Royal swan song

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The King in Exile The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma. By Sudha Shah. Publisher: HarperCollins. Price: Rs 799
The King in Exile The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma. By Sudha Shah. Publisher: HarperCollins. Price: Rs 799

Conquerors of old had a fairly simple policy vis-à-vis the conquered: Dispatch the kings to a better world; or let them keep the throne, but extract tributes. In more modern times, colonisers changed tack to deporting the conquered ruler(s).

Fearing resistance against colonial rule coalescing around the royal family in Burma, especially since kings held god-like status, the British decided to move the Burmese sovereign to India — specifically to Ratnagiri, then in Bombay Province, now in Maharashtra.

King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, who had ruled Burma from the Golden Palace in Mandalay, were reduced to aliens in a strange land. Their ‘palace’ was no more than a ‘handsome bungalow’, and the demi-gods were put on a monthly stipend of Rs 5,000. Used to a lavish lifestyle, Thibaw, after running through the jewels he had managed to smuggle in, and borrowing from the locals, had to plead for money from the Crown. In 1916, the King died; Queen Supayalat and her daughters were allowed to return to Rangoon in 1919. Thibaw remains in Ratnagiri in a nondescript mausoleum set apart from the surrounding houses by a low compound wall. Thus runs the first half of the book.

The second half details the lives of Thibaw’s four daughters and their children. With no formal education, the princesses became vexed and frustrated. A callous bureaucracy and a father caught in a time warp were roadblocks against their marriage. They were left to fend for themselves, but were woefully unprepared.

The first Princess fell in love with a local man, and had to live on a pension of Rs 200 a month. Afraid to go back to Burma, the Princess became bitter and aggressive, and even threw stones at locals. Death in 1967 was perhaps a welcome release.

The second Princess was happily married to a Burmese nobleman, whom Thibaw had thought unsuitable for his daughters. Although well-read and with varied interests, the noble was not a man of the world, and it fell to the practical Princess to manage their home, first in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and later in Kalimpong. The intellectual harangued the British, and is even reputed to have chased away a Deputy Commissioner by shooting, first his hat, and then the windshield of his vehicle. The couple had no money and things worsened in the 1950s when the British quit Burma, and the new government stopped gratuity to all royals living outside the country. After her husband died in 1955, the Princess moved to a room attached to a Buddhist monastery in Calcutta, but lasted no longer than a year.

Born in Madras (now Chennai), charming and affable, the third Princess eloped with a prince. The couple were allowed to move to Mandalay, and also given land to build a home, but the marriage broke up as the Princess could not tolerate her husband’s roving eye. She then married the lawyer who was charged with looking after her affairs. This marriage was happy, but their life was riddled with ups and downs, as the Princess could not live within her means. Then, during the Second World War, occupier Japan stopped all allowances. During this time, her husband died. However, the Princess was not entirely affected by the incident, and continued to write to the government for more money. Before she passed away in 1962, she saw her country go back to the British, gain independence, and face myriad problems, especially with insurgents and ethnic groups.

Upon Queen Supayalat’s death, the fourth Princess applied and received permission to move to Mandalay, but life was hard as she had to entertain a constant stream of visitors on a limited allowance. Finding her intractable to deal with, the British placed numerous restrictions on the Princess. When she wrote to the League of Nations seeking restoration of father’s kingdom, besides the various properties confiscated by the British, the ruling authorities exiled her to Moulmein. Marital woes and the British’s insistence on boarding her children added to her frustrations. She, too, died a bitter person.

This poignant family story of a royal family whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by geopolitics is what Sudha Shah has chronicled in The King in Exile. Sudha says she was inspired by Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, which is also set in Burma, spanning a century from the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty in Mandalay to modern times.

The King in Exile took seven years of research, and the effort is visible in the details. As Amitav Ghosh writes in the book’s blurb: “An absorbing read. Exhaustively researched and gracefully written…” Supplemented with photographs and illustrations, The King in Exile is a riveting tale with much drama, pathos and pain.

(This article was published on August 2, 2012)
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