This biography of trail-blazing Princess Sophia Duleep Singh offers a parallel narrative of 20th century feminism
Clearly, Sophia Duleep Singh, the eponymous princess, suffragette and revolutionary of Sophia, was a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life at the crossroads of history, partly through circumstance and partly through the choices she made for herself. Sophia was one of the daughters of the tragicomic last maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh; grand-daughter of the legendary ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh; god-daughter of Victoria, Empress of India; staunch soldier in the battle for a woman’s right to vote; incipient Indian nationalist; dedicated nurse; champion dog-breeder; loving and beloved sister. Exhale. But part of the problem with this captivating book is that we are not sure who is a footnote to whom and what (a blurb plugs the film Suffragette, ‘starring Meryl Streep’, to begin with).
The first quarter of Sophia’s story deals with her father, the child prince so rudely snatched from his family, country, faith and inheritance; one more casualty in the much-heralded march of colonialism. Duleep Singh grows up in England, a Christian, living off the whims of some and goodwill of many, none of them more powerful than the Empress Victoria herself. At first, he lives the gaudy life of a royal gentleman, with a country estate filled with exotic birds and animals, a wife and six children. As expenses mount and his symbolic significance declines, Duleep Singh becomes an irritant to the India Office, pushed to the sidelines and eventually dying alone in a hotel room in France. Thus, our Sophia is but a satellite in her father’s tale for a hundred pages.
After Duleep Singh’s death, we are swept away, along with Sophia, into the whirl of the Empress’ court, with its intrigues and protocols, its hierarchies, social constraints and opportunities. Sophia plays this complicated game easily and with good humour and grace, but her brothers and sisters find it harder to negotiate labyrinthine court manners and expectations. (Why doesn’t the book expand on the more tormented siblings, particularly sister Bamba?) Eventually, trips to India offer escape from the routine of balls and horse races, and Sophia becomes aware of her ancestry, and what her grandfather Ranjit Singh meant to the people of Punjab. She sees the indignities colonisers routinely perpetrate on ‘natives’, and comes under the thrall of early nationalists like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and, later, Lala Lajpat Rai.
Her experience with the automatic and unthinking discrimination that colonialism fostered led Sophia to be sympathetic to another ‘cause’ that concerned inequality: the rights (or lack thereof) of women in Edwardian England. With great courage and ingenuity, she used her celebrity status (she was, after all, an exotic princess) to draw attention to suffragette issues. But she also used the access she had to the rich and famous, the high and mighty, to orchestrate audacious acts of defiance: ‘Brandishing a poster concealed in her expensive fur muff, she ran into the road and hurled itself at the car, shouting suffragette slogans and pressing herself against the prime minister’s closed window’. Sophia’s actions prove a shining thread in a larger tapestry of bravery and fortitude. This part of the book—so different in its blood and gore and examples of indomitable human will from Sophia’s earlier life—is amazing. No one will remain unmoved by these unflinching, graphic accounts of what women went through, in street demonstrations and in prison, to secure the right to vote.
This deposed princess managed to be present at and involved in the defining moments of the twentieth century: both the World Wars, colonialism and nationalism, and the fight for women’s equality. She is remarkable because she saw these engines of change and hitched her wagon to their trains, which were hurtling past her. And her biographer is equally remarkable for using an individual life to chart the ways in which these engines crossed each other’s tracks, sharing signals, shunting some wagons and exchanging others.
Sophia is broadcast journalist Anita Anand’s first book. Her reporting skills are evident in the vividness with which she is able to create living, breathing, human beings, and give events from the distant past a throbbing pulse. She has ploughed through India Office records, personal letters, histories and biographies to create a rich and layered palimpsest on which she paints Sophia’s life. More often than we might like, though, the palimpsest takes over and we are left searching through its variegated layers for the person beneath.