The Tiger Queen
SOURCE: The Atlantic, February 3, 1999
The moon was full and silver, but Jaisalmer’s sandstone walls were resolutely golden. The afternoon had been crushing; it was hard to breathe for the heat. Now the nighttime winds were sweeping across the desert, whistling through this ancient Indian city’s narrow alleyways.
I accompanied the wind through the alleys, returning to my guesthouse from dinner. It was early, but the town was quiet. I was not ready for sleep. Centuries ago, I imagined, Jaisalmer would have been alive through the night — once it had been a wealthy desert trading center, a meeting point for camel caravans from across Asia. Today, the town is an impoverished tourist attraction whose former glory survives only in magnificent mansions and intricately carved facades.
A few people were assembled in the courtyard of my guesthouse. Among them were a husband and wife, from France. The husband, of Indian origin, was telling someone, in broken English, of his alienation from home. They were seated around a table, along with a young woman who had shown me to my room earlier that day. I had wondered about her. Was she just an employee? Something in her air — dignified, almost regal — told me otherwise.
I joined the table. The Frenchman continued to bemoan his fate, then his wife yawned, and they said goodnight. I was left with the girl and a young man who also worked at the guesthouse.
“This is a nice place you have here,” I said to the girl. “Have you worked here long?”
“This is my family home,” she said. “We have lived here for centuries. We only rent out the rooms in this courtyard to maintain the place.”
The young man by her side sniggered. “You are sitting,” he said to me, “in a palace. Do you know that you are speaking to a princess?”
“Is it true?” I asked the girl. “Are you a princess?”
The young man’s tone had been playful, but I knew that what he said was not improbable. Jaisalmer is in Rajasthan, India’s most royal state, filled with kings and queens, and dotted with palaces and forts. Once the royal families had been fabulously wealthy. Shortly after independence, though, the Indian government had confiscated most of their properties. Only a very small number, those with political connections, managed to maintain something of their previous lifestyle.
I had assumed that Rajasthan’s royalty was a thing of the past; to me, the state’s aristocratic airs were little more than packaged exoticism. I had not counted, therefore, on the earnestness of the girl’s response.
“It is true that we are relatives of the king,” she said. “We are the second family of Jaisalmer. Every year, we visit royal weddings and meetings throughout the state. My family is very close to the maharaja of Jodhpur.” This, I realized, was a mark of status: the king of Jodhpur still owns a vast palace — part of which has been transformed into a hotel — and one of the biggest forts in India.
I told the girl that I had not realized the royal network still existed.
“Of course it does,” she said. “After all, we have our tradition to uphold. Do you think, for example, that I would marry outside the royal family?” She told me about the royal suitors — from as far afield as Madhya Pradesh, in central India, and Nepal — that her father was currently evaluating. “Many of us,” she continued, “still maintain our place in the world. Do you know that Indira Gandhi personally received the maharaja of Jodhpur when he returned from college in England? He was the best student.”
The pride she took in Indira Gandhi’s recognition seemed a little incongruous. Wasn’t it Mrs. Gandhi, I asked, who had stripped the nobility of its privileges, arguing that their riches should be returned to the people?
“Oh yes, oh yes,” she said, and placed her hands firmly on the table. “She was so cruel. All our homes were taken. Do you know that she sent the army to steal the gold from the maharaja of Alwar? We have lost so much.”
Then the girl launched into a long story about the grandeur of times past. The maharaja of Alwar, she said, was a great man. (He was also, she added, a close friend of the family’s.) The maharaja was always surrounded by tigers — domesticated ones that ate out of his hands. And do you know, she asked, about the time the maharaja visited the Rolls Royce shop in London? I confessed that I didn’t. The owner of the shop, apparently unimpressed by his Indian visitor, had rebuffed the maharaja. So the maharaja later sent his personal assistant to buy out the shop. He took the cars back to his kingdom. Do you know what he did with those Rolls Royces? He used them to collect rubbish from the streets. “The maharaja of Alwar,” the princess concluded, inexplicably, “was a very humble man.”
Those days didn’t sound particularly humble, I thought to myself. It was here, in the dusty courtyard of a palace turned into a backpacker’s guesthouse, that humility had forced itself onto the scene: a young girl who might have been queen instead ran this guesthouse.
“You know,” the princess said, before I went to bed, “this is really all we have left.” We were standing at the entrance to her family’s living quarters. She lifted her finger and traced the edges of the courtyard. Her face was sad, or maybe it was simply pensive. “Before, we used to own many other properties. Can you imagine that this is what we have been reduced to? We live in the wrong century.”
That night, I slept under the skin of a tiger — a hunting trophy from better days, suspended from the ceiling. All strung up, its mouth wired open and its tail dangling in the darkness, the tiger was a pitiful sight. The beads in its eyes captured the dim courtyard light. I felt I was being watched, and I had trouble sleeping. At the edge of waking and dreaming, I remembered the narrow arc of the princess’s arm as she had traced the courtyard. Her existence was like that tiger skin, I thought: still bearing the stripes and shades of authority, but tied down by the strings of time, deprived of its substance.