Once upon a time, there lived a princess, Gayatri Devi, in a Palace. She was the daughter of Sri.Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the Late Maharaja of Mysore. When she was four, her father wanted to select four companions to study with her in the Palace as the family still followed the Purda system (not allowing commoners to see their face). One was Amba, Gayatri’s cousin, the other was Tita, the daughter of Mrs.Defries, the tutor, Veena was the third and I was the fourth. The Rajas of yore believed that educating a Brahmin meant getting access to a place in heaven. When Jachamarajendra Wodeyar wanted a Brahmin companion for his daughter, he asked my aunt Nagarathna, who had studied with his sisters, to send her daughter. Since she did not have one and I was about the same age as Gayatri, I was selected. This is what Warren Buffet refers to as ovarian lottery!!
It seems like a fairy tale, even as I write this. Mrs Watsa was our headmistress and taught all the Arts subjects including English. Mrs Defries took science and we had tutors coming to teach other subjects. For science experiments, we were driven in a covered car to a girl’s school during their lunch time, for exclusive attention! I believe there were specially fatted frogs for our dissection! For Girl Guide activities, we went to Good Shepherd Convent.
The classrooms were in the private wing of the palace where the family lived. Those areas are now sealed and out of bounds to visitors. We had a regular curriculum and wore uniform even if we were only five students. When we got to high-school, on Saturdays there were cooking classes. All I remember learning was how to make chocolate fudge and potato soup. We were provided with everything, including books, uniform and shoes. Every year, we celebrated Christmas with a huge tree decorated with lights and gifts. The Maharaja would dress like Santa and distribute the gifts to us. That was fun because we actually believed he was Santa, what with his pot belly and booming voice!
I went to school in a horse driven carriage driven by two white thoroughbreds. The driver looked impressive in his riding dress and a blue turban. A syce stood behind to hop down and open the door for us to get in and out. For some strange reason, the mode of transport changed to a boxed cart drawn by two bullocks! It would take ages for us to reach the palace. Again, after some time, for some reason, a gleaming green Rolls Royce or an Austin Princess or a Daimler would drive to my doorstep to pick me up. It was no big deal for me then. Even today, when our friends brag about their fancy cars, I do not get excited because a vehicle is a vehicle. As long as it reaches me safely and comfortably to my destination, I don’t care if it is a Lexus or a bullock cart.
We played games like seven tiles and ‘catching cook’ but most of the time put together a large jigsaw puzzle of Venus reclining. Occasionally, we played with the doll’s house or the doctor set. But I had to always be the patient and suffer the treatment given by four doctors.!All activities were indoors. I guess that is why I never had any interest in sports. Every year we had excitement as Gayatri’s mother, the Maharani, gave birth, one after another, to four more daughters and a son. We loved playing with the little Prince,Srikanta Datta … Bandu we called him as he was cute and cuddly. He is now heir to his father’s throne but has no kingdom! But as I refresh this tale, Srikant passed away due to a massive cardiac arrest at the age of 60.But tragedy had struck the family when Princess Gayatri,after delivering her fourth child,succumbed to cancer at the young age of 28.
Dassera was a grand festival celebrated in style in the Palace. The Raja sat on his golden throne every evening and held a Durbar attended by his noblemen dressed in long black coats and a turban. The Raja wore large precious stones in his ears and round his neck. His brocade coat gleamed as the huge chandeliers lit the golden threads woven into it. We would be up with the family in the balcony overlooking the Hall and peep out of slits in the curtains. Gayatri and her sisters would be dressed in their regal finery and the Maharani looked gorgeous in her flowing zari saree and rows and rows of necklaces.The royal family during Dassera..on the right standing,is Princess Gayatri Devi
Pomp and pageantry have their own place in society. The Dassera procession along the gaily decorated roads of Mysore was a sight for sore eyes. The Maharaja looked so imperial in the howda on the back of the elephant as it marched majestically down the avenues, while uniformed boys shoveled its droppings into baskets. The torch light parade at the Bannimantap was a spectacular event. Today, the same ceremony is held but has lost its flavour. The chief guests as this public tamasha, are politicians. They have neither the charisma nor the regal lineage, to justify their involvement.
Mrs Wasta was an excellent teacher. She was responsible for igniting the spark of love for the English language, in my bosom. What mattered to me was Mrs Watsa’s class and understanding the English language. Our Hindi master was impressed with my mastery over the lessons he taught, thanks to the special tuition arranged by grandmother. Except for the fact that I was studying in the palace with a princess, there was nothing special about my early schooling. But that was a firm foundation over which my future was built.