C.P. Belliappa's novel on the lovely Victoria Gowramma tells you the tale of a princess lost in the pages of history, writes DEEPA GANESH
C. P. Belliappa's book “Victoria Gowramma: The lost princess of Coorg” is a celebration of two things: a penchant for history and the power of the Internet. A story that he had always wanted to tell, Belliappa stumbled upon some unusual leads while surfing the Net, pursued them, and put the book together. Belliappa, managed to get access to the archives of “The Times”, London, and could lay his hands on newspaper clippings that opened up events in the lives of Victoria Gowramma, King Chikkaveera Rajendra, and Maharaja Duleep Singh. Belliappa brings to fore unknown dimensions of people such as Queen Victoria warming up to Gowramma, and even becoming her godmother.
“Sitting in my little room in Coorg, I could access documents from archives in far-flung countries. I was able to download entire books onto my computer. For me, it was nothing short of serendipity,” he says in his Foreword, recalling the beginnings of his book.
The book with its unforced narrative doesn't bear a trace of the author's voice. The history of Kodagu is so ridden with irony, but Belliappa despite being a Kodava, steers clear of taking sides. “The Lingayat rajas ruled Kodagu for 230-odd years. They had a good working relationship with the Kodavas who were the dominant community. Several matrimonial alliances took place between the royal family and the Kodavas. However, there are several instances when the relationship was strained. The rajas very cleverly used Kodavas to put down Kodavas – a la British! Chikka Veerarajendra was barely 18 when he ascended the throne. He was immature and his rule soon turned despotic. It is ironic that most of the Kodavas sided with the British in ousting Chikka Veerarajendra in 1834,”explains Belliappa. His portrayal of Chikkaveera Rajendra, the anguish of being separated from one's homeland, stripped of his riches, evokes sympathy in the reader.
The story has the proportions of a Greek tragedy. “Yes… The Kodavas wanted the raja dethroned but did not want him exiled. But the British did not relent. Later, when the British brought in better administration and equitable law, the Kodavas were happy to have gotten rid of their raja. There was not much sympathy for the raja as the years rolled by,” says Belliappa.
In fact, for many, including the Kannada writer Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, the eventful life of Chikkaveera Rajendra was fascinating. In his historical novel by the same name, Masti details the raja's interactions with his subjects, his dewans, his wife, his sister, his cousin (daughter of Dodda Veerarajendra who sat on the throne briefly) and the British with a great deal of drama. Masti, as Belliappa says, introduced the raja's favourite daughter in the novel much ahead of her actual birth to give a more rounded picture of the tyrant king. “There is a great deal of fiction in Masti's book. In my telling, all the events and dates are facts. I have fictionalised, or more correctly, dramatised in a few instances to keep the flow of the story. I have taken care to dramatise by extrapolating known facts. The story is authentic.”
The story gains poignancy when Belliappa adds emotions to historical details such as when Queen Victoria shows Maharaja Duleep Singh the Kohinoor diamond which rightfully belongs to his family and also, when Queen Victoria hosts a party for Gowramma and Chikkaveera Rajendra, the young Gowramma cautions her father not to burp and he asks, “But how do I show my appreciation for the food served?!”
In the book, both Gowramma and Duleep Singh have an extraordinary sense of gratitude for the English. They are enamoured by their culture and manners, and also their religion. “Initially Gowramma and Duleep Singh adjusted to life in Victorian England very well, and Queen Victoria took both the Indian royals under her wing. Duleep Singh was, however, unhappy in his later years when the British government deprived him of the promised pension. Princess Gowramma was enchanted with the glamour of British high society. She was miserable whenever she was taken away from the bright lights of London. She pined for a handsome husband and glamorous living. Her life was full of highs and lows.”
Also, as Belliappa says, Queen Victoria was genuinely fond of Gowramma and Duleep Singh. She tried her best to bring about a matrimonial alliance between the two. Despite her reputation as a conservative with prudish values, the Queen was very protective of her Indian subjects. Then, there was this grand plan the Queen and the British had in popularising Christianity in India by converting the royalty in India. With Victoria Gowramma she did succeed to a large extent, though her life was tragically terminated at 23.
The book makes for engaged reading – it is packed with letters, documents and newspaper clippings. In these times, when colonisation and colonisers come in a familiar garb and speak a familiar tongue, what Belliappa says in the context of his novel, continues to make sense: “…religion was a more potent weapon to control those colonised, than the use of might.”