Indira of Travancore: Born in a Golden Cage

(Published in The Hindu, July 21 2017)


The world into which Indira Varma was born in 1926 was a very different place. Her advent was heralded by a company of soldiers, ready to fire a 21-gun-salute when the baby arrived. Newspaper correspondents waited nearby, and when, soon after 1.57 am, the booms were heard, telegrams were issued. “A wave of public rejoicing” broke out across southern Kerala — then known as Travancore State — reported the Madras Mail, and large crowds descended on Satelmond Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. The gates were thrown open and hours later the father of the newborn appeared on a balcony, his royal daughter raised in his arms. The baby’s cousin, the young Maharajah of Travancore, drove in state to welcome her into the family — she was presented to him wrapped in silks, placed on a silver tray. In due course, proclamations were issued, a state holiday declared: nothing but the highest honours for Indira of Travancore.

“The event is memorable for its uniqueness,” The Microcosm noted, “in as much as a sovereign of the State giving birth to a child has not taken place during the last hundred years.” Indira’s mother, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, was at that time ruler of Travancore, and had, even as she went into labour, signed into law a “major agrarian reform” for thousands of farmers in her state. Indira, always hesitant to think of herself as special, did admit that her mother was certainly remarkable. The Maharani was gentle, she would note, “but she was not meek. She was spirited in her own way and always refused to yield to injustice.” Growing up, Indira was in awe of her — surrounded by dozens of secretaries and officials, heaps of guards in splendid uniforms, dealing with persons ranging from Mussolini’s daughter to Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Indira was the Maharani’s beloved younger child, for whom the former always had a soft corner.

The 1930s were an elaborate unfolding of formality, religiosity and the performance of duty. Ritual and custom governed every aspect of Indira’s life — when she woke up, what she ate, who she met. A walk in the afternoon was a procession with a dozen servitors, a silk parasol held high over her head. A birthday meant cutting a cake but not before she was carried around Thiruvananthapuram Fort in a palanquin, drums beating, elephants trumpeting, and all the town out to pay obeisance to their princess. But it was also a beautiful, happy childhood — one of privilege and comfort, broadly.

“My parents seemed to specialise in finding unknown but beautiful spots,” she would later write. And for a good part of the year, the family escaped the rigidity of the capital, retiring to a lakeside house in the country, or a towered “castle” by the sea. Local fishermen took Indira out on boat rides and every morning the princess paid a visit to a cowshed on their estate. Sometimes she acted in plays for her parents and asked her maid Kochu Paru to sing.

Indira’s first taste of unhappiness came after her marriage in 1944: a wedding reported on radio, her bridegroom coming to her in a golden howdah atop a magnificent beast. But he was unwell. Five years later he died of cancer, leaving her a widow at 23. Indira, shy and reserved from the start, retreated into a shell, emerging only when she had to — when Lord Mountbatten came to see her mother to ease Travancore’s integration into India, or when her sister’s children insisted their aunt join them for a picnic. Slowly she broke into her own. She became the first member of her family to go to college, arriving in a classroom full of girls who, till yesterday, were her subjects. “I used to go to class barefoot for some reason,” she once laughed, mystifying the others, dressed impeccably down to their toes.

In 1952, after marrying a man with socialist leanings but who became one of Madras’s big industrialists, Indira moved to what we now call Chennai. She travelled occasionally — to places like Kabul and Moscow — but her life was still a private affair. She played tennis with Mary Clubwala and attended meetings of the Literary Society, but remained “painfully shy”.

The most glamorous thing she did was to join Kamala Das as a jury member for the Filmfare Awards in the 1980s. She read, she pondered, and sometimes she wrote — an essay on her ancestor Raja Ravi Varma in the Illustrated Weekly, perhaps, or a short story for circulation within the family. From a mansion on Nungambakkam High Road, and then a house on St Mary’s Road, Indira watched as the country around her changed — the palaces were gone, the 300 servants had retired, and the Maharani herself spent her days now in a small room with large windows, cutting comic strips for her grandchildren and distributing toffee when they visited.

Indira accepted change as much as a woman born a princess could. “I was born in a cage,” she remembered. “A golden cage, but a cage nevertheless.” The travails of ordinary life in a democratic socialist republic was also her freedom — from royalty in Travancore she became an individual in bustling Chennai. Life brought with it many challenges — her husband’s businesses invited losses, for they trusted unscrupulous men with much money. Her mother died far away from the kingdom she once ruled. And her children grew up — her daughter, a lawyer, her son, a writer — while Indira grew old.

In 2001 her only granddaughter died tragically. “Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh,”grieved the old lady, “Beat of my pulse, song of my heart; Did I love you too much dear one? Did jealous fate resent the gift, Of so much love to a single soul, And take you, leaving me bereft?”

When her husband departed, Indira aged further still. She lived in Neelankarai, in a new house with old furniture, her son and daughter near her. Portraits of her ancestors stared down from the walls as she played Snakes & Ladders with her attendants, or tried to read a book. On the evening before her death — 90 years after her arrival — she watched television and coughed a little. And at 3.20 am, the baby born to a queen, died of natural causes, concluding a life of experience, of change, and of pain. The story came to its close — the tale of a woman who had yet unexplored depths to her mind, and who in a different lifetime, in a different place was revered by millions as Indira of Travancore.

(Indira Varma was born October 23, 1926 and died July 20, 2017)