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RAJASTHAN'S Rajput chieftains were waiting with bated breath for the announcement of the name of the Chosen One. Princess Diya Kumari, only child and hope of Maharaja Bhawani 'Bubbles' Singh and Maharani Padmini Devi, granddaughter of the legendary Gayatri Devi, lone scion of the illustrious ruling 900-year-old Kacchawa dynasty, had come of age. Families boasting impeccable pedigrees, ancient lineage jostled to catch the royal eye. Gwalior, Kashmir princes were whispered about as likely suitors even as swashbuckling local blue bloods strained to woo the prize catch: 25, beautiful, articulate, heiress to a fortune conservatively estimated to be worth Rs 1,000 crore. Who would she choose was the Rs 1,000 crore question on every Rajput's lips.
Diya's answer to that question, made public in the last week of July, sent Rajput society into a tailspin, provoked spluttering outrage that caused furious Rajput Mahasabha hordes to spill out into Jaipur streets, organise protest meetings outside the hallowed portals of the 18th century City Palace royal residence, threaten to excommunicate the Maharaja and divest him of all positions on community trusts. Even his title.
What provoked them so? Diya announced she was marrying her paramour of nine years, Narendra Singh Rajawat, 25, a Sawai Madhopur resident from a modest family, erstwhile cashier at the City Palace, Jaipur. The romance bloomed despite the class and culture chasm, the chaperones, the zealous zenana watchdogs. He was literate, uncomfortable with English, small-town hick to whom Jaipur meant City Lights. She was the glamorous, home-tutored school dropout who exuded MGD public school attitude, the soignee chic of the well-travelled, sophisticate at ease with Kings and crowns. And as it happens, commoners too.
The romance was nurtured by helpful maids, discreet ADCs, sympathetic friends who empathised with the poor-little-rich-girl's loneliness and yearning for what a Rajput society grande dame termed "normal, natural, social exchange, interaction with the opposite sex that any young beautiful girl hankers for". It was an exchange that was denied emphatically. "For the Jaipur's," says one palace insider, "no one was good enough for Diya. Not the local chieftains' boys, not the bright beautiful men she was allowed to see but not come out of her fish-bowl to meet and be with." Who she
could meet without exciting attention, opprobrium, was staffers. Of whom, the boyfriend was one. He escorted her in ADC capacity to harmless shopping, going-out-visiting-girlfriend occasions. Once out, accompanying maidservants were given the miss while the young lovers stole precious time together.
Good times the young man paid for when the anxious Maharani, upon hearing the gossip about the mesalliance, gave him marching orders. Yet the romance, by now Jaipur's worst-kept secret, continued, helped along by cooperative ladies in waiting. It almost blew up in their faces when the young swain had a motorcycle accident en route to his village home. He crashed; the local police chancing upon letters, the princess' picture in his wallet, presumed him to be a royal relative and rang up City Palace at Jaipur informing them of the "royal" accident that was and wasn't! Money, contacts, familial regard for royals helped put the lid on that scandal. The romance continued.
And culminated in the marriage that enraged the steeped-in-medievalism Rajput community of Rajasthan. "Impossible," thundered Rajput Mahasabha president, also called Narendra Singh Rajawat, at Bhawani Singh into whose office he allegedly stormed in on July 26 after the August 6 wedding date was announced. His objection, endorsed by the Sabha and the influential Devi Singh Mandawa, one-time parliamentarian, pro-sati Deorala agitator: the princess and her paramour belonged to the same gotra. That in Rajput parlance rendered them brother and sister. Ergo, a matrimonial alliance was unthinkable. Bhawani Singh stood his ground citing the 1946 Removal and Disabilities Act, part of the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, that specifically sanctions sagotra/sapravar marriages. "Rajputs are Hindus, are they not?" he asked. Nevertheless, he offered to put the intractable Rajawat in touch with Padmini Devi.
The ensuing conversation further soured the matrimonial pitch: Rajawat raged, advising the Maharani "to become Muslim if she wanted to conduct this marriage". Padmini Devi snubbed him declaring he was better advised "not to meddle in what was a purely personal affair".
Rajawat's reaction: "She was abusive. As head of the Rajput clan how can they set an unheard-of precedent? We'll oust him from the community and related organisations, even anoint a new King." That announcement was made in public, with the local press in attendance, outside the City Palace by him and Mandawa on August 6. The royal reaction? "Rajawat should pay attention to Rajput poverty, lack of education, instead of railing like an obscurantist if he's a community leader," said Bhawani Singh.
DISCREETLY though, he shifted the wedding venue from Jaipur to Delhi's Jorbagh where in a small ceremony attended by 200 relatives and friends like the Jodhpur, Gwalior, Kishengarh, Kashmir royals, they formally performed their daughter's
kanyadaan. Sabha members in Jaipur threatened the Jaipur family and all Rajputs who attended the wedding with excommunication in a general body meeting to be held on August 17. It was to be attended by Rajputs from all 11 districts that were part of the erstwhile Jaipur state. Rajawat brushed aside all legal arguments offered by the family. "Legal laws are not primary. Social laws are. We Rajputs take pride in preserving our culture, our social norms." Bhawani Singh's response: "This is politically-motivated. Mandawa, who's leading the agitation, was once in my mother's Swatantra party, he is now with the BJP. He had a factory he's sold. Now he has nothing to do. Hence this." The excommunication threat only elicits his contempt. "This is obviously about people trying to appropriate political positions through this non-issue. In this day and age, at that. When will they learn? All Rajputs: Kashmir, Kishengarh, Kapurthala, Jodhpur attended the kanyadaan here."
Kanyaadan ", not "marriage". Both parties are making the distinction for within that lies the true story. Diya and paramour eloped, married in Delhi as early as February '94, of her own admission. The re-enactment of marriage was really a public acknowledgement of a fait accompli. Rajawat is unrelenting. "Bhawani Singh should only have held a reception. Performing a socially unacceptable marriage is setting an offensive precedent." An obscurantist viewpoint that finds only half acceptance. "I sympa-thise with the Maharaja," says prominent
Rajput 'Bonnie' Singh Dundlod, "though that marriage drama was avoidable. He should have let the blame accrue to the couple instead of the family." Many Rajputs aver it was Padmini Devi's behaviour with Rajawat that caused an ego problem to become a community issue. Rajawat concedes that, albeit discreetly. "It's a social issue. It's become a public one." Nevertheless, he's going ahead with the August 17 meeting.
The rumour mills are grinding away: the protest is orchestrated to remove Singh from Trust chairmanships, wrest the political prominence that Mandawa covets. That Gayatri Devi's and Singh's siblings are pressurising him to adopt a male nephew. Obvious fallout: someone else inherits the Rs 1,000 crore legacy. Singh discounts the Rajmata's involvement. "We're close now. I accompanied my stepbrother Jagat's ashes to the immersion spot. I'm not supposed to do so as ruler. My logic: I'm going as brother. Besides Rajmata herself was ostracised by Jodhpur, Bikaner, Udaipur royals when she married my father because they said she wasn't true-blood Rajput. She wasn't received there for four years. So how can she support this? She called up Rajawat's sister to tell her brother to stop spreading this nonsense about her." Rajput prima donnas see the issue as a class and cash thing. "They're livid," says one, "all that lolly and a nobody from nowhere walks off with the dame AND the drachmas."
So will the Rajputs continue to sulk? Will they ostracise the princess and her commoner? No stone has been left unturned to ensure this does not happen. The time between the marriage and its announcement was well spent: the young groom was sent to learn English, groom himself, to a finishing school of sorts in Mumbai. "Don't forget," says a Rajput neo-royal, "he needs some social skills, presentability to hobnob with the Scindias, run the Trusts." The all-important lineage, non-existent, is being bought now. Apparently, the in-laws have given the groom huge sums of money to construct sprawling houses in both village Kotda and Jaipur so his origins cease to be the social embarrassment they seem to be. "In time the furore will die down. All educated upper crust Rajputs will receive the couple. As for the hoi polloi, how does it matter? When did royals socialise with commoners anyway?" asks a Rajput insider.
The issue is not whether or not the couple will be socially well-received. It's rather Rajput society itself. Will it remain steeped in medieval gotra and sati stiflingness or let some fresh air into its societal innards?