built a relationship that lasted many years. For some reason, she took to me and was so kind and welcoming that over the years many friends and family asked me to help meet her. I was very careful not to burden her with too many requests – and she was gracious enough never to turn down any of my requests. For, after all, Rajamata Gayatri Devi was truly a queen of hearts.