The Life of an Indian Princess, Cloaked in Mystery

IN SEARCH OF AMRIT KAUR: A Lost Princess and Her Vanished World, by Livia Manera Sambuy. Translated by Todd Portnowitz.

In 2007, the Italian journalist Livia Manera Sambuy stumbled across a nonfiction writer’s dream in a Mumbai museum: a tantalizing true story, unknown to the world. Alongside a 1924 photograph of an Indian princess — “tall, dark-skinned, her hair tied up,” wearing “a translucent sari, its edges embroidered with gold or silver thread” — there was a caption that identified her as “Her Royal Highness Rani Shri Amrit Kaur Sahib.” It noted that she had been arrested by the Gestapo during World War II in occupied Paris, charged with selling her jewelry to help Jews leave the country, and had died while imprisoned.

“In Search of Amrit Kaur” chronicles Sambuy’s resulting yearslong quest to discover the truth behind that museum caption. Plunging into the glittery world of Indian royalty under British rule, she chases down every lead, racking up story after story, while the central one she set out to tell remains out of reach.

Amrit Kaur was born in 1904, the fifth child of the maharajah of Kapurthala, a state in Punjab. Her family enjoyed lavish wealth — her father commissioned a French architect to build him a pink Versailles — and considerable power; Amrit Kaur’s daughter told Sambuy they printed their own money and “could hang anyone.” At the same time, the royals were, like the rest of the subcontinent, under control of the British Raj.

Kaur belonged to a class of people caught between their home and their colonizers, forced to play both sides. Many of them attended boarding schools in Europe, after which they returned to India for arranged marriages (a situation Sambuy calls “the equivalent of taking a spin on the carousel of modernity only to then be kicked back a few centuries”). The princes and princesses had to perform a blend of cultures for the Raj; one viceroy, Sambuy writes, wanted them to “dazzle in their Eastern costume while at the same time abiding by the rules of Western decorum.” In other words: Be exotic, but not too exotic.

Sambuy posits that Kaur, who also spoke out for women’s rights, must have hated moving to the remote kingdom of Mandi (“not the most backward of kingdoms,” Sambuy writes, but “a place still dominated by ignorance and superstition”) after her marriage to its prince. Her husband’s subsequent decision to take a second wife spurred her to flee in 1933, when she left her two young children to go on a six-month trip to Europe. She never returned.

Sambuy’s research reveals that though Kaur did end up in an internment camp for “alien enemies” in occupied France, she didn’t die until 1948, in London. Why she stayed away from India and whether she risked her life to help others during the war remain nebulous, even as Sambuy succeeds in uncovering some surprising revelations.

Our inability to really know Kaur may be due to the details have been lost to time. But another issue is the book’s point of view. Though Kaur had feet in two worlds, Sambuy is planted in one. We get descriptions of the royals as living in “a Wes Anderson fantasy” and photographs in the home of one of Kaur’s relatives as “exotic.” While Sambuy includes Indian sources, like Kaur’s daughter, too often Westerners with a tenuous connection to Kaur take center stage. Sambuy detours to profile French jewelers, a Russian spiritual leader, a Jewish banker. Mandi and the violence and upheaval of Partition come to life via British colonists.

One of the book’s most engrossing parts — about the horrors of the Besançon internment camp, where Kaur was held — follows other women, like a Russian aristocrat who strolled about naked one night, holding a glass of wine and reciting poetry. Though interesting, historical figures like this don’t get us closer to Kaur.

Ultimately, “In Search of Amrit Kaur” is about the alchemy of a writer finding her subject; Sambuy feels the story “buzzing around me like a forest awakening in spring.” She is left transformed by the work, finding the personal meaning she sought — while the central subject remains hazy, left for someone with a different lens to bring into sharper focus.

Akemi Johnson is the author of “Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa.”

IN SEARCH OF AMRIT KAUR: A Lost Princess and Her Vanished World | By Livia Manera Sambuy | Translated by Todd Portnowitz | Illustrated | 352 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $28

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