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Raj: A Novel, by Gita Mehta.

December 18, 2013

Raj: A Novel, by Gita Mehta.  New York : Simon and Schuster, c1989.


An epic historical novel about a woman in India who was the daughter of one Raj, wife of another, and mother/regent for another during the last half century of British rule.

Gita Mehta has achieved what authors of historical must do; she has written the personal story of Jaya Signh, woman with whom we can empathize, and the account of her time and place as seen from her character’s perspective.  Her dual achievement is particularly important because so much of what many of know about early twentieth-century India is from the perspective of the colonizer rather than the colonized.  An Englishman, like Paul Scott in The Raj Quartet, for example, writes with great sympathy about the people of India and their mistreatment by the British, but Gita Mehta is able to provide a different and more immediate account of why even the ruling classes of Indians were so angry with their rulers.

Raj is set in the small kingdoms of northern India, places which I have never before examined or understood.  When the British consolidated their rule in most of India, they allowed the rajs, or monarchs, of these kingdoms to continue to rule as long as they ruled as the British administrators so fit.  The raj were stripped of their governing power, but allowed to keep their wealth and personal freedom.  Some of them, like Jaya’s father, ruled with an understanding that their people must be their first priority. Others, like Jaya’s husband, responded to their loss of political power by focusing their attention and wealth on the personal pursuit of pleasure.  As the nationalist movement grew in the part of India which Britain ruled directly, the raj were divided over where they loyalty should be placed.  As regent for her young son, Jaya is in the midst of turmoil around independence.  The two men whom Jaya might have loved were supporters of the two opposing sides; an Englishman and a Nationalist.  Both her own story and that of India are told with gripping intensity.

Mehta has written a big book, not only in size, but in scope; making it a difficult book to summarize and review.  The story moves through the various places and roles of Jaya’s life.  Each section is full of subplots and fascinating characters, with a few establishing a strain of continuity in her life.  I particularly liked the early portions of the book which reproduced the texture and context of life in the kingdom.  Jaya’s family was devoutly Hindu and continues that religion’s traditional rituals.  Muslims move comfortably in and out of their lives, however, even serving in high governmental positions.

Jaya was raised very traditionally, but encouraged to be strong.  Along with her brother, she was taught traditionally male skills, including hunting and riding.  Her father was proud when she shot her first tiger.  She also studied the intellectual basis for governing based on the needs of the people, a tradition in which village elders could overturn a raj’s action.   Yet she also admired her mother’s very different strengths and found the concubines and purdah ladies could offer her a refuge from the affairs of court.

World War I meant increased sacrifices by the Indian rulers to help fight against Britain’s enemies.  Progressive leaders like her father had hoped their contributions would result in more control of their own affairs.  Instead new laws and atrocities tightened British rule.  The nationalist movement grew in British-governed India, but the rajs were often caught between their own dreams of independence from Britain and the ideal of a united independent India.  When Jaya was acting as her son’s regent she worried that

Jaya could sympathize with Gandhi and his movement, in which her widowed mother was wholeheartedly involved.   Yet she feared the shift to a democratically elected government based on abstract laws rather than tradition.  She feared that the principle of majority rule would intensify the divisions between Hindu and Muslim.  The years from 1935 to 1950 are treated in less detail in the book, although they contain critical changes for both Jaya and India.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all those interested in India and little known aspects of its past.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2013 8:59 am

    I loved her essay collection & love gigantic novels, so this is going to the top of my tbr list!

  2. December 20, 2013 11:07 am

    Yes. You will like this one and maybe learn much about India in the years leading up to independence.
    I’m so glad you are back! I understand, but miss your vigor and book recommendations.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    December 21, 2013 3:12 pm

    I read this one several years and it remains on my keeper shelf. I thought it was great! Reading your review now, I can’t help comparing Jaya to Gayatri Devi. Have you read her Memoirs of an Indian Princess? I think you would enjoy it.

    • December 22, 2013 11:22 am

      Thanks. It is such fun to hear that others liked the book you do! I don’t know Memoirs of an Indian Princess. I will try to get a copy.


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