The Gold-Digging Women of The British Raj*

Princess Brinda Devi’s heart was like the black hole of a coal mine—it was so dense that there was no room for light, and so deep she was afraid it would suck her in. She told herself she pitied Stella, but heard laughter answering her—how difficult it was to deceive yourself when you had known yourself a full thirty-nine years.

She had a servant summon Stella to her sitting room in the afternoon when the Prince had gone to a Royal Heads of State meeting. When Stella came before her, Princess Brinda did not speak, but rose from the Divan and removed Stella’s sari palav from her shoulder, as if in welcome, so she could study the girl.

In the afternoon sun filtering through the stained-glass windows of the palace at Kapurthala, she examined Stella’s red hair, cupid lips, and long, slim legs. A man could lose himself in the strands of that hair—so like burnished copper—softened by amla and scented by coconut. Unlike Brinda’s, it had no need yet for henna. A man could kiss those red lips for hours and they would look fuller and more luscious for the bruising. Brinda’s hands dropped to Stella’s neck and encircled it lightly, for she was not trying to frighten her.

And she saw Prince Param had given her a Kundan necklace, one of her own. She knew the gold of this one well because she had ordered it from the goldsmith herself, she knew every link of it and the sheen of its red enamel. She had worn it last at a party full of Europeans. Its brilliance and its weight had comforted her, compensation for her tongue-tied state; the European ladies ignored her once they found out she spoke no English.

And Stella was wearing it.

Brinda wanted to tear it from the hollow in Stella’s neck, she wanted to press her thumbnail in that hollow until Stella’s red blood spurted and dripped over them both.

But, she moved her hands away.

“Come, lie with me in the afternoons,“ she said instead. “You are alone on your side of the palace, I am alone on my side.” Stella stood mute, an uncomprehending look on her face.

Stella may have born in the UK but she was no longer a stranger to the shenanigans of a princely harem under the British Raj.

Brinda could see on Stella’s face the memories flashing like the shifting scenes of a cinematograph: the job she’d got in a chorus at London’s Little Theater. The company going to Paris where the promoters of ‘Folies Bergere’ were impressed by her looks and extrovert nature and thought she’d be better suited to a nightclub cabaret. Prince Param Singh of Kapurthala attending the show with his wife Brinda Devi and falling for the eighteen-year-old dancer. After the show, the prince coming backstage and presenting her with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, and then following her wherever she went, attending all her shows.

Stella started as Brinda Devi’s voice interrupted her stream of consciousness thoughts.

“Come,” Brinda said again. “It is useless for me to fight the prince’s will; he is my husband, he has brought you here. Somehow, I must accept that—and you.” Stella’s face lighted up like a diya at Diwali.

“Oh, Bhainji.” Sister.

Brinda Devi did not feel sisterly at all.

“Oh, Bhainji,” Stella said in her stilted accent. “I’m so glad. I told the Prince, I will be no trouble. I will just be like a younger sister.”

And her silly tears fell on Brinda’s hand as she led the girl to the porch swing in the courtyard. On the gallery that ran past their rooms, a punkhawalla (or fan operator) spat a red stream of paan, then squatted, his back to the wall. With a rope over one shoulder, he leaned into the pulling rhythm. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Why was Stella so trusting? How could she be so confident that she would produce a child? How could Stella not look at her, Brinda, and think: This is what I might become?

Barren and childless.

Although if Stella was to get pregnant, her baby would still be illegitimate. Birla Devi closed her eyes and sighed in relief as the breeze from the punkha moved from her to Stella and back again.

*******************************************************************************

It was exactly one month later that Stella stood quivering, her heart racing as she studied the enamel patterns around the imposing oak doorway leading to His Highness Maharaj Jagatjit Singh’s quarters.

A liveried attendant wearing a tie-die Laharia turban beckoned her inside and gestured for her to sit in a beautifully-appointed waiting-room. Though there was bright sunlight outside, all the lights were on and the crystals in the chandeliers twinkled like stars. A wall-to-wall Persian carpet covered the floor. The vaulted ceiling high above her depicted the courtship of Ram and Sita in paint and stucco relief. And, on the walls, Sikh history: portraits of former Maharajas wearing brocade chugas and leaning on jeweled swords. Or, in riding gear, ready for a hunt.

Facing her were three damask sofas, the middle one occupied by a short man of about sixty wearing a pearl necklace and a blue satin robe with feathers in his turban. He was stout, with many folds like rows of sausages on his neck. He was playing Patience, the cards spread in front of him on a polished mahogany table.

It was the first time Stella had stood in front of the ruler of the state and she felt a tickle in her throat. But he was at pains to put her at ease—sharing with her in dulcet tones the favor he needed from her. Since Brinda couldn’t beget a son, the Maharaja wanted to marry off Prince Param again. He had found for him a suitable Rajput girl from Kangra, Lilawati Devi. Now, he disclosed to Stella’s horror—that the Prince had unwillingly been forced into this union.

“But, there is one tiny problem,” the Maharaja said languidly, stroking the ends of his handlebar salt-and-pepper mustache. “Prince Param will not go near his bride. He said ‘she a junglee, unlike my worldly-wise Stella.’”

Maharaj Jagatjit extracted a card from a deck and contemplated where to put it, deciding finally to lay it face down on the table, then focused his laser-eye view on Stella.

“You see, Stella,” the Maharaja said mournfully, “only you can persuade Paramjit to consummate his marriage to Lilavati.”

Stella bit her cheek until she tasted blood. The morning sickness she’d had for the last two months emboldened her to do what came next.

She would do as the Maharaja instructed, she said, swallowing the lump in her throat, but she would need a million rupees for the job.

Incredibly, the Maharaja agreed.

That night she forced the Prince to go to the bed of Lilavati but no, Lord Param wouldn’t go. Finally, Stella had to concoct a fight with Lord Param, throw him out of her boudoir and direct his faltering steps to the zenana (harem) and the waiting bride. Son and heir Sukhjit Singh was conceived that night.

*******************************************************************************

Prince Param never went to the zenana again and the very next day along with Stella left the shores of India. In 1937 Stella got married to Prince Param Singh at a Gurudwara in England and was renamed, Narinder Kaur.

“Ever since I saw you dance like you had diamonds at the meeting of your thighs, you’ve had my heart,” he said as he pressed his face into the crook of her neck, breathing in the faint dry warmth of her scent—of lilacs and Pears soap.

*This is a break from my usual stories about the impact of covid, and pandemic life. It is a work of fiction but based on real events.

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