I didn’t give a damn about the money. But the article got me thinking again. The two strands of creamy white caught my eye, then the mention of the Baroda Pearls and the seven million dollars at Christie’s. I even bought the magazine and clipped the picture as carefully as I would a coupon. Staring at it, I saw only the Mughal Ruby, surrounded by diamonds — a blaze of light. Nothing you could ever forget. And after it disappeared, nothing was ever the same.
Red silk sari and the Mughal Ruby
My prince and I carried on though, the way you do. On our wedding day, I looked like the star of India in my red silk sari, wearing a king’s ransom of ancient jewels. His granny, the Dowager Maharani of Baroda, wore those very pearls — seven strands back then. Magnificent though they were, the Mughal Ruby had a history—and a curse.
I placed the clipping inside the cracked red album I held in my lap, placed after the photo of Sporty and me on the Eiffel Tower: His Highness Jagaddipendra Narayan, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and Nancy Valentine of St. Albans, New York. Closing the cover, I sank back into my faded armchair, squeezed between the closet and my slice of the Pacific.
Maybe it was every girl’s dream—the handsome prince sweeping her away. Or maybe my mother had passed the dream on to me. Still, she was shocked that I had pulled it off. They all were. They never knew how afraid I had been, every single day. That was theatre! Moving in royal circles is not for the faint of heart.
Nor is playing Mata Hari. After India, my boss, Howard Hughes, kept his promise, so I was able to go back to work; nothing earth-shattering but there was a big Elizabeth Taylor picture, another with Ronald Reagan and later, a lot of television. It was a career, better than some, worse than others. By now, more than sixty years later, I’d found a measure of acceptance. Although, the damage had been done. I was alone.
Sometimes days went by and the roar of the surf was the only sound I heard. The sea could be an insistent companion as throbbing as a raga and sensuous as a silk sari. During those times, even highway traffic could not intrude. Then there were periods of calm when the waves fell upon my ears like the rustle of elephant grass or the wind in a mango grove.
Despite the promises of love and affection, they’d all pretty much given up on me— family, friends and ex-husbands. A grande dame, they called me. Difficult. Stubborn. Well, why the hell not? I had survived whatever they threw at me.
From the mansion to mobile home
I now live in a mobile home smaller than my bathroom in the Cooch Behar Palace, under a metal roof that rattles when it rains. And leaks, too, onto my antique vegetable-dyed carpet— God only knows how many hundreds of silken knotsper-square inch. The portrait of my prince has been spared, in memorium. Life tossed you places and often you had no control over where you landed. He’d ended up in Spain, I heard.
I opened my closet, filled with the reds and oranges Sporty had loved me in. So flattering to a blonde turned whitehaired old lady—with fabulous bones, I might add. And the same legs that had first caught his eye
I glared at the orange and black striped tiger’s head on the shelf, his eyes no longer hypnotic yellow and crazed, but his jagged teeth as menacing as ever. You never know what you are capable of until you pull the trigger. Fear is a great motivator. For whatever reason, I kept the tigerskin rug folded so that his nasty snarl met me each time I looked inside. We take our memories where we can.
I touched him, still gingerly. Shifting the rug released the smells of that other life— the mildew and monsoons, basmati rice and coconut oil, the spicy peppery scent of the bazaar, wood-smoke and dung fires. Smells that made me dizzy with loss.
As my jewels were long-gone, the tiger guarded only my harmonium. I lowered the mango-wood instrument to the floor and sat before it, head bowed, palms together. No one in this life knew about namaskar.
Then I lifted the cover and my right fingers found their familiar place on the ivory keyboard. As my left hand opened and closed the rear bellows, the mournful tones reminded me that just as once time had seemed endless, it was now slipping away.
Gazing down at the yellowed keys, I saw my young hands, heavy with rings yet slim and graceful. I saw both of my selves, the old woman and the maharani, the two different worlds in which I lived.
Sometimes I felt as if my life were a movie, first viewed in an elegant theatre with velvet seats, now playing over and over on late-night television. I watched my young self, my beauty and naïveté, my mistakes, my passion. Where had it all gone?
Excerpts from the book, ‘The Star of India’, published by Penguin India.