The Princes by Manohar Malgonkar (1963) continues to impress me.
This novel, that I paid 50 cents for in June 1998, intrigued me. I’d long wondered how Viceroy Mountbatten was able to achieve the assimilation of hundreds of princely states into the national government of independent India. I’m also constantly interested in other cultures distinct form our own and other modes of thought. Seven years later when I got around to reading The Princes, I did not expect to be so gripped.
Ahbay, the only child of the Maharaja of Begwad, Hiroji, tells this story of the transition of one imaginary but purportedly typical state. I fell into awe of the range, consistency, and dramatic intensity of its telling. Malgonkar covers Ahbay’s childhood, youth, school days, military career in WWII, and young adulthood as his father ages to 50 and Begwad passes to the nationals. This historical transition frames the novel as does the overall conflict of the maturing and westernized, liberal Ahbay with his traditional, even archaic father. The drama proceeds through 32 chapters, each a model of tight storytelling.
Robert Coles says in The Call of Stories that what good literature does is show lives that are complex, ironic, ambiguous, and fateful. Though my principles are for lives that are direct, meaningful, goal-oriented, and self-controlled, I recognize Cole’s grasp of what it is that characterizes the classics and the successfully serious in fiction. These characteristics have become my aim, too, and I seek them out in what is most worth reading.
The Princes is akin to Ali and Nino (read and reviewed in 2004) in that vast historical changes occur as a background to human lives. And it is the “little things” of personal lives that carry the drama. Father and son are at odds; Mother disappoints son, and what restoration is possible between them? Youth thinks he is in love forever, though the woman seems loose at worst, a devious gold digger at best. The maharaja heralds tradition, but is there more than his attachment to privilege? Slowly the naturally kind, intentionally liberal sees that his role in life is to honor his father, adopt the same values—at least in action—and serve the state according to those princely values that are at stake.
Most interesting to me is the handling of character. Though scores of people troop through the story, a core emerge in first, second, or third place. They play out their interrelationships with one another, mostly with Ahbay, and they change, deepen, or we see them from differing angles.
What Malgonkar does so well is show the personal face of what we usually call feudalism—socio-political relationships based on loyalty and honor. Here is the ethos that from one view is restrictive and open to abuse, but from another is the essence of aristocracy, faithfulness to the highest values of fealty and responsibility.
Along with appreciation of this realization comes revulsion of so much else that is part of the system. The penchant for hunting dominates the calendar. The time on horseback absorbs daily routine. Sports preclude academics in school and college. Men control; women serve. Marriage is for succession, whether of raj or untouchability. Concubinage recognizes the nature of sex, at least for men.
Though Ahbay becomes the devoted son of his father, and though he takes on more responsibility, the story never becomes one of standing against the machinations of the oppressed. The story is one of the continuing giving away of the old to the new with as much honor and dignity as one can manage or carve out for oneself.
The novel attracted me so much, I sought to know more of Malgonkar. Born in 1913, he had a life parallel to Ahbay, though not of that class. He saw himself as writing old-fashioned romantic novels and was politically active, to the right of center. The Princes is the most critically well-received of his novels; he also wrote articles and non-fiction. I also became interested in A Bend in the Ganges (1964) set against the 1947 partition and The Devil’s Wind (1972) about the 1857 Sepoy mutiny, the only novel telling the story from the Indian point of view.
Further, my myopic view that the demise of the princely states had been a willing one was far from the truth. As The Princes shows and Lawrence James’ Raj (1998) confirms, the various rulers hoped to retain their independence and paramount relations with the British Empire after independence. No way could this happen, and everyone from Gandhi to Mountbatten, regardless of how he portrays himself in the BBC film of his life, brought about the end of the prince’s exceptional status.
Note: This post is a updated revision of a review I wrote about ten years ago.