Some felt he did not understand princes and was, therefore, unable to successfully portray his principal character in this novel. Significantly, just around the time he wrote The Private Life of an Indian Prince, Anand had suffered a nervous breakdown over his affair with a hill woman, and his doctors had advised him to somehow work this anguish out of his system. Mulk Raj Anand followed their advice by writing this novel. It need not be seen as merely the story of the sexual escapades of a young, childish and impulsive maharaja, hopping from bed to bed of his many mistresses. In Anand’s own words, this novel "is a study in pity, absolute pity for those who love absolutely—in this case the Prince".
Anand’s knowledge of Indian rajas and maharajas in the dying days of the Raj was sketchy and elementary. His only close contact with people of this category was confined to his experience of working for two months as the tutor of the young Rana of Bhajji, one of the smaller Simla Hill States. Anand has written elsewhere that "the middle sections and the nabobs and rajas were also to be included as a species of untouchables.... There has not been time to show the poor-rich of our country, who deserve pity more than contempt".
In The Private Life of an Indian Prince, Maharaja Ashok Kumar of the small principality of Sham Pur (Vicky to his close friends) makes desperate but thoughtless efforts to avoid joining the Indian Union after the withdrawal of paramountcy from India’s feudal states. Vicky is under the spell of his nymphomaniac mistress, Ganga Dasi, a powerful and illiterate hill woman, who pushes him into exacting huge taxes from his starving peasantry so that he can feed her greed.
The mistress, meanwhile, elopes with the maharaja’s political secretary, and the Department of Indian States, under the then deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel, forces the maharaja to sign the Instrument of Accession. Soon thereafter, he is exiled to London, where he seduces a Cockney shop-girl, but just cannot forget his mistress in India. He gets her paramour murdered, and then himself ends up in a mental asylum, shocked by the enormity of his deed.
Anand has woven into this story of the end of British rule the strength of Sardar Patel’s character, along with the uncertainties of that era. The turmoil confused and befuddled the poor prince, whose irrational love transforms his possessiveness about his beloved into lunacy.
Just after the novel was published, a contemporary British critic described it as "...a history absorbed and set to music,...changed into forms akin to an opera or a theatrical production."
One is struck by the fact that, on the one hand, this story deals with the pain and helplessness of one tortured individual, who lacks self-restraint; and on the other hand, the pain and suffering of a blood-soaked Partition at the same time. The pledge of paramountcy by the British, resting on treaties and assurances to the Indian princes, collapsed. As the British got ready to withdraw, most princely states, due to their small size, were unable to declare independence, even though some of them fondly dreamt of wheedling out some special privileges from the new government of free and independent India.
A majority of the princes accepted the advice of Lord Mountbatten, Sardar Patel, V.P. Menon, and acceded to either India or Pakistan, according to the demands of geography. The rulers of Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh were the only three who failed to do so and, therefore, extended the period of suffering for their subjects. In a way, thus, Anand’s novel is not just about the psychological anguish, prejudices and helplessness of a petty ruler of a minuscule state, but also describes the agony of a nation, which had just been fractured.
The Private Life of an Indian Prince is, in fact, the tale of an individual as well as a people, both saddled with schizophrenic psyches.
(The author is the governor of Rajasthan)