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Sophia a Biography | India Today

The story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, a victim of his strange destiny and Machiavellian imperial manipulations, is among the most poignant in recent Indian history. Following the bloody battles and internecine intrigues after the mighty Ranjit Singh's death, his youngest acknowledged son was duped of his vast kingdom by Governor-General Dalhousie, separated from his mother Rani Jindan and converted to Christianity. A darling of Queen Victoria and a pheasant-hunting British squire for a while, he quickly fell from grace when he realised the extent of his loss and turned revolutionary. Rejecting the empire, he converted back to Sikhism and spent the rest of his life mired in 19th century European conspiracies, obsessed by his desire to return to India to crush the Raj. This was not to be: plagued by ill health and financial problems, he died a lonely death in a cheap Parisian hotel.

Until recently, this story was in danger of being forgotten or remembered only in patronising British accents that dismissed the maharaja as a womanising, drunken buffoon. British journalist Anita Anand's well-researched and deftly written Sophia is the latest contribution to the rescue effort to salvage this remarkable story from the dustbin of history. Her focus is not the maharaja himself but his third daughter Sophia, a princess who also turned revolutionary. She was easily the most involved in large public causes among his six children from his first queen Maharani Bamba and two daughters from Ada, the chambermaid-turned-maharani of his later years.

Sophia was born towards the end of Duleep's idyll of picnics and shooting parties at his country estate of Elveden in England. Hardly 10, she was part of his unsuccessful attempt to return to India which ended when he was stopped at Aden. While the family was to return to England and live in virtual abandonment, the maharaja went off to Paris to pursue his rebellious mission, joined by Ada. Anand pieces together those early years of Sophia's shy and insecure childhood, and the tragic shadow cast by the quick deaths of her mother, brother Edward and her father.

Though the maharaja had turned rebel, Queen Victoria still harboured affection for the family-Sophia was also her goddaughter-and made sure that the princesses were looked after and tutored in social graces. She also gave them a grace-and-favour home at Hampton Court. Anand's account of the coming-out ceremony of the princesses, girded in bodices, decked in veils and trailing gowns and holding fans and flowers, curtsying before the queen empress, makes for fascinating reading. After the coming out, Sophia, dressed in expensive furs and jewels, quickly became a toast of the same aristocratic British society that had shunned her father in his later years. Smoking up to 600 expensive Turkish tobacco cigarettes a month, she followed her hobbies with zest-breeding champion dogs, photography and cycling. On her shiny new Columbia Model 41 Ladies Safety Bicycle, the diminutive, dark princess soon became a poster girl for cycling, then the latest expression of unchaperoned liberty for women. But all this was not to last. Sophia made two quick visits to India with her more rebellious sister Bamba, who having been denied her dream of becoming a doctor on account of her gender, was determined to live in the land of her ancestors. The two sisters toured their grandfather's kingdom and other parts of India, felt first-hand the adulation of the masses, threw a "purdah-party" at Shalimar Bagh in Lahore where their father had been interned as a child, met prominent Punjabi families, were tailed by British spies and seethed at the British Raj's disregard for their rank and status.

They were also swept up in the burgeoning nationalist movement, sharing the stage with leaders such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai. In fact it was the unjust imprisonment of Lajpat Rai on charges of sedition by the British that turned Sophia, who hero-worshipped him, into a foe of the British Empire. Back in London, she put aside her earlier pursuits and turned to serious social causes. Soon she was obsessed with the suffragette movement fighting for women's right to vote. With her title and social standing, she was a welcome addition to the movement's profile and she gave it all she had. She quickly became part of the nine-member vanguard of the movement's leaders who led the suffragette march to parliament in 1910; the march was met with unprecedented police brutality. Dressed in fancy furs and sporting immaculate hats, she sold the newspaper The Suffragette outside her house and on press carts around town and even hurled herself at the prime minister's car, brandishing a suffragette poster. Despite her best efforts, she was never arrested as the government did not want the embarrassment of having Queen Victoria's goddaughter behind bars.

World War I brought fresh causes for the princess to espouse; these were even closer to her Indian heart. As the wounded Indian soldiers, including many Sikhs, were brought from the frozen battlefields of Europe, she donned a Red Cross uniform and nursed them in the hospital set up in Brighton. The awestruck soldiers begged her for photographs so that their families would believe they had been cared for by Maharaja Ranjit Singh's granddaughter.

Tighter fact-checking would have removed some avoidable blemishes from the early part of the book but for the most part Anand tells a smart story, packing just enough background on history, political developments and the social setting without letting it weigh down the narrative. Though Anand keeps her spotlight on Sophia, meticulously building up her life from diaries, letters and memories, the penumbral stories also offer interesting insights into that (the last, in fact) generation of the Duleep Singhs. Of the maharaja's eldest son, Victor, given to gambling and high living; of Freddie, the second son who was a conservative country gent, collecting Jacobean art in Norfolk; of the tempestuous Bamba who most identified with her lost royal heritage, describing herself as the "Queen of Lahore"; of the mysterious, elegant Catherine who spent years in Germany in an intimate relationship with her governess Lina Schaeffer; and also of the two half sisters-Pauline and the suicidal Irene. The poignancy of the story is underlined by the fact that none of Duleep Singh's children had a child; Queen Victoria was known to have told Victor's wife at least not to have one. The dynasty of the star-crossed, rebel maharaja was to die with his eldest daughter in Lahore in 1957.


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