By the time I met I Gayatri Devi, the former princess of Cooch Behar in West Bengal had lost most of her royal privileges, her title, and the privy purse that all princely states were paid after they surrendered their ruling rights and integrated with India in 1947. Indira Gandhi stopped these allowances in 1971 to all royal families. Gayatri Devi subsequently spent time in prison for alleged tax violations during the Emergency. But she was still the titular Rajmata of Jaipur.
She reminded me, a little sadly, of a lioness in winter. At 82, her handsome face had grown almost leonine in its looks, the silver-grey hair thick and lustrous. Barefoot, she softly padded around the Lilypool, her French-style mansion adjoining the Rambagh Palace of Jaipur, and led me to the dining table where lunch waited.
It was a Rajasthani lunch, half Marwari-half Rajput, prepared by the Executive Chef of the Rambagh Palace. This was now a Taj heritage hotel. So I was confident about the food. However, it was rich, oily and heavy. The Rajmata delicately broke a piece of roti, dipped it in papad ki sabzi, and nibbled. Scowling, she ticked off the chef who was standing respectfully behind.
"Chef, jyada tel dala hai Papad Ki Sabzi mein. Kaun sa tel hai? Vital! Pehle baar suna!"
"Would you say you are a gourmet?" I asked, coming to the poor man's rescue. "No, I'm no longer interested in food. Or what I eat. Any old thing the cook in this house makes will do," she grumbled.
This was the princess who in 1969 brought out a compilation of royal recipes called the Gourmet's Gateway to raise funds for Indian soldiers wounded in wars against Pakistan and China. I reminded her about it. The Rajmata clicked her tongue irritably.
"I don't eat as much as before. As you grow old, food does not matter. And if you're going to ask me whether I like cooking, don't! I cannot cook. I learned how to cook at this Lausanne finishing school in Switzerland, but I'm hopeless."
"Of course, I enjoy a good meal. I'll tuck into it! But I'm saying, I don't eat as much as before. As you grow old, food does not matter. And if you're going to ask me whether I like cooking, don't! I cannot cook. I learned how to cook at this Lausanne finishing school in Switzerland, but I'm hopeless."
Age had robbed her of her interest for good food. But I wondered if the Rajmata had memories of the royal banquets and shikars she had attended in the past. I hesitated to ask her. Instead, I said, "What's your favourite cuisine?" "Bengali," she replied promptly, "because my home was Cooch Behar in West Bengal and Bengali cuisine is good, it's not just Hilsa and Bekti, there's so much more."
She made a valiant attempt to recall the menus of her youth.
"There was this dish of tiny, tiny prawns (she held up her little finger to show how tiny) that used to be cooked in mustard oil... can't remember what it used to be called." After crinkling her eyes and staring into the distance, the Rajmata had a brainwave. A phone call was made to Cooch Behar.
"Devika," the Rajmata said, coming straight to the point, "what's that fish we used to have at what-you-call-its house? Ilish something in mustard oil? Paturi Macch... no? That's different. This is made out of dal, it's nice and crispy, dal ka banta hai... You don't know! Thank you, my dear."
I had heard enough not to discuss food with her further. But the chef was serving murg mokul and gatta curry and the Rajmata looked at the food disfavourably. "I used to eat so much earlier when life was a whirl of socialising and entertaining. I don't do it anymore. I've become lazy. My cook has also become lazy. Kuch bhi bana dalta hai! I have fewer guests. A party for Diwali, sometimes not. But I select the menu. I'm particular about that."
"I've become lazy. My cook has also become lazy. Kuch bhi bana dalta hai! I have fewer guests. A party for Diwali, sometimes not. But I select the menu. I'm particular about that."
The Rajmata's dinners used to be the talk of Jaipur. I remember hearing how she planned to have a party at the height of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. The general manager of the Rambagh Palace gently tried to discourage her. "It is not the right time," he warned her, "people are watching you." And the Rajmata had drawn herself up and said imperiously, "These people are watching me? And to think I had the power to send a man to the gallows not so very long ago!" Lunch at the Lilypool was soon over.
The Rajmata sat back, a cigarette between her fingers, still talking about food. This was one of the world's most-written-about women. She had shot her first panther when she was 12. And had won a Lok Sabha seat in 1960 (for the Swatantra Party) with what John F. Kennedy (yes, JFK) and the Guinness Book of World Records said was the most staggering majority of any election. She had to face tragedies too as great as her triumphs.
Now she told me, "I used to like Rajasthani game food, the 3-minute partridge, who cooks this anymore? But I hated duck, rabbit and wild boar. I was never health conscious. I cared two hoots about diets and discipline. I still like a peg or two of whisky. But I will not go to a party and ask the host, 'Tell me what you've got.' I'm not Khushwant Singh. And no wines and champagnes, either."
Suddenly she sprang to her feet. "Would you care for coffee? Ardha cup? No? You want Cognac! Whatever gave you the idea I drink Cognac? Chalo, chalo, it's getting on. I'll have to get on my bicycle and work this heavy lunch off."
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